MANILA — Retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has come to the defense of Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, saying no impeachable offense was cited in the grounds raised in the ouster bid filed against him before the House of Representatives.
Ilocos-based journalist Edwin Cordevilla, assisted by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon, filed an impeachment complaint against Leonen on Monday, accusing him of culpable violation of the Constitution in supposedly delaying the resolution of pending cases in the Supreme Court and the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET).
He also claimed Leonen betrayed public trust in allegedly failing to file his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) when he taught at the University of the Philippines for more than 15 years.
The impeachment complaint was endorsed by Ilocos Norte 2nd District Rep. Angelo Barba, cousin of Sen. Imee Marcos and former Senator Bongbong Marcos whose electoral protest against Vice President Leni Robredo remains pending at the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, where SC magistrates sit.
Leonen is the member-in-charge of the case.
In his column Thursday for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Carpio rebutted each of the grounds raised in the impeachment bid against Leonen.
On Cordevilla’s claim that Leonen violated the Constitution in failing to resolve 37 cases within 24 months, Carpio said the 24-month period in Section 15(1), Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution is only a “directive,” not a requirement.
“While the 24-month period provided under the 1987 Constitution is persuasive, it does not summarily bind this Court to the disposition of cases brought before it. It is a mere directive to ensure this Court’s prompt resolution of cases, and should not be interpreted as an inflexible rule,” Carpio said, quoting the ruling of the Supreme Court in the administrative complaint filed against former Chief Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro.
“To apply the 24-month rule mandatorily would result in the impeachment of more than a majority of the Supreme Court justices,” he added, noting that when he retired in October 2019, there were only 5 justices who had zero backlog.
Carpio said Philippine high court justices render around 66 full-blown decisions a year on average, 7 times more than the yearly average of each Supreme Court justice in the United States, with around 9 full-blown decisions per year.
“In my personal opinion, a justice who on the average writes more than 66 full-blown decisions per year may start to be reckless with his research on the facts and the law. Aside from researching and writing his own decisions, a justice has to study the decisions of other justices because he has to either concur with or dissent from decisions of other justices. The law cannot be interpreted to require a person to be reckless, especially when the person is mandated to render a final judgment on others,” he said.
The retired magistrate also dismissed the supposed “arbitrary delay” in resolving cases assigned to Leonen as HRET chair since his appointment in October 2019.
Cordevilla’s own complaint said 3 cases were assigned to Leonen, 2 of which had been resolved. Only 1 is pending, which Carpio pointed out, does not involve Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo, as the complaint claimed.
“The HRET rules do not prescribe time periods within which their members must decide cases assigned to them. As Congress has still more than 18 months left in its current term, and since there is no time period for deciding HRET cases, one cannot say that Justice Leonen, who has been HRET chair for just over a year, has arbitrarily delayed deciding his sole pending case. The other HRET members have also still to decide all the cases assigned to them,” he explained.
Carpio also touched on the issue of Leonen's supposed failure to file his SALNs while he was teaching at the University of the Philippines.
“[E]ven if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Justice Leonen failed to file his SALNs while he was teaching at the University of the Philippines, any such crime has now prescribed,” he said, referring to the 2018 case of Melita del Rosario vs. People of the Philippines where the SC set the prescriptive period for failure to file SALNs at 8 years.
According to the impeachment complaint, Leonen allegedly failed to file SALNs from 1989 to 2003 and from 2008 to 2009, but this was only based on a column on The Manila Times by Rigoberto Tiglao.
Gadon admitted in a press conference Monday they are hoping the House would subpoena official documents to support their claim.
Carpio pointed out that it has been more than 10 years since Leonen left UP.
Citing Article 89 of the Revised Penal Code, he said any criminal liability had already been totally extinguished by prescription of the crime.
“An unprosecuted prescribed crime with a ‘totally extinguished’ criminal liability cannot overturn the constitutional presumption of innocence, and thus can never rise to the level of an impeachable offense,” he said.
Although Carpio dissented in the May 2018 quo warranto decision which ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno arguing that a quo warranto petition is not the proper remedy to remove a sitting SC justice, he voted with the majority in declaring Sereno violated the Constitution due to her failure to file SALNs.
Carpio based this on the certifications from the University of the Philippines that some of Sereno’s SALNs were not on file, which the Office of the Solicitor General presented to the high court.
Carpio said this established prima facie evidence that Sereno failed to file her SALNs, shifting the burden to Sereno.
“[Sereno] conveniently alleges that she religiously filed her SALNs without presenting any evidence to prove such allegation. Suffice to state, mere allegation is not proof. This means that the prima facie evidence establishing respondent's repeated failure to file her SALNs remains uncontradicted, and thus, respondent can be held liable for her repeated non-filing of SALNs while she was employed as a UP College of Law Professor,” the retired magistrate said.
“In light of her previous failure to file her SALNs for several years while she was a UP College of Law Professor, her failure to file her SALN upon assuming office in 2010 as Associate Justice of this Court constitutes culpable violation of the Constitution, a violation committed while she was already serving as an impeachable officer,” he added.
INCOMPETENCE NO IMPEACHABLE OFFENSE
The impeachment complaint against Leonen will be tackled by the House Justice committee next year, its vice chair Rep. Rufus Rodriguez told ANC’s Matters of Fact Thursday.
Rodriguez said any impeachment complaint will be treated as a priority but that they will look into the form and substance of the complaint before proceeding to hear it.
He refused to comment on the merits of the impeachment complaint but when asked if “incompetence” is one of the grounds for removing a Supreme Court justice through impeachment, he said it was not, under the Constitution.
“Competence is not but it might be. The Supreme Court has decided already what is the meaning of betrayal of public trust, it enlarges the scope of the impeachment grounds," he said.
"As defined by the Supreme Court it is something not criminal but because of its impact on public service then it rises to a level of a Constitutional violation of public trust,” he added.
Rodriguez promised to look into the complaint and afford Leonen the opportunity to answer the allegations.
Former Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te, agreed with Rodriguez, telling ANC’s Dateline Philippines, impeachment should only be reserved for the most serious offenses.
“[T]he grounds for impeachment under the Constitution are pretty clear and from what I’ve heard, alleged incompetence, as stated in the complaint, does not fall within those grounds,” he said.
Under the Constitution, an impeachment complaint may only be filed on the basis of 6 grounds:
- culpable violation of the Constitution
- graft and corruption
- other high crimes
- betrayal of public trust
Cordevilla is invoking incompetence in delays in resolving cases as culpable violation of the Constitution.
But Te said this allegation could apply to other magistrates as well.
“The allegations don’t refer specifically to a specific person. It implicates an entire system of doing things. And therefore, it’s taking the entire court to task for its handling of cases,” he said, explaining that the Supreme Court, as a collegial body, works as one body with each justices having one vote.
“Should the House committee on justice proceed with this, they’re not saying that only one should therefore be taken to task. It’s basically the whole court. And I don’t think that’s where the committee should go.”
He warned that should the House committee on justice go forward with hearing the complaint, it could lead to abuse of an accountability mechanism.
“One of the ways it may be abused is if there’s really no ground and if it is allowed to continue. It falls upon the House of Representatives to say, to educate us, whether a complaint based on the grounds stated, is even sufficient to proceed further,” he said.
“Because if the House puts its foot down, and says no, this shouldn’t go on, this isn’t a ground and there is no basis for us to go any further, then it sends a very strong and clear message that impeachment should really be left for the most serious of offenses as contemplated by the Constitution and therefore there are grounds that are specified and if you don’t fall within those grounds, then don’t file. Because it actually weakens the institutions for accountability,” he added.
NO TO QUO WARRANTO
Following the admission of Gadon that a quo warranto petition might be filed against Leonen, Rodriguez said the House would insist on its jurisdiction over cases of impeachable officials.
But for Te, the quo warranto route is dead.
He noted that there was an attempt by Gadon and the Office of the Solicitor General to request for Leonen’s SALNs but this was rejected unanimously by the Supreme Court.
“For legal purposes, that avenue is gone, that avenue is shut. And that’s probably the reason why we’re no longer hearing the Solicitor General speak about that and this time, it’s an impeachment complaint,” he concluded.
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