Chief Justice Leonen? Magistrate says 'not cut out' for top SC post at this time

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 30 2021 12:39 AM

Chief Justice Leonen? Magistrate says 'not cut out' for top SC post at this time 1
Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen. Photo from the Supreme Court of the Philippines website

MANILA — Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen on Friday said he is "not cut out” to be the next top magistrate at this time.

Leonen is one of the 5 most senior justices of the High Court who is automatically in the running to be the next top magistrate. 

“No, I’m not cut out for chief justice at the current time,” Leonen told reporters at a forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines. 

Leonen was asked if he would consider accepting the automatic nomination, in view of Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta’s early retirement set to take effect on March 27.

He is second in line in terms of seniority in the Supreme Court, next only to Senior Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe. The 3 others are Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa, Alexander Gesmundo and Ramon Paul Hernando.

“No comment yet. I am honored to have been automatically nominated, but that is also a function of seniority, but of course in my mind I am looking at what I should do, and more likely, I am better at supporting a chief justice rather than being one. But as I said, no comment,” he explained.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD CHIEF JUSTICE

At 58, Leonen is one of the youngest in court and is second youngest among the 5 most senior, younger only by 4 years from Hernando. He is expected to serve in the high court until 2032.

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While he did not elaborate why he thought he was yet to be ready as chief justice, Leonen shared the challenges of sitting on the top magistrate post.

“Not all of us really want to become Chief Justice, because of the awesome responsibility in that. And, of course, there needs to be a change of character in terms of who you are whenever you become Chief Justice because what comes first will not be your opinion, what comes first should be the opinion of all the 14 others,” he said.

“There are people that are better to become Associate Justices or Senior Associate Justices for that matter. And there are also people that are better writing majority opinions or even dissenting opinions and each of us will have their own role.”

For him, the next chief justice should be able to show leadership by drawing out the best from the members of the Court.

“A Supreme Court justice that is collegial, facilitative, listening and making prominent points of view of others before his or her own is a chief justice that will be able to lead. Nevermind, whether the term of that chief justice is 1 week of 10 months. What is very important is the ability of that chief justice to draw upon the best and enable each of the justices,” he said.

Another important trait, he said, would be the ability to manage and administer the entire Judiciary. This requires devolving centralized functions and understanding the plight of judiciary employees — from process servers to stenographers to clerks of court, even government unions.

“And lastly, the Chief Justice must be able to communicate the ideas of the Judiciary in forums like this and many others, to the entire public and act as our liaison to the different government agencies and protect always the independence of the Judiciary, its autonomy and its ability to be able to do what it is tasked, in terms of our constitutional order,” he said.

Regardless of who will be appointed, the magistrate said he would follow the Constitutional order and respect the appointment.

DUTERTE APPOINTEES

The independence of the Judiciary itself has been questioned with the growing number of Duterte appointees in the Supreme Court.

By the time President Rodrigo Duterte steps down from office, only Leonen and Caguioa will stay on as appointees of former President Benigno Aquino III. The remaining 13 will have been Duterte appointees.

Five Duterte appointees to the high court — Ombudsman Samuel Martires, Noel Tijam (now with the Judicial and Bar Council), Andres Reyes, Jr., Jose Reyes, Jr. and Priscilla Baltazar-Padilla have all retired while 2 more — Associate Justice Rosmari Carandang and Edgardo de los Santos are retiring before June 2022.

Senior Associate Justice Perlas-Bernabe is also set to retire in May 2022.

Duterte’s first appointee for chief justice, Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, only served for more than 40 days while her successor, Lucas Bersamin, served for a little less than a year.

Peralta followed that short stint tradition serving only for 1 year and 5 months.

In contrast, Sereneo was supposed to serve for 18 years or until her retirement in 2030, next only to Chief Justice Cayetano Arellano’s 19-year record.

Despite this, Leonen said there is nothing wrong with a revolving door policy.

“I think that even if a person serves for only one year in the courts of justice, it changes the complexion of our deliberations. Every new justice brings in their own ideas, their own standpoint. And for so long as the court strives to be diversified in terms of its thinking, strives to be very diversified in terms of their sources from their careers…Then we can have deliberations we try to engage,” he said.

Leonen considers himself an outsider, having come from the academe as dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law before he was appointed as government chief peace negotiator in 2010, where he oversaw the creation of a framework agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front for the establishment of the Bangsamoro political entity to replace the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao.

Before that, he was engaged in public interest lawyering.

A few other Supreme Court justices, like Caguioa and retired Justice Francis Jardeleza, had their own private practice or served as counsel for corporations before joining the government as justice secretary and solicitor general, respectively.

Most of Duterte’s appointees, however, have come from the Court of Appeals and the Sandiganbayan.

“The Supreme Court survives most of us and therefore, what matters is that you have good deliberations,” he said.

IMPEACHMENT, INHIBITION

Leonen is currently facing an impeachment complaint at the House of Representatives filed by a certain Edwin Cordevilla, a journalist based in Batac, Ilocos Norte, assisted by lawyer Lorenzo “Larry” Gadon, a known supporter of the Marcoses.

Gadon denied Marcos had a hand in the impeachment complaint but the complaint was endorsed by a cousin of the defeated vice presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., who has a pending election protest before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal against Vice President Leni Robredo.

Marcos, supported by Solicitor-General Jose Calida, another Marcos supporter, had accused Leonen of bias against the Marcoses and sought but failed to secure his inhibition from the case.

The Supreme Court stood by Leonen’s integrity in junking the inhibition bid and also denied the Office of the Solicitor General’s and Gadon’s bid to obtain copies of Leonen’s statement of assets, liabilities and net worth.

The impeachment complaint had accused Leonen of betrayal of public trust over his supposed non-filing of SALNs as one of the grounds for his removal, similar to issues raised against impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona and ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

It also accused the magistrate of culpable violation of the Constitution for supposedly delaying resolution of pending cases before the Supreme Court and the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal.

No less than retired Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has come to Leonen’s defense, saying no impeachable offense was cited in the complaint.

Meanwhile, in junking the inhibition bid against him, the Supreme Court, sitting as the PET, pushed back against using a justice’s dissenting opinion to accuse him of bias.

Leonen echoed the court’s ruling in his advice on what the next chief justice should focus on:

“Maintain the independence of the judiciary, and by independence of the judiciary, come what may, to respect the opinions of the members of the Court regardless of how we feel, whether towards or against a particular ideology, political party, a public officer and so on and so forth,” he said.