Daily Tribune - Misuse of ‘judicial independence’ mantra

News & Interviews
23 December 2020

By Daily Tribune

“Whoever wrote the IBP Makati chapter statement should read up on the Constitution before making any similar announcements in the future.

On Saturday, 12 December 2020, the Makati City chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) released a statement urging that the recent impeachment complaint filed against Supreme Court (SC) Associate Justice Marvic Leonen in the House of Representatives should be dismissed.

The statement said the complaint is a threat to judicial independence.

It insinuated that past impeachment cases against justices of the SC were irregular.

More specifically, the statement said the complaint “should alarm the members of the Philippine Bar as judicial independence and respect for established legal procedure are once again threatened.

” It further said the complaint failed to meet the constitutional bases for removing Leonen from office.

In the end, the statement urged congressmen to focus their attention not on the impeachment complaint but on the Covid-19 pandemic.

The IBP Makati chapter statement is a clumsy misreading of the impeachment process allowed by the Constitution.

While judicial independence is protected by the Constitution, impeachment proceedings are also authorized by the Charter.

For that reason alone, an impeachment proceeding in the House is not a threat to judicial independence. The impeachment process itself can never be unconstitutional or repugnant to any provision of the Constitution, including the protection afforded by the Charter to judicial independence.

It is not disputed that the impeachment complaint against Leonen was filed in the House in accordance with the procedure set forth in the Constitution.

Therefore, it is now up to the House Committee on Justice, to which the complaint was duly referred, to act on the same.

It is the House, and not the IBP Makati City chapter, that has the sole power to decide if the impeachment complaint meets the requirements set forth in the Constitution to warrant the filing of the corresponding articles of impeachment against Leonen, and his trial by the Senate sitting as an impeachment tribunal.

Judicial independence has been a mantra invoked on many past occasions in an attempt to justify what is essentially unjustifiable.

When he was Chief Justice of the SC, Hilario Davide Jr. refused to allow the public and the press to obtain copies of the annual statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of the Supreme Court, despite the express mandate of the Constitution that SALN should be accessible by the public.

Davide’s lame excuse was that allowing public access to the SALN of the justices will undermine “judicial independence.”

Huh? How can the exercise of a constitutional right undermine judicial independence?

It is common knowledge that the justices of the SC enjoy the use of luxurious vacation villas in Baguio City (euphemistically called “cottages”) at public expense.

More than a decade ago, when the media sought permission from the SC for a look inside the Baguio “cottages,” their request was flatly denied. According to the SC, to allow the media the access sought is to undermine “judicial independence.”

Good heavens! How can the exercise of the constitutional right of the public and the press to take a look inside a public building paid for by public money actually undermine “judicial independence?”

When SC Chief Justice Renato Corona was facing an impeachment trial in the Senate in 2012, his allies asked the SC to issue a restraining order to stop the trial on the ground that it threated “judicial independence.” The SC did not issue a restraining order, and the trial went on resulting in Corona’s ouster.

Take note that in Corona’s case, the SC did not buy the argument that an impeachment proceeding against a member of the SC threatened “judicial independence.”

In 2018, de facto SC Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno infamously said unseating her through a quo warranto petition will undermine “judicial independence” and trigger the collapse of the entire judiciary. Like Corona before her, Sereno got unseated, and the courts today don’t look like they lost their independence.

Finally, the statement’s reference to the Covid-19 pandemic is misplaced.

The existence of a pandemic does not warrant the conclusion that the impeachment complaint against Leonen should be dismissed outright.

Whoever wrote the IBP Makati chapter statement should read up on the Constitution before making any similar announcements in the future.