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Grounds for impeaching an SC justice

By: Antonio T. Carpio – @inquirerdotnetPhilippine Daily Inquirer / 05:06 AM December 10, 2020
An impeachment complaint has been filed in the House of Representatives against Supreme Court Associate Justice Mario Victor F. Leonen on three specific grounds, namely: (1) failure to decide at least 37 cases assigned to him within 24 months from submission of the cases for resolution; (2) arbitrary delay in resolving cases, assigned to him, as chair of the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET); and (3) failure to file his statement of assets and liabilities and net worth (SALN) when he was a professor at the University of the Philippines.

The first ground for impeachment is anchored on Section 15(1), Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution, which states that for the Supreme Court, cases “must be decided or resolved within twenty-four months from date of submission xxx.” The Supreme Court has consistently interpreted this provision, as well as a similar provision in the 1973 Constitution, as merely directory and not mandatory.

In the administrative complaint filed by Elvira N. Enalbes against former chief justice Teresita J. Leonardo de Castro, decided on Jan. 22, 2019, the Court En Banc ruled: “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.”

When I retired from the Supreme Court on Oct. 26, 2019, there were only about five of us with a zero backlog in our dockets. To apply the 24-month rule mandatorily would result in the impeachment of more than a majority of the Supreme Court justices. At present, our Supreme Court renders about 1,000 full-blown decisions every year or an average of 66 full-blown decisions per justice every year. In the US Supreme Court, the average output is nine full-blown decisions per justice per year.

In short, Philippine Supreme Court justices are on the average seven times more productive than their US counterparts. 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.

The second ground for impeachment is the alleged arbitrary delay by Justice Leonen in resolving three HRET cases assigned to him as HRET chair, to which he was appointed only last October 2019. The impeachment complaint admits that Justice Leonen has already resolved two cases and that only one case is still pending, which incidentally is not the case of Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo as erroneously claimed in the impeachment complaint. 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.

Finally, on the last ground for impeachment, even 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. In the 2018 case of Melita del Rosario v. People of the Philippines, the Supreme Court ruled that the prescriptive period for failure to file a SALN is eight years. Justice Leonen left the University of the Philippines more than 10 years ago. Under Article 89 of the Revised Penal Code, criminal liability is “totally extinguished” by the 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 offens

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