Significance of impeachment complaint
The impeachment complaint against Justice Mario Victor Leonen has significant constitutional ramifications that may disrupt the finely crafted check-and-balance mechanism embedded in the 1987 Constitution. First, the Supreme Court has already ruled that the 24-month period in the Constitution for its Justices to decide cases is directory and not mandatory. The Supreme Court issued this ruling in the exercise of its constitutional power as the final interpreter of the Constitution. If the House of Representatives interprets the 24-month period as mandatory, then the House will be usurping the power of the Supreme Court as the final interpreter of the Constitution. The interpretation of the House will make Justices of the Supreme Court an endangered species as more than a majority of them are not compliant with the 24-month period.
The interpretation of the House will have a cascading effect on the entire Judiciary. Justices in the appellate courts—the Court of Appeals, Sandiganbayan, and the Court of Tax Appeals—will have to comply with the 12-month period under the Constitution to decide cases, otherwise they will be dismissed from office for failure to comply with a mandatory requirement of the Constitution. It will be worse for our overburdened first level trial court judges if they have to comply mandatorily with the three-month period under the Constitution to decide cases. The ideal trial judge to population ratio is one judge per 20,000 population. The current ratio in the country is one judge per 40,000 population. Applying the three-month rule mandatorily to first level courts will result in the dismissal of many first level trial court judges who may be efficient but who are simply swamped with cases.
Second, at the time Justice Leonen applied for the Supreme Court, the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) only required him to submit his SALNs for the last two years and which he complied to the satisfaction of the JBC. Under Republic Act No. 6713, government offices that have custody of SALNs are required to keep copies of the SALNs for 10 years, after which they can dispose of the SALNs. As ruled by the Supreme Court, the crime of failure to file a SALN prescribes in eight years. Under the Revised Penal Code, criminal liability is “totally extinguished” by the prescription of the crime.
The impeachment complaint alleges that Justice Leonen failed to file his SALNs when he was a professor at the University of the Philippines (UP). Justice Leonen left UP more than 10 years ago. The House cannot compel either the Ombudsman or UP to submit Justice Leonen’s SALNs that are more than 10 years old because the law requires the retention of SALNs for only 10 years. In fact, this was the reason why the Ombudsman denied last Sept. 17, 2020, the request of the Solicitor General for copies of Justice Leonen’s SALNs when he was a UP professor. If the House insists that alleged crimes that have already prescribed, with records that have already been legally destroyed, can still be the subject of impeachment, then all government employees and officials, including members of Congress, are put on notice that during their entire lifetime, as long as they are in the government, they are open to continuing investigation by any administration.
Third, the impeachment complaint claims that Justice Leonen deserves to be impeached because of his “biased” opinions against the Marcoses in several cases. Every Supreme Court Justice who writes a decision for the majority must, as required by the Constitution, state “clearly and distinctly the facts and the law” on which the decision is based. If a Justice dissents, the Constitution requires that he “must state the reason” for his dissent.
When a Justice writes an opinion, he is performing an express constitutional duty. A Justice cannot be impeached for performing a clear constitutional duty, no matter how strong, blunt, or pointed his language may be. A Justice can only be impeached if his opinion is tainted with corruption as when he receives a bribe in consideration for his opinion, or if he is in gross violation of judicial ethics as when his opinion favors his own relatives within the sixth degree of consanguinity or affinity. To hold otherwise is to intimidate the Justices into silence and destroy the independence of the Judiciary.
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