Moral turpitude | Inquirer Opinion
With Due Respect

Moral turpitude

Though defiant of exact legal definition, moral turpitude is generally understood in jurisprudence as an act “contrary to justice, modesty, or good morals; an act of baseness, vileness or depravity in the private and social duties which a man owes his fellowmen, or to society in general.” The current question in the public space is: What is the consequence of a conviction for a crime involving moral turpitude, especially on the quest for, and/or to hold, a public office?

DISMISSAL FROM EMPLOYMENT WAS THE ANSWER OF THE SUPREME COURT in Macatangay v. CSC, promulgated on June 15, 2022. Penned by the indefatigable Justice Ramon Paul I. Hernando, the Court (First Division) ruled that bigamy is a crime involving moral turpitude; consequently, the conviction of an employee of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) for this offense resulted in her dismissal. It is easy to agree with this decision.

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However, in Republic v. Marcos II issued 13 years ago on Aug. 4, 2009, the Court (Third Division) held that the Court of Appeals’ (CA) conviction of Ferdinand Marcos II for his failure to file his income tax returns (ITR) for four years (1982-1985) did not disqualify him to be “the executor of the will of his father” because such failure “is not a crime involving moral turpitude.”

Under the Rules of Court (Rule 78, Section 1), a person convicted “of an offense involving moral turpitude” cannot serve as an executor or administrator of a decedent’s estate.

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Penned by Justice (later CJ) Diosdado M. Peralta, the decision explained three different violations relevant to ITRs, namely, “(1) false return, (2) fraudulent return with intent to evade tax, (3) failure to file a return.” It stressed that the first two “entail willfulness and fraudulent intent on the part of the individual and thus fall” under the category of “everything which is done contrary to justice, honesty, or good morals.”

However, the Court added that the third—failure to file ITRs—“is not a crime involving moral turpitude as the mere omission is already a violation regardless of the fraudulent intent or willfulness of the individual.”

IT MAY NOT BE EASY TO AGREE WITH THIS DECISION. Some may even rage against its cryptic and strained explanation but, as I wrote last Feb. 6, as long as the ruling is not reversed, or modified, or clarified to be merely an obiter dictum (or a side comment) by the Court en banc, it is the prevailing jurisprudence and all of us are duty-bound to follow it, while working to reverse or modify or clarify it.

However, instead of reversing this ruling, the Court en banc affirmed and reiterated it in Buenafe v. Comelec (June 28, 2022). In this 83-page decision carefully written by low profile Justice Rodil V. Zalameda, the Court clarified that while tax evasion—repeat, tax evasion—involves moral turpitude, the “failure to file income tax return does not always amount to tax evasion (bold types in original). Tax evasion connotes fraud through the use of pretenses and forbidden devices to lessen or defeat taxes … Negligence, whether slight or gross, is not equivalent to fraud with intent to evade the tax contemplated by law … the failure to file an (ITR) may be committed by neglect, without any fraudulent intent and/or willfulness … It is not of itself immoral, and neither does it constitute an act of baselessness, vileness, or depravity in the private or social duties which a man owes his fellowmen, or to society in general.” It then concluded that Marcos II’s failure to file his ITRs was unintentional and borne merely of neglect.

BRUSHING ASIDE PETITIONERS’ SUGGESTION to “reexamine the totality of circumstances surrounding respondent Marcos Jr.’s non-filing of an income tax return, We [referring to the justices] deem it unnecessary to go through the same exercise because of the Court’s Decision involving the same facts. In Republic v. Marcos II, We already declared that respondent Marcos Jr.’s non-filing of an income tax return is not a crime involving moral turpitude.”

With due respect, I believe the Court should have tackled this challenge to “reexamine the totality of circumstances” so it could have added flavor to the, I must admit, already meaty ponencia. It should have explained why a lowly employee had to be dismissed from the DFA while a candidate—who, to quote again the Court, gathered “31,629,783 votes, or 58.77% of the votes cast”—should be treated differently and allowed to sit and enjoy the powers and perks of the presidency.

But the Court has spoken. And as I earlier stated, we all have a duty to follow it, because, to quote the Court once more, “… to undo an election, there must be compelling and unequivocal evidence of the candidate’s disqualification or failure to meet the requirements for filing a certificate of candidacy … Ferdinand Marcos Jr. possesses all the qualifications and none of the disqualifications to run for president. Furthermore, his Certificate of Candidacy contains no false material representation and is, therefore, valid.”

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