EARLY this month, a newspaper columnist alleged, after some research, that Associate Justice Marvic Leonen of the Supreme Court failed to file his statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALN) for 15 years when he was teaching at the University of the Philippines.
Lawyer Lorenzo Gadon caught the pitch and joined the Solicitor-General in imploring the Supreme Court for access to the SALNs of Justice Leonen, with the end in view of initiating a petition for quo warranto, likely banking on the success of a similar petition filed more than two years ago against former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
Sereno is the first impeachable officer removed from office without having been convicted in an impeachment proceeding. Three chief justices have so far succeeded her in office as primus inter pares.
Two weeks ago, Supreme Court spokesperson Atty. Brian Keith Hosaka told reporters that the Supreme Court “unanimously resolved to deny the request of the Office of the Solicitor General and Atty. Lorenzo G. Gadon, for copies of the SALN of, and other information pertaining to SC Associate Justice Marvic Mario Victor F. Leonen.”
There is no published decision on the issue. What made the Supreme Court quickly defang quo warranto as a weapon against one of its own is thus purely the subject of conjecture.
The Justices may have recognized the grave danger of consistently indulging “an aggressive Solicitor General.” As Leonen himself predicted in his dissenting opinion on the Sereno ruling, that precedent can “render those who present dissenting opinions unnecessarily vulnerable to powerful interests.”
Prior to the Sereno decision, we thought that the removal of an impeachable officer is the exclusive domain of the Senate convening as an impeachment court. While they may cause the dismissal of judges of lower courts, Supreme Court justices, being impeachable officers themselves, do not normally remove a fellow Justice because doing so would impinge upon such exclusive power of the Senate.
But in ousting Sereno, the Supreme Court majority opinion declared that quo warranto does not violate the principle of separation of powers, and that the constitutional process of impeachment “does not foreclose a quo warranto action against impeachable officers.”
If the basis for ouster is an act committed prior to appointment to public office, as in the case of Sereno and Leonen, the binding precedent should be the case of the late Chief Justice Marcelo Fernan who was the subject of a disbarment complaint filed on the basis of alleged misconduct committed prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court. Fernan’s disbarment would have caused his removal as chief justice because the position requires being a lawyer of good standing.
In that case, it was ruled that Supreme Court justices can only be removed from office by way of impeachment. Removal by any other pretense would circumvent and run afoul of the mandate of the Constitution.
Quo warranto would be such a pretense. By deliberate constitutional design, removal through impeachment was designated as the only method of removal of an impeachable officer. It is anchored on the fundamental principles of judicial independence and separation of powers.
Judicial independence is highly prized in a democratic state. The Supreme Court emphasized this in the Fernan decision. Without the protection of this rule, members of the Supreme Court would be vulnerable to suits brought against them by unsuccessful litigants, their lawyers, or by other parties who might seek to affect the independent exercise of judicial authority.
Unfortunately, as we all know, a principle of law memorized by professors of law and their students was effectively revised after the highest-ranking member of the judiciary asserted independence in the investigation of judges that the President had linked to the drug trade.
This recent action of the high court throwing out the window the attempted re-enactment of the quo warranto gambit against a sitting Justice is a welcome step back towards judicial independence. The pressures mounted by immediate interests must be resisted.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes had wisely observed, great cases are called great not by reason of their real importance in shaping the law of the future, but because of some accident of immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings and distorts the judgment./WDJ