By Ambassador Rigoberto Tiglao
“I WOULD have resigned right away as that was a culpable violation of the Constitution,” retired associate justice Antonio Carpio told the Judicial Bar Council in July 2012 when he was being interviewed for his application to replace Chief Justice Renato Corona who was ousted in May that year.
Carpio was referring to allegations in 2012 that Corona had not filed accurately his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN), which was one of the reasons for his impeachment.
But now Carpio is claiming that SALNs aren’t much of an issue in the case of Associate Justice Marvic Mario Victor Leonen, against whom an impeachment complaint was filed just a week ago, one ground for which was his failure to file 15 SALNs,
Carpio wrote in a column that Leonen need not worry that he didn’t file his SALNS, as there is a technicality (which is wrong, as I will show below) that the “prescriptive period “for such a crime is eight years — and the 15th year for which Leonen didn’t file such a document was 2009.
No wonder there had been widespread belief in the accusation, which Corona himself made, that the plot to oust him was due to an alliance between Carpio who lusted to be chief justice and President Aquino 3rd, who desperately wanted to reverse the adverse decision on the Hacienda Luisita case.
Whatever, Carpio has shamelessly demonstrated that in the interpretation of the SALN requirements, he has one standard for Corona, probably as his ouster would benefit him, and another for Leonen, for whatever reason he hasn’t disclosed.
C’mon, whether you think the SALN is just a piece of paper, the Constitution itself (and implemented by a Republic Act 6713 of 1989) states in Article 11, Section 17:
“A public officer or employee shall, upon assumption of office and as often thereafter as may be required by law, submit a declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities and net worth.”
It is astonishing that in his 18 years in the Supreme Court, Carpio has not understood the fact that members of the highest court of the land — the very embodiment of our rule of law — must have the highest standards in their compliance with the Constitution and the law.
Leonen is not a Bureau of Customs department head, like Melita del Rosario whom Carpio cited was not acquitted by the Supreme Court in 2018 for her failure to file one SALN (for 1990), because the prescriptive period of eight years for the crime had passed.
Leonen, for chrissake, is not just a Customs official but a member of the Supreme Court, for whom higher standards of adherence to the Constitution are imposed.
How do we explain to the more than 1 million government employees, including those in state universities, that they have to abide by the Constitution and the law and file their SALNs without fail every year, when a member of the Supreme Court, Leonen, had not done so for 15 years, that Chief Justice Corona was removed for omissions in his SALN, and another, Lourdes Sereno, for not filing four SALNs?
Carpio demonstrated his intellectual dishonesty in his defense of Leonen in his column: “The Supreme Court ruled that the prescriptive period for failure to file a SALN is eight years. 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.”
Carpio’s intellectual dishonesty is obvious in the fact that he didn’t explain the important issues involved in the decision of the Supreme Court’s Third Division (and not the Court en banc, or all of its 15 members) on this matter.
The court’s Third Division’s decision was controversial in that it ruled against the so-called “discovery rule” the Sandiganbayan had been using in all its graft cases, which is that the prescription period is counted not from the time the crime is committed but when it was discovered. The logic here is that information on the crime when it was committed was not easily available to the public.
The Supreme Court Third Division made the mind-boggling claim that the “discovery rule” cannot be applied in that case of that customs official, since the information that she didn’t file her SALN “was readily available to the public since the Civil Service Commission and the Office of the Ombudsman had a “computerized database of all public officials and employees required to file SALNs” which can be accessed.
What? I haven’t heard of such a computerized database. To discover Leonen’s failure to file 15 SALNs, I had to file a request in 2018 under the freedom of information (FOI) order Duterte issued in 2016. I even had to undertake certain maneuvers (all legal of course) to secure the information I needed, since the Supreme Court and the UP initially blocked my request. Furthermore, Ombudsman Samuel Martires in September ordered that SALNs are not to be released to just anyone but made accessible only upon a court’s order or in the course of an investigation of its agents.
C’mon now, whether an official has filed a SALN or not is not information that the Supreme Court Third Division claims can be easily accessed by the public. Its decision on that Customs official case was based on a fallacy, and therefore can be reversed by another division or by the Supreme Court sitting en banc.
The “discovery rule” applies in Leonen’s case since his crime was discovered only in July 2018, when the Office of the Ombudsman’s Central Records Division disclosed (because of its interpretation of Duterte’s FOI order) that Leonen had not filed his SALNs for 15 years, 1989 to 2003 and for the years 2008 to 2009. The prescription period for Leonen’s crime for not filing his SALNs will end only eight years from 2018, or 2026.
However, Carpio’s bigger, and more important, intellectual dishonesty, is that nowhere in his column does he point out the following truth: Impeachment is not a judicial process, in which the accused is proven to have committed a crime based on laws and legal procedures. It is not a court of law, but a political act, that is, an act by the Senate as a political institution.
It is entirely a decision by the majority of the Senate — which we assume represents the people — that the accused should be booted out of his post because of, as the Constitution enumerates the grounds for such general terms, “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.”
The impeachment process is not one where savvy lawyers can exploit legal technicalities like prescription periods nor even past judicial decisions. If a Supreme Court justice, a president, or any impeachable official is discovered to have murdered somebody 20 years ago, he can still be impeached and removed for that, as long as the Senate sitting as the impeachment court is convinced he did so.
Leonen’s failure to file his SALNs for 15 years was a culpable violation of the Constitution, specifically its Article 11, Section 17. Period. That is what in fact the Yellow senators like Franklin Drilon kept repeating again and again during Corona’s impeachment in 2012. But we certainly cannot have a double standard in applying our laws.
In the simplest terms, we would be ignoring our Constitution if we allow somebody like Leonen to continue to be a justice of the Supreme Court, as he did not just violate it, but thinks it just a scrap of paper to be ignored.