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Leonen failed to file his SALNs like Sereno, but for more years

SUPREME Court Associate Justice Mario Victor Leonen may be even a worse offender of the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) Law than the ousted chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. That law (Republic Act 6713 of 1989, called the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees) requires all state officials and employees to file their yearly SALNs.

Sereno was removed from her post in 2018 for having failed to file such reports for six years, an offense for which her colleagues decided that she had no integrity and, therefore, could not have been appointed as chief justice.

Leonen, unless he makes these documents public to prove otherwise, has failed to file his SALN for 15 years from the time he joined the University of the Philippines (UP) faculty from 1989 to 2003 and for the years 2008 to 2009. Replying to a freedom of information request (under Executive Order No. 2 of 2016) that I had filed, the Central Records Division of the Office of the Ombudsman reported that they have on file only Leonen’s SALNs for the years 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010 and 2011. Civil Service Commission’s Resolution 1500088 of 2015 ordered all state universities (and several other state entities) to turn over all the SALNs submitted to it to the ombudsman.

Justice Leonen: Can he argue the SALNs were lost?

Leonen joined the state university faculty in 1989 and since then had been there in various capacities, even as vice president for legal affairs in 2005 and UP Law School dean in 2008, which means he had not submitted his SALNs from 1989 to 2003, and for 2008 and 2009 — a total of 15 years. He left UP in July 2010 to become the government’s chief negotiator with the insurgent Moro Islamic Liberation Front. He was appointed to the high court on Nov. 21, 2012.

I wrote a letter August 24 to Leonen, coursed through Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez, which asked him if indeed he failed to file his SALNs for these 15 years. Marquez confirmed Leonen’s receipt of my letter.

Leonen didn’t reply to me. It was instead the Supreme Court’s Chief of Public Information Brian Hosaka, after acknowledging receipt by Leonen of my letter, who replied as follows:

“Due to their constitutional functions which require strict independence and impartiality on all matters brought before them, not all members of the judiciary may be obliged to personally assist or advise you on your research regardless if it may lead to praise or criticism of their person or work, or the person or work of another judge or justice. Personal information about judges and justices are either privileged or are covered by specific processes provided for by the constitution, laws or court resolutions.”

Translating this legalese to plain English, Hosaka told me in this letter: “Whether he complied with the SALN law or not is none of your business. It is privileged information.” It wasn’t clear in the letter though if that was Hosaka or Leonen speaking

Hosaka implied in his letter that the reply was just for Leonen to comply with the law: “Let this reply be considered compliance by J. Leonen of the statutory duty to respond to your letter.”

If Leonen had indeed filed his SALNs for those years, he could have told me so, and even provided copies of these. Investigation closed and I wouldn’t have to write this column, and this SALN issue would not have been raised.

But he didn’t file his SALNs. Why in the world didn’t he?

My theory is that there has been such a rebellious anti-authoritarian culture in the UP that many of its faculty are contemptuous of the state and its laws such as that on SALN. They do not see themselves as government employees that they find it bothersome to fill out the forms.

Furthermore, as in the case of Sereno, Leonen never thought he would ever join government, much less the Supreme Court, and that this issue of filing that SALN document “nobody reads” would ever be a problem.

Too bad these lawyers didn’t take Philippine laws seriously.

Quo warranto
The Supreme Court in May 2018, acting on Solicitor General Jose Calida’s unprecedented quo warranto complaint, ruled that Sereno’s failure to file SALNs for six years meant that she lacked integrity, a requirement under the Constitution’s Article VIII, Section 7, not just for the Chief Justice and all of the Supreme Court justices, but for all members of the judiciary. (A quo warranto suit is a claim that the appointment of a government official to a particular position was null and void, as that official had not complied with its requirements — in Sereno’s case, her lack of integrity.)

Out of the 14 justices (Sereno recused), eight voted to boot out Sereno, while six didn’t, including Leonen and Antonio Carpio. Three of these pro-Sereno justices have retired and been replaced by appointees of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Very, very bad for Leonen. If a similar case is brought against him, it will be 12 justices voting to kick him out of the court. with only two dissenting, assuming he has the delicadeza to recuse himself.

That he himself didn’t file his SALNs certainly explains Leonen’s ferocity in arguing for Sereno’s case in his dissenting opinion in that case, as if it was he who was being accused.

The petition against Sereno “does not deserve space in judicial deliberation, within our constitutional space,” he wrote. Alluding to President Duterte, he claimed that the removal of Sereno “installs doctrine that empowers the privileged, the powerful and the status quo.”

Leonen denigrated the importance of the SALN, claiming that it is “not the actual measure of integrity,” but only a tool. “Integrity is a collection of attributes that tend to show the quality of a person’s character,” he wrote.

“The misdeclaration of assets in the SALN does not automatically translate to dishonesty,” Leonen pontificated.

He’d sound like a broken record when he repeats these arguments at the Supreme Court, when a quo warranto case is brought against him. This is likely unless the Solicitor General risks being accused of having double standards, or of looking the other way for some mysterious reasons, since Leonen’s is a more grievous case of a justice’s failure to file SALNs.

Leonen appears to be expecting that he could be the next to be accused of failure to file the required SALN, that he ended his dissenting opinion: “I grieve the doctrine of this case. It should be overturned in the near future.” I’m betting though that it will be reaffirmed in the near future.

I hope though that Leonen follows the advice he gave to Sereno in his dissenting opinion: “She has the alternative to have the grace and humility to resign from office to protect the institution.”

Would you believe that at 57 years old, Leonen is the youngest member of the court, which means that if he is not booted out, he will be serving in the bench until 2032? That he’d be the most senior associate justice by 2022, making him eligible to be chief justice?

The Yellows could soon have their worst nightmare: if Leonen is ousted, and Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta and Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe retire in March 2022 and May 2022, respectively, 14 out of the 15 Supreme Court justices would be the “Mayor’s” appointees, leaving only Benjamin Caguioa as the last Aquino appointee.

And that would be before he steps down — or is supposed to step down — in July 2022, the first time such a unique situation will have ever happened in our history.

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