JBL Reyes and the IBP leadership

I have been a member of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) for nearly 30 years, 28 to be exact. I have never been prouder of this affiliation than today. The leadership of Abdiel Dan Elijah S. Fajardo, and the current Board of Governors has been visionary, inspiring, and courageous.

I am fully and unconditionally with them in their advocacy for the rule of law, among others for seeking to stop extrajudicial killings and more recently in objecting to the unconstitutional arrests of so-called tambays or loiters.

In my capacity as convenor of Manlaban sa EJKs, the alliance of lawyers and law students fighting the illegal killings attributed to Duterte’s war against drugs, I am proud to work closely with Attorney Minerva “June” Ambrosio, the head of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) National Center for Legal Aid (NCLA). A couple of decades ago, I had the honor also of working closely with one of her predecessors, the late Romy Capulong and I have seen how Romy and June embodies the best of Philippine lawyers.

Most definitely, I am with the IBP leadership in its defense of judicial independence.

Although the Supreme Court has already denied the motion of reconsideration filed by Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, it is important to acknowledge the arguments put forth by the IBP in its own motion supporting Sereno’s appeal. As I have suggested in interviews, political decisions by the Supreme Court are never really final. When the politics change, those decisions and precedents are reversed. I am confident that this will happen in the case of Sereno. In any case, even for posterity, it would be good to appreciate the strength of the IBP motion for reconsideration which they filed as an intervenor in this case.

In support of their motion, the IBP interposed four (4) grounds, namely: First, that the issue of whether or not the Chief Justice could be removed is a political question which can only be resolved through the process of impeachment. Second, the Court should have exercised judicial restraint in resolving the quo warrant petition consistent with its essence as the court of last resort and the duty to uphold the Constitution. Third, the reversal of the assailed decision, which has taints of political consideration and personal bias, is of the essence to uphold the rule of law. Fourth, the Court should have not taken cognizance of the petition considering that it is not a trier of facts and the resolution of whether respondent possesses integrity is a question of fact which requires trial on the merits.

On the first ground, the IBP argued that while the Court exercises supervisory powers over the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) it’s power does not extend to the modification and replacement of the judgment made by the entity it supervises. The Court in this case made independent gathering of facts, replaced the JBC’s finding with its own, settled the status of the validity of respondent’s appointment, and caused the ouster of the Chief Justice. Citing relevant jurisprudence, the IBP said that the Court made a determination that the JBC, in determining the candidate’s compliance with the Constitutional requirement, simply makes a determination, based on facts, whether or not the candidate possesses qualification, particularly proven integrity.  The JBC’s determination of the qualifications of the candidate is conclusive and such determination has been made not once but twice by the appointing president.

As to the second ground, the motion cites Cuenca vs. Fernan and In re Gonzales where the Court declared in emphatic fashion that an associate justice and chief justice can only be removed by way of impeachment and removal in any other way is to circumvent the mandate of the Constitution. The IBP stressed that recognizing impeachment as a prior procedural requirement is consistent with the constitutional design to vest in the senate the power to try and decide cases involving impeachable officers. The senate having been granted the authority to try and decide an impeachment process, it behooves the Court to refrain from exercising power bestowed by the Constitution on another tribunal or otherwise frustrating the exercise of such power by the tribunal, the IBP adds.

On the third ground, the motion says that the decision shows the use of law to arrive at a desired result, which is to oust the Chief Justice. The IBP cautions that no politics, consideration or personal animosity justifies the refusal to recognize constitutionally designed mechanism of impeachment, warning that the rule of law cannot survive in an environment which changes like sand dunes at the whim of the desert winds. The stability of the system is what draws the line between the rule of law and the rule of men, it adds. It is this stability that has been swept to the curb by the assailed decision.

Finally, in the assailed decision, the Court ruled that the respondent chronically failed to submit her Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs) and thus violated the rules set by the JBC. In taking exception to this finding, the IBP argues that the Court erred in making a factual determination of whether or not respondent failed to submit her SALNs during her years of government service contrary to the principle that the Court is not a trier of facts. The issue of whether respondent submitted her SALNs is a question of fact which requires examination of evidence submitted by the parties. Worse, the Court failed to maintain the cold neutrality of an impartial judge when it engaged in its own evidence gathering expedition and sough to supplement evidence already available. In particular, the Court, through the office of Justice Noel Tijam, sought for a copy of the minutes of the Executive Committee of the JBC. In other words, the Court assumed the role of a trial judge, it also became an advocate and assisted the petitioner in discharging its burden of proof. This not only overstep the Court’s jurisdiction but also amounts to the derogation of respondent’s right to due process.

The IBP motion for reconsideration is brilliant and persuasive. For sure, it took a lot of courage for its leadership to do this.

This is exactly the organization that Justice Jose Benedicto Luna Reyes envisioned when the IBP was founded in 1973 and he became its first Chairman and President. After his term, in 1975, he accepted the lifetime position of IBP President Emeritus. Popularly known by the initials “JBL”, Justice Reyes was known for his brilliance and courage. It was even rumored that President Ferdinand Marcos waited for Reyes to retire from the Supreme Court in August 1972 before imposing martial law a few weeks later. And even as he led the IBP, which is under the authority of the Supreme Court, JBL Reyes actively resisted the Marcos dictatorship.

Justice JBL’s most famous words ring true as a challenge today for all lawyers and judges: “No Master but Law; No Guide but Conscience; No Aim but Justice.” It is a challenge our fellow alumnus from the University of the Philippines College of Law – IBP President Fajardo, whom I happily claim as my former student, and the IBP Board of Governors and officials have lived up to.

I praise and thank them for this. Mabuhay kayo mga pinuno namin sa IBP!

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