The newest member of the Philippine Supreme Court is one of the youngest appointees in its more than a hundred-year history. Justice Marvic Leonen, 49, was a clear favorite of President Benigno “PNoy” Aquino III. He became familiar with Leonen when the law professor was plucked from the University of the Philippines to lead the government panel that would negotiate with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a rebel group that has since given up its secessionist dreams.
Before that, Aquino took the side of Leonen and his UP College of Law colleagues who demanded the resignation of a Supreme Court justice who had plagiarized a decision on a case involving comfort women seeking compensation from the Japanese government. Hurt by their stinging criticism, a majority of the justices sternly scolded the academics and asked them to explain why they shouldn’t be punished.
At the time, the tension between the president and the Supreme Court was palpable as Aquino resented the appointment of a chief justice by his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, despite a constitutional ban on appointments during an election period. In a speech at the UP College of Law, when Leonen was dean, Aquino chided the Court for going after the professors who were simply speaking truth to power.
When Leonen and his team were ironing out a broad agreement with the MILF (recently signed in Malacañang Palace and witnessed by Aquino and the prime minister of Malaysia, which has brokered the peace talks), he would often brief the president. Over this period, the two developed a comfortable working relationship.
That, after all, matters much to President Aquino. Despite the view that Leonen has yet to complete the next phase of the negotiations, which will be more tedious as both parties tackle details, the president pulled him out and appointed him to the Court.
Leonen, assertive and articulate, comes to the Court at a time of historic change. In May this year, the chief justice, Renato Corona, was ousted for undeclared wealth worth $4.5 million (P180 million) after months of a protracted impeachment trial. This was unprecedented.
Immediately, the Court, under an acting chief justice, opened up some of its once-secret financial reports. The justices also decided to make their individual statement of assets public. In the past, they exempted themselves from this requirement.
President Aquino further shook the Court when he replaced Corona with the first chief justice who is a junior member who had spent only two years in the Court. By tradition, it was either the most senior or next-most senior member who was picked to be at the helm of the Court, an institution steeped in hierarchy.
Still, the push for transparency in the Court should continue. Leonen, who is a child of the new media, is expected to add his voice to this quest. Formerly active in Facebook and Twitter, he seems to derive energy from the voices of the crowd, diverse views and open exchanges. He is an avid user of the Internet and digital technology.
In the Court, Leonen will experience drastic changes, the most visible of which is being invisible. He will have to keep to himself and to his colleagues; confidentiality of deliberations is sacred.
But Leonen could bring two things to the Court.
First, a great understanding of the need for transparency in the institution. This means that the Court should disclose information that is of public interest, including each justice’s caseloads, pending cases that have impact on the lives of citizens, and how they spend their funds and savings.
Second, a deep appreciation for the importance of technology in reforming the Court. Most urgent is to decongest dockets by digitizing case files. In doing so, the progress of each case could be quickly monitored. This could lead to speedy justice.
Surely, Leonen is only one voice in the Court. But he is a plus to reform-minded justices.
Cut and Paste
But there’s a wrinkle. Leonen will work with justices who once reprimanded him for his strong position on plagiarism and who do not see a moral issue in stealing someone else’s words.
After probing into the plagiarized decision, the majority blamed Microsoft for the error. “Given the operational properties of the Microsoft program in use by the Court, the accidental decapitation of attributions to sources of research materials is not remote,” read the decision. “Microsoft word program does not have a function that raises an alarm when original materials are cut up or pruned.”
They also took the view that less stringent standards apply to the judiciary compared with the academe where “originality” of the writer’s thesis is paramount. It seemed that the justices were protecting a colleague to protect themselves as well. It is not inconceivable that, with the volume of their cases running to dozens a month, some of them may have copied other people’s work.
Leonen, however, will have a lot of time to make an impact and leave his imprint. He will be staying in the Court for 26 years, until he reaches the retirement age of 75. He will outlast the current members.
With such a long stretch ahead, there should be no reason to disappoint.
Marites Dañguilan Vitug is one of the Philippines' most accomplished and respected investigative journalists, winning awards and public recognition for her books and reportage on Philippine justice, security, and political affairs. She is the author of the bestselling books, Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court, and its sequel, Hour Before Dawn: The Fall and Uncertain Rise of the Philippine Supreme Court.