Leonen’s speech vs complicity trends as SC battles doubts on its independence
MANILA, Philippines – Do not be complicit in injustice.
This was the central message in a 23-minute speech that made Associate Justice Marvic Leonen trend for hours on Twitter, rousing an online audience that seemed hungry for “a glimmer of hope.”
Doubling as an impassioned lecture on climate change, the perils of technology and surveillance, and protecting institutions under attack, Leonen’s keynote address to new lawyers seemed to boost the profession’s morale that had been decreasing in recent years.
Just days before, the Philippine Judges Association came out with a statement defending their ranks from “vicious attacks” after a lower court judge’s decision was slammed by various sectors, including fellow lawyers.
The international community believes that the independence of the Philippine judiciary has been compromised, while human rights lawyers have stood on stages, declaring that there is “lawfare” or a weaponization of laws in the Philippines.
Law not a license to oppress
Leonen encouraged new lawyers not to use laws to oppress.
“Your oath to the rule of law is not an oath of surrender to the unjust and oppressive elements of the status quo. It is not license to further marginalize those who are disadvantaged, those who are poor, those who are abused by power and untruths,” said Leonen.
He slammed complicity, and told new lawyers to “make the difficult moral and ethical decision” and stand against abuse of power. (PODCAST: Law of Duterte Land: War on the Law Part 1)
The Duterte administration has enjoyed an overwhelming winning streak in the Supreme Court, which have led critics to say that the executive power has gone unchecked.
“Somewhere along the way, convenience takes the form of pragmatic silence. They surrender the choice, to make the difficult moral and ethical decision, all to placate the status quo. They mistake the public interest with debt of gratitude to the elite and the powerful that continue to provide their wealth and create their careers. Expediency overwhelms conscience,” said Leonen.
Leonen is the same justice who does not flinch when criticizing decisions of his fellow justices in the form of his powerful dissents. In the decision to uphold President Rodrigo Duterte’s martial law, for example, Leonen said his colleagues’ decision “enables the rise of an emboldened authoritarian.” (READ: Who voted for Duterte in the Supreme Court?)
In the same dissent two years ago, Leonen said the martial law decision “aligns us towards the same dangerous path” to the Ferdinand Marcos court “that was complicit to the suffering of our people.” (READ: Sereno slams silent Duterte critics as enablers)
“Do not temper principle with pragmatism. Do not hide behind comfortable acquiescence. Do not use comfort in lieu of integrity at critical times. Do not disguise your complicity,” Leonen said in his speech Thursday.
Leonen also noted that “conservative populism is gaining ground worldwide,” and there are “challenges to institutions that gather and speak truth to power.”
As the generation that will carry the brunt of the existential threats to the world – whether it’s a pandemic or a “redefinition of democracy” – Leonen urged the new lawyers to do the “unpopular, dangerous, inconvenient, but right.”
“Our silence, when we fall victim or after we serve as accomplices to corrupt acts of the powerful, is also our own powerful political act. Our silence maintains the status quo. It ensures that others will also be victimized,” Leonen said.
From inside the hallowed halls of a Supreme Court that has shown preference for judicial restraint, Leonen dared quote the slain activist and his friend, Lean Alejandro: “The line of fire is always a place of honor.”
“There is a lot to be done out there,” Leonen said, as lawyers find themselves in the role of pandemic frontliners responding to the legal needs of ordinary Filipinos arrested without warrants for violating quarantine.
Among the new lawyers who watched this speech from their laptop screens at home is Top 1 Mae Diane Azores from Bicol, whose father is a jeepney driver, and who, even before taking the oath, got her hands dirty with legal work, helping Piston drivers who were arrested for protesting the transport ban.
“Be at the frontlines. As a lawyer, resist injustice. Make it your passion to resist injustice,” Leonen said.
After listening to Leonen’s speech, a young netizen tweeted, “There is hope in the justice system.”
Leonen, who, while famous on Twitter only keeps a lonely company of a few dissenters in the Supreme Court, passed a shared responsibility to the new officers of the court. (READ: During tense political times, unity is Supreme Court’s prime quest)
His voice breaking, Leonen ended his speech: “Be better than us. Walang magpapalaya sa atin kung hindi tayo mismo (No one can free us but ourselves).” – Rappler.com
Rappler Talk: Inside the Supreme Court with Justice Marvic Leonen
MANILA, Philippines — As the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Supreme Court to conduct its first online oath-taking for Bar passers, Associate Justice Marvic Leonen reminded the country’s new lawyers that they will be defined by the challenges that they face and how they respond to those challenges.
“Every generation is defined by its responses to the challenges and crises that confront them. Yours is no exception,” Leonen said at the first oath-taking of Bar passers through online video conference.
Leonen, the next Bar examinations chair, noted that the digital oath-taking is happening against a backdrop of “a potential existential threat to humanity.”
New lawyers face world where more are poor, hungry
The justice illustrated the landscape these new lawyers are stepping onto: Across the globe, close to a billion are predicted to become poorer, people are losing their jobs and children are going hungry—these will lead to “acts of desperation.” And, the “law will take part in the narrative of providing support as well as remedies when needed,” Leonen told them.
He added that the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly not the last that humanity will have to endure, with dangers brought by climate change threatening the globe.
“The [United Nations] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that we will reach the marker of increase in average world temperatures of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2040,” he said, stressing that this is only 20 years from now or when the new lawyers sworn in on Thursday are at the peak of their careers.
With world temperatures changing and unbridled human activity, new pathogens may emerge, and lifestyle changes are needed, Leonen said. While these are happening, the world has become enamored with the cyberspace, “malevolent forces of the dark web.”
‘Social media not enough’
“While we spend time on food photography and the dopamine rush of social media, even our political and social consciousness is falsely assuaged, and therefore effectively limited because we can voice, our rants on Facebook or Twitter. We believe that that is not enough,” Leonen said.
But even with the convenience brought to interpersonal relationships by the internet, these do not amount to “authentic human relationships…requiring patients, filled with tentative emotions, sometimes painful, but always inviting understanding,” he added.
While technology brings convenience, it too means surveillance and the possibility of human labor replacement.
“It will redefine the role of humanity institutions which dispense judgment or wisdom, like courts will soon have to adjust. Your generation is also seeing the redefinition of democracy, as it witnesses the struggles various marginalized identities against the norms coercively imposed upon them,” Leonen noted.
“We are a country in the midst of a massive diaspora… You see the challenges to the institutions that gather and speak truth to power, journalists worldwide suffer simply because they seek to verify and validate the truth. Those who speak truth to power, even in ordinary social media platforms experience what it means to be shamed and cyberbullied,” the justice added.
‘The line of fire is always a place of honor’
Leonen admitted that it is tempting to just ignore these, continue living in the comfort of our lives and “succumb to the status quo.”
“But we have a choice: We have the option to discover our courage, live with the discomfort, critically examine our society and use our profession for a greater purpose that humanity not only survives, but thrives with social justice,” he said.
Leonen reminded the country’s new lawyers that when they took oath to the rule of law, they were empowered to bring about change, and a “promise to empower.”
“Your purpose as a lawyer is to use your life to shape law so that it authentically contributes to the achievement of the best society for every human being,” he also said.
Leonen stressed that silence would only maintain the status quo and allow others to remain victims.
Borrowing words from activist Lean Alejandro, Leonen said: “The line of fire is always a place of honor.” He added:
Protect those who have less in life, do not stand for abuse, be accepting of different identities, speak up against corruption, do not succumb to having more than enough, do not trade kindness for the false badges of success, when you enter public office, discharge it for the public trust that it is.
Do not temper principle with pragmatism, do not hide behind comfortable acquiescence, do not use comfort in lieu of integrity at critical times, do not disguise your complicity. Instead, be at the frontlines, as a lawyer, resist injustice, make it your passion to resist injustice.
Strive for excellence, not only in order to get you more titles, not to land yourself in Top 10 lists of lawyers, strive for excellence, because you need excellence with honor to enable and empower the weak, the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed.
The justice, perhaps the most social savvy among the SC justices, ended with a challenge to the young lawyers: “Be better than us. Walang magpapalaya sa atin kung hindi tayo mismo. Humayo nang buong giting at tapang, paglingkuran ang sambayanan.”
(Nobody can liberate us but ourselves. Go forth with great courage and serve the people)
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