Should a sitting justice be publicly espousing on political issues?

WHAT MATTERS MOST - Atty. Josephus B Jimenez (The Freeman) - July 7, 2019 - 12:00am

It’s only right that Justice Antonio Carpio inhibit himself from hearing the petition for a writ involving the West Philippine Sea. He has already spoken against the official position of the government and can no longer be objective.

With all due respect, it’s our view that a sitting justice may not be the proper person to express controversial statements on international issues, especially if his opinions directly contradict those of the head of state. My limited knowledge of legal and judicial ethics tells me that a judge (and much more, a justice) should refrain from publicly expressing his opinions on public and foreign policies which may later be brought before his court. It is inappropriate, even assuming his views are intrinsically sound.

As a professor and student of law and politics, I’m in a quandary, whether it’s within the realm of judicial rectitude and propriety for an incumbent justice to speak publicly on foreign policy and contradict the head of state? I’m asking this because I was present personally when the justice delivered a speech on foreign policy, in reference to the China's supposed incursions into our Exclusive Economic Zone. And such a speech was witnessed by hundreds of Law graduates, professors, parents, and loved ones. And I understand this same justice has delivered similar speeches in other fora and wrote many published treatises on the same subject.

The question any Law student might ask is: Why should a sitting member of the Supreme Court deliver public speeches that contradict the president on foreign policy? With due respect, it’s our considered view that, even assuming his opinions are correct, it’s a breach of protocol to do that. What happens then if the acts of the president or his failure to act is questioned before the High Court, would that justice be fairly qualified to sit in judgment of a policy he publicly criticized? I have my serious doubts.

I’m currently teaching Legal and Judicial Ethics Review to a class of graduating students in one of the country's biggest Law schools, and my students are confused why such an unprecedented and out-of-ordinary situation occurred. Shouldn’t a sitting justice focus on his work in the judiciary and leave political advocacies to politicians and other public figures? Shouldn’t we all give due respect to the head of state to make decisions on international issues and foreign affairs? Isn’t it somehow bordering on impropriety for judicial figures to publicly oppose the views of the president on such issues as sovereignty and integrity of our territorial domains?

I respect contrary views and I listen to opposing opinions on this matter. But I honestly believe that we, as Filipinos, may have our own misgivings and criticisms against the president. And we are free to express them because we are private citizens and protected by our freedom of expression. But sitting justices should be advised by the chief justice to refrain from embarrassing the chief executive by making political speeches that directly contradict presidential pronouncements. He may be correct, we hasten to add, on the merits of his views, but is he the right person to say all those things?

I have my highest respect for all justices. They are my superiors in years and in wisdom. But I believe they must have some humility to respect the highest official of the land and not insult him publicly by denouncing presidential foreign policies. In Bisaya, “bakikaw”, and in Tagalog “asiwa”. In English improper, or inappropriate, I should say.

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