A problematic justice named Marvic Leonen

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

I AM trying so hard to understand Associate Justice Mario Victor Leonen, otherwise known by his nickname Marvic.

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I know Justice Leonen from way back in my UP days. Both of us were involved in environmental education, with me as a then professor of forest policy at the College of Forestry and Natural Resources of UP Los Baños, and Justice Leonen as a law professor at UP Diliman who also worked on environmental law. Thus, we met on a number of occasions in UP system-wide meetings and workshops.

The last time I had a chance to personally meet Justice Leonen again was during the preliminary conference when Senator Grace Poe elevated her appeal against her election disqualification to the Supreme Court, and impleaded me as one of the co-respondents.

During that conference presided over by Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo, Justice Leonen opined that I would only be given the chance to give an opening statement, but would not be subjected to interpellation by the justices. He was concerned about the fact that I would dwell on the political aspects of the issue, being a political scientist, and not on the legal and constitutional aspects.

This is why I was aghast when during the oral arguments, his line of questioning to Poe’s counsel began on what I considered as not a legal but what we call in identity political theory as a “personal is political” question. He linked his query about Senator Poe’s status as a foundling to his personal experience of growing up in an orphan-like environment, and hence he could relate to Senator Poe. By asserting that it was not the choice of Senator Poe to become a foundling, he sounded like a political activist espousing an advocacy.

And I thought I was the political scientist who would anchor my arguments on political premises.

And now, Justice Marvic Leonen has once again espoused his political activism on his lone dissent on the declaration of martial law in Mindanao. Reading his 92-page opinion, the longest among the justices, and even longer by 10 pages than the ponencia written by Justice Mariano del Castillo, gave me the feeling of being an academic reading a graduate student thesis.

His dissent was dominated by theoretical premises that were not even supported by contemporary theorizing on political violence.

The main contention of Justice Leonen in his 92-page prose is his claim that what happened in Mindanao is not a rebellion but simply terrorism, and hence would not warrant the declaration of martial law. He practically made the two categories of political violence as beyond articulation, and like oil to water, could never mix.

I did not question Justice Leonen when during the Poe case he rendered my being a political scientist as a positionality that should not be allowed to venture into matters of law.

But on this particular instance regarding the martial law petitions, for which he was the lone dissenter, I would like to take this opportunity to return the favor and remind Justice Leonen that he should limit the act of theorizing about political violence to political scientists.

His position that rebellion and terrorism are mutually exclusive, and could never mix, is belied by what is happening in Syria and Iraq, where a murderous Daesh, a terrorist group par excellence and unrivalled in its atrocity, has also become the main antagonist in a rebellion that spanned two countries, and is threatening to be exported to other regions in the world, including the Philippines.

He should be reminded that while the ASG and Maute group started as criminal elements, whose brand of terrorism was the criminal type, they have evolved into becoming involved in the global rebellion that the Daesh has envisioned, and thus has turned their terrorism into the political type.

Justice Leonen gives much credence to the line of argument by the petitioners that what happened in Mindanao was not a rebellion, but simply a battle between criminal elements resisting arrest, and the forces of the State. He did not factor in the existence, as shown by video-documented evidence, of a plan to occupy Marawi which was only preempted by the gun battles precipitated by the attempted arrests. He also did not take judicial notice of the existence of unlimited supply of food and ammunition, and the well-placed positioning of the terrorist rebels in key areas, which validate the fact that there was indeed a plan to occupy Marawi.

Justice Leonen also made an audacious claim that strayed into the domains of cultural and political anthropology and sociology, and even psychology, when he claimed with certainty that Salafi jihadism will never take root in Marawi, or among the Muslims in Mindanao.

Justice Leonen has no academic preparation in political science, anthropology, sociology or psychology. His undergraduate degree is in economics.

He may have been exposed to the cultural dimensions of Mindanao, particularly in the Muslim-dominated areas when he became part of the process that led to the crafting of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. However, this does not give him the expertise to ascertain a definitive claim about the compatibility and acceptability of a particular ideology, and its possibility to thrive among the people of Mindanao.

The problem with Justice Marvic Leonen is that his judicial activism is not confined to the legal aspects of the issue, but would like to even encroach into paradigm shifts, theoretical issues and knowledge claims in the social sciences. This is the kind of knowledge which could have been provided by expert witnesses acting as amici curiae, and not by Justice Leonen.

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