The Supreme Court (SC) has dismissed a petition to cite for indirect contempt filed by lawyer Herminio Harry Roque Jr. against former Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang (retired), former Camp Aguinaldo Camp Commander Brig. Gen. Arthur Ang (retired) and former AFP Public Affairs Office chief Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc.
Roque lodged the case against the three military officials, who stopped the family of transgender Jennifer Laude, who was killed by a US Marine–Private Joseph Scott Pemberton–from barging into Camp Aguinaldo, the AFP’s general headquarters in Quezon City.
In a 26-page decision penned by Justice Marvic Leonen, promulgated on February 15, 2017, the High Court’s 2nd Division ruled that citing the respondent AFP officials in contempt, as prayed for by Roque, “would be an unreasonable exercise of this court’s contempt power.”
“When a lawyer chooses to conduct his cases in as public a manner as in this case, it would be an abuse of our contempt power to stifle the subject of his attention. A lawyer who uses the public fora as his battleground cannot expect to be protected from public scrutiny.”
On October 29, 2014, the respondent AFP officials released a press statement that they were considering filing disbarment proceedings against Roque after the latter and his clients, the family of the slain Laude, together with German citizen Marc Sueselbeck forced their way inside the premises of Camp Aguinaldo to demand to see the suspect Pemberton.
The AFP said Roque fomented disorder by inciting his clients to scale the perimeter fence to see the US Marine.
After a disbarment complaint against him was filed on November 4, 2014, Roque filed a petition to cite the respondents for indirect contempt, arguing that their acts put to question his professional and personal reputation and violated Section 18, Rule 139-B of the Rules of Court, which provides that “proceedings against attorneys shall be private and confidential.”
The SC said while the general rule on confidentiality is that publicly disclosing disbarment proceedings may be punished with contempt so as to prevent the use of disbarment proceedings as a tool to damage a lawyer’s reputation in the public sphere, such confidentiality rule is not absolute.
“The confidentiality rule requires only that ‘proceedings against attorneys’ be kept private and confidential… However, the rule does not extend so far that it covers the mere existence or pendency of disciplinary actions,” it added.
According to the High Court, “[A] lawyer who regularly seeks attention and readily welcomes, if not invites, media coverage, cannot expect to be totally sheltered from public interest himself.”
Also, the SC ruled that the press statement of the respondents regarding the disbarment complaint against Roque did not, in itself, violate the confidentiality rule given that it did not discuss the disbarment complaint itself nor did it divulge acts or character traits on the part of Roque that would have damaged his personal and professional reputation.
It said it was unlikely that Roque’s reputation could be further damaged by a factual report that a complaint had been actually filed, adding that Roque himself made it even more public by filing the instant case against the entire AFP instead of targeting only the individuals who participated in the disclosure.