The Supreme Court (SC) has dismissed the Writ of Habeas Data filed against President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 by detained Senator Leila de Lima in an effort to challenge the Chief Executive’s immunity from suit while serving his six-year term.
A Writ of Habeas Data is a legal remedy available to any person whose right to privacy in life, liberty or security is violated or threatened by an unlawful act or omission of a public official or employee, or of a private individual or entity engaged in the gathering, collecting or storing of data or information.
In a resolution penned by the now retired Chief Justice Lucas P. Bersamin, the SC ruled to dismiss the petition “on the ground that respondent Rodrigo Roa Duterte, as the incumbent President, is immune from suit during his incumbency.”
It was promulgated on 15 October 2019 but a copy was made public by the SC’s Public Information Office only on Wednesday.
“Indeed, the Constitution provides remedies for violations committed by the Chief Executive except an ordinary suit before the courts,” the ruling said.
“The Chief Executive must first be allowed to end his tenure (not his term) either through resignation or removal by impeachment.”
“Being a member of Congress, the petitioner (De Lima) is well aware of this, and she cannot sincerely claim that she is bereft of any remedy.”
De Lima in her 2016 petition, wanted the SC to stop the President’s “crude personal attacks” against her and the “wrongful collection and publication” of her alleged private affairs and activities “that are outside of the realm of legitimate public concern.”
She said the President’s remarks against her “constitute psychological violence prohibited by Republic Act 9710 or the Magna Carta of Women” and a violation of the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.
De Lima was tagged by the President as responsible for the illegal drugs trade at the New Bilibid Prisons during her term as justice secretary, and that she benefitted from it.
She was also accused of entering into an illicit affair with her driver-bodyguard Ronnie Dayan, who allegedly acted as her bagman.
The allegations were repeatedly denied by the senator, although she had admitted to her relationship with Dayan in a television interview.
In 2017, De Lima was arrested and detained on three criminal charges related to illegal the drugs trade. The criminal cases are still pending before the three branches of the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial court.
Government lawyers, led by Solicitor General Jose C. Calida, asked the SC to dismiss De Lima’s petition.
Calida told the SC that the President’s immunity from suit “is a well-entrenched doctrine under our jurisdiction and has long been recognized not only in jurisprudence, but also in the Constitution which is the ‘supreme law of the land.’”
“The rationale for presidential immunity is that the President must be free from any hindrance or distraction in the exercise of his duties and functions,” he said.
In resolving the petition, the only issue tackled by the SC was whether an incumbent President can be hailed to court even for the limited purpose of a petition for a Writ of Habeas Data.
“The petition must be dismissed even without the President invoking the privilege of immunity from suit,” the SC ruled.
The SC said: “While the concept of immunity from suit originated elsewhere, the ratification of the 1981 constitutional amendments and the 1987 Constitution made our version of presidential immunity unique.
“Section 15, Article VII of the 1973 Constitution, as amended, provided for immunity at two distinct points in time: the first sentence of the provision related to immunity during the tenure of the President, and the second provided for immunity thereafter.”