SC reiterates Duterte's immunity from suit during his term of office

Published July 13, 2021, 11:38 AM

by Rey Panaligan 

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court (SC) has reminded litigants and their lawyers that President Duterte, as incumbent President of the country, cannot be sued in any proceeding during his term of office.

“With executive power solely vested in the President of the Philippines, he (President Duterte) should be freed from any distraction that would imperil the performance of his duties as mandated by the Constitution,” the SC said.

“Thus, presidential immunity from suit shields President Duterte from facing any complaint or petition during his tenure,” it said.

But the SC said that “while he remains accountable to the people, the only proceeding for which he may be involved in litigation during his term of office is an impeachment proceeding….”

The settled rule on the immunity from suit of an incumbent President was reiterated in a resolution that dismissed the petition which sought to stop the government’s procurement and use of Sinovac, a Chinese manufactured vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

In dismissing the petition, the SC – in a unanimous full court resolution written by Associate Justice Jhosep Y. Lopez — ruled that Republic Act No. 11494, the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, bestowed the President the discretion on how to address the pandemic brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The SC said that RA 11494 mandated the President to exercise powers that are necessary and proper to undertake and implement COVID-19 response and recovery interventions.

In his petition, former Mayor Pedrito M. Nepomuceno included President Duterte as respondent.

Before tackling the issues raised in the petition, the SC settled first the inclusion of Duterte as respondent. “President Rodrigo Duterte must be dropped as a respondent,” it said.

It pointed out: “Settled is the rule that the President of the Republic of the Philippines cannot be sued during his/her tenure. This immunity from suit applies to President Duterte regardless of the nature of the suit filed against him for as long as he sits as the President of the Republic of the Philippines.”

It cited the 2019 case filed by Sen. Leila De Lima who challenged Duterte’s immunity from suit in her petition for issuance of a Writ of Habeas Data.

De Lima claimed that Duterte’s actions and statements against her were unlawful or made outside of his official conduct.

The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), the government’s law firm, countered that the immunity from suit of a sitting President is absolute and it extends to all suits.

The SC resolved De Lima’s petition with a declaration that “presidential immunity applies regardless of the nature of the suit brought against an incumbent President.”

It also cited several other cases that settled the incumbent President’s immunity from suit during his or her tenure.

“The rationale for the grant to the President of the privilege of immunity from suit is to assure the exercise of Presidential duties and functions free from any hindrance of distraction, considering that being the Chief Executive of the Government is a job that, aside from requiring all of the office-holder’s time, also demands undivided attention,” it said.

“At any rate, if this Court were to first require the President to respond to each and every complaint brought against him, and then to avail himself of presidential immunity on a case to case basis, then the rationale for the privilege — protecting the President from harassment, hindrance or distraction in the discharge of his duties — would very well be defeated. It takes little imagination to foresee the possibility of the President being deluged with lawsuits, baseless or otherwise, should the President still need to invoke his immunity personally before a court may dismiss the case against him,” it added.