Oct 28, 2020 @ 8:09

Leonen calls for ‘secular standards’ in morality cases, thinks lawyer should not be disbarred for having affair

Associate Justice Marvic Leonen believes that lawyers who have extramarital affairs should only be suspended instead of being disbarred and that the Supreme Court (SC) should apply a “clear, objective and secular standard” in cases of gross immorality.

Dissenting in the majority decision to disbar Manolo Zerna (who was killed in front of his mistress in 2012), Leonen said the SC should “avoid imposing arbitrary standards of morality as benchmarks for the legal profession.”

In his 4-page opinion, Leonen expressed a desire to avoid the “risk of unduly intruding into intimate relationships of couples, which are beyond this Court’s powers.”

He proposed that for an act to constitute gross immorality that warrants disbarment, it “must be of such extent as to constitute a criminal offense” or it “must be so corrupt as to be reprehensible to a high degree.”

He pointed out that an administrative case against a lawyer “is primarily a case that involves the protection of the public good,” and not a private suit that vindicates private rights like that of a jilted spouse.

Leonen said he would have only found Zerna administratively liable for violation of Canon 7, Rule 7.03 of the Code of Professional Responsibility (CPR), which requires lawyers to uphold the integrity and dignity of the legal profession and refrain from behaving in a scandalous manner in their public or private lives.

“However disagreeable his conduct may be, respondents’ actions do not constitute an illegal act for which he can be adjudged as grossly immoral… The question in an administrative case for gross immorality is not respondent’s guilt for committing a crime for which he must suffer a criminal penalty, but whether his acts are tantamount to this crime so as to strip him of his license to practice law. I find that they are not,” he said.

The case arose from a complaint filed by Zerna’s wife Nena Ybañez Zerna in 2010.

The spouses got married in 1990. Nena alleged that after Zerna took his oath as a member of the Bar in 1999, he stopped giving financial support to their three children and started having illicit affairs with many women.

Nena said she discovered in September 1999 that Zerna had a short-lived affair with a balikbayan named Grace. In December 1999, she learned about his relationship with a certain Judelyn and went to her apartment, only to have Zerna himself open the door.

In March 2000, Zerna supposedly mauled Nena after she confronted him about Judelyn’s purported letter. After she left him, she found out she carried on an affair with Evelyn Martinez.

Zerna claimed in his comment that his marriage to Nena was void ab initio for lack of a valid marriage license, as she forged his signature and obtained it without his personal appearance. He said he did not go to court for their children’s sake.

He denied the allegation that he failed to give financial support. He even accused Nena of never supporting him financially and emotionally as a dutiful wife should.

He also described Evelyn as “just a close family friend,” and said Grace was a prospective client and Judelyn was “just a friend.”

However, the SC majority said Zerna’s affairs were established by email messages and photographs, as well as witness affidavits.

It added that Zerna’s defense was untenable because Article 40 of the Family Code required a final judgment before the absoluty nullity of a previous marriage may be invoked for the purpose of remarriage.

Inquirer.net and Dumaguete Metro Post reported on August 5, 2012 that Zerna, who was thinking of running for city councilor, was shot five times by an unidentified gunman as he, Evelyn and their son arrived at their house.

The SC was aware of Zerna’s reported death in 2012, but said the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) did not officially receive any information about it as recently as 2019. The IBP, it may be noted, recommended that Zerna be held liable for the affair on September 28, 2013.

This was why the Office of the Bar Confidant (OBC) recommended that the SC still resolve Zerna’s administrative case, which arose from a complaint filed by his wife Nena Ybañez Zerna in 2010.

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