Why President Bongbong Marcos Can Visit the U.S. Despite Contempt Order Against Family

The Marcoses have a standing contempt order that stems from a lawsuit for human rights violations during Marcos Sr.'s rule.
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This week, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., together with his economic team, will be meeting with world leaders and businessmen during his first U.S. visit as the country's head of state. He is set to speak before the 77th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on Tuesday, September 20. A possible meeting between Marcos and U.S. President Joe Biden is also expected to take place.

But the Marcoses and the U.S. have had a strenuous and complicated relationship in the past, to say the least, mainly due to a standing contempt order from an American court. The said order, which is worth $353 million, is effective until 2031 and includes an order that, theoretically, bars the Marcoses from entering any U.S. territory.

This stems from a 2012 U.S. Court of Appeals contempt order against Marcos Jr., his mother Imelda Marcos, and the estate of Ferdinand Marcos, Sr.

January 25, 2011.

“The judgment is entered personally against Imelda R. Marcos and Ferdinand R. Marcos. Since they served as executors of the Estate of Ferdinand E. Marcos, and their contemptuous acts were on behalf of the Estate, the Estate is in privity with them and subject to the judgment herein,” Judge Manuel Real of the District Court of Hawaii said.

What exactly happened? 

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A History of Contempt

Photo by PRESIDENTIAL MUSEUM AND LIBRARY.
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In 1991, the U.S. District Court of Hawaii issued a preliminary injunction that prevented the Marcos family from accessing their U.S. assets. The court entered into a permanent injunction in 1995.

However, the Marcos family agreed to another settlement with the late President Fidel V. Ramos and his administration in 1992, which essentially involved the family sharing their wealth with the republic. 

Marcos Jr. and the former First Lady also entered into two additional agreements in 1993. These agreements, the U.S. court noted in 1995, “delineate with more specificity how the Estate’s assets are to be divided with the Republic of the Philippines and provide that the wife and children of Ferdinand E. Marcos are to receive 25% of the Estate’s assets tax free together with the dismissal of all criminal charges against them.”

This was a supposed violation of the 1991 decision, with a judge pointing out that these may be sources of potential payment of damages to victims of Martial Law.

US Contempt Judgment on Bon...

In 1995, a group composed of roughly 10,000 Martial Law victims represented by American lawyer Robert Swift won a class action lawsuit for human rights violations against Marcos Sr. in Hawaii and were awarded a settlement of roughly $2 billion. But in 2017, the Philippine Court of Appeals junked the enforcement petition.

The 1995 judgment also said that Marcos Jr. and his mother must pay and renounce their settlements, and deposit the proceeds to the Court. They were ordered to pay a fine of $100,000 per day to get them to comply. The Marcoses appealed the decision, arguing that it was "coercive."

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Hence, in 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the contempt judgement.

“Additionally, the district court explained that the $100,000 per day amount was necessary and appropriate because Marcos’s contumacious conduct was causing direct harm to Hilao (the 10,000 class plaintiffs), including $55,000 per day from lost interest and additional losses due to Marcos’s dilatory tactics,” said the US Court of Appeals in the 2012 ruling.

Diplomatic Immunity

Photo by PRESIDENTIAL COMMUNICATIONS OPERATIONS OFFICE.

While some human rights lawyers in the U.S. argue that Marcos could still be subpoenaed, this seems unlikely, considering that even U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had previously reassured Marcos that he is welcome in the United States. “The fact is, when you’re a head of state, you have immunity in all circumstances and are welcome to the United States in your official role," she told reporters during her state visit.

Marcos Jr. is covered by diplomatic immunity. But this privilege does not extend to the rest of his family.

The 77th UNGA continues its joint human rights program with Marcos Jr. at the helm. While former President Rodrigo Duterte had a hostile relationship with the international body, Marcos seems to be more open and receptive. Resident Coordinator in the Philippines Gustavo Gonzalez had talked to Marcos about streghtening the country's commitment to human rights, as well.

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In their prior conversations in June 2022, Gonzalez claimed that Marcos mentioned the importance of "ensuring high-level accountability in terms of human rights."

He said that the new Marcos administration is ready for a successful and productive session on human rights issues at the assembly. This should cover even the alleged state-sponsored killings during Duterte's "War on Drugs" campaign.

“President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. confirmed [his] commitment. He even shared that he is conducting a number of consultations to ensure the best way of supporting the human rights agenda,” Gonzalez expressed.

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