MANILA – Supreme Court Associate Justice Noel Tijam on Tuesday noted the “undue haste” committed by the camp of detained Senator Leila de Lima in going straight to the high court to seek relief.
“The presumption of innocence is still in her favor because no trial has been conducted and the court has not yet proven her guilt beyond reasonable doubt,” Tijam, an appointee of President Rodrigo Duterte, told former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, De Lima’s legal counsel and lead oralist.
“But I have some grave concern about the undue haste you came to this court compelling us to make a pronouncement on the issue of jurisdiction.”
De Lima’s camp has asked the high court to order the dismissal of the charges against the senator on grounds that the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC) has no jurisdiction over her cases, and that the Department of Justice and the Office of the Solicitor General have conflicting views on which specific case should be filed against her.
Hilbay, asserted that the court erred in ordering De Lima’s arrest without first resolving their motion to quash.
He said, De Lima should be released from detention since her constitutional rights are being violated because of the supposed defects in the charges against her.
In assailing the jurisdiction of the Muntinlupa RTC over De Lima's case, Hilbay argued that De Lima’s position as secretary of justice, her salary grade, and the allegation that she used her position to supposedly receive money from drug convicts render her case under the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman and Sandiganbayan.
DE LIMA CASE 'UNIQUE'
Tijam shared the concern by some of his fellow justices with respect to the possible impact a favorable ruling for De Lima may bring on the administration of justice.
Tijam said if the high court will rule in favor of De Lima, many other politicians facing criminal charges might seek the same relief from the high court.
“There are about 21 justices of Sandiganbayan or more. Should this court grant the petition and declares henceforth that all drug offenses committed by a public official with salary grade 27 and above, you would expect of course many cases would be transferred to Sandiganbayan,” Tijam said.
Hilbay said this is not necessarily the case since the Sandiganbayan law qualifies that the anti-graft court can only accept a criminal case if the crime allegedly committed by a public official was in relation to his office.
Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr. also noted that an SC decision favoring De Lima would have "far-reaching consequence" on the nearly 300,000 criminal cases pending before the courts.
Velasco explained that at present, there are 84,908 criminal cases involving drug-related offenses, and another 204,000 cases involving other criminal offenses.
"If we allow the procedure that you are asking us to rule on right now and we sustain it, then all the accused in all these close to 300,000 cases can go directly to SC and ask us to either suspend implementation of warrant of arrest or first rule on the motion to quash," Velasco told Hilbay.
Hilbay said the scenario being pictured by Velasco will not happen since De Lima's case, in his view, is "unique."
"I'm not aware that these hundreds of thousands of cases involved situations where the DOJ didn’t have jurisdiction, the RTC didn’t have jurisdiction, and the DOJ and OSG have differing theories about the case," Hilbay said.
"There’s no way we would be opening the floodgates given the unique substantive posture of the case."
Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza asked Hilbay to provide the court with figures and records of pending cases involving public officials so the court will be guided in its decision-making.
Jardeleza said, the records will help the justices determine if a favorable ruling on De Lima will “open the floodgates” to innumerable motions which could affect the proper administration of justice.
Earlier in the hearing, Associate Justice Samuel Martires, another Duterte appointee, asked Hilbay whether the court should give the senator’s petition more consideration because of her stature.
“You keep using that word, ‘transcendental importance,’ ‘red flags’. Are the rights of a senator superior to the rights of an ordinary citizen?” Martires asked Hilbay.
To this, Hilbay replied: “We are saying exactly the opposite. We are not saying the petitioner is entitled to the relief we are asking from this court. We are asking for the relief because the actions of the government with respect to the petitioner. Regardless of who it was, I would imagine that person would be entitled to the same relief.”
“It wouldn’t matter to me whether it is Leila de Lima or Pepe and Pilar. By logic and by justice, it would be falling squarely within the recognized exceptions of this honorable court, which is why we say it is matter of transcendental importance.”
Tijam also suggested that De Lima’s camp may have violated the principle prohibiting the practice of forum shopping and bypassing of lower courts when the senator went straight to the high court despite her pending motions before the lower courts.
“Do you personally believe there is no forum shopping? The RTC judge has not resolved yet the pending motions before them,” Tijam told Hilbay.
“The petitions filed before the Court of Appeals, although they denied the issuance of the TRO, have not yet been resolved on the merits. Why should we not apply the rules on forum shopping?”
Hilbay said the senator went straight to the SC out of "deep frustration" over the developments in the lower courts. He said, the conditions present in De Lima’s case can be considered as exceptions to the principles forbidding forum shopping and bypassing of lower courts.
Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, meanwhile, asked De Lima's camp to come up with reasons which will justify its supposed violation of the principle of hierarchy of courts.