MANILA - Senator Leila de Lima has the propensity to disregard court processes, Solicitor General Jose Calida told the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
With a drug-related case pending before a trial court against her, the solicitor general said the former justice secretary continues to insist that she is spared from the rules that govern all accused individuals regardless of their stature in society.
This would sum up the arguments of the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), as it defended before the Supreme Court (SC) the position of the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC) and Philippine National Police (PNP) during Tuesday’s continuation of oral arguments into De Lima’s petition assailing her arrest over the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) illegal drug trade.
Calida argued that De Lima is guilty of forum shopping for raising one and the same issue before the RTC and SC: the regularity of her arrest despite a pending motion to quash before the trial court on grounds of jurisdiction, and in violation of the hierarchy of courts for going straight to the high court despite existing remedies before the RTC and subsequently the Court of Appeals (CA).
“What is so special about this Senator that her lawyers are practically asking this court (SC) to waive its rules so that the court can rule on an incident stil pending before respondent Judge Juanita Guerrero? None,” Calida said.
“Lest his honorable court (SC) has forgotten, De Lima once aspired to become Chief Justice of this honorable court. She defied your authority by refusing to comply with a temporary restraining order (TRO) allowing former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to travel abroad for medical treatment. She was so suffused with arrogance,” he added.
Calida stressed that Muntinlupa RTC Executive Judge and Branch 204 Branch Judge Guerrero did not err nor commit grave abuse of discretion in issuing the arrest warrant since nowhere is it in the Rules of Court and Rules on Criminal Procedure that a motion to quash must first be resolved before issuing an arrest warrant to gain physical jurisdiction of the accused and place him or her in custody.
For purposes of determining whether probable cause exists to cause the issuance of a warrant of arrest for an accused, Calida said under the rules, the judge merely determines the probability of the guilt of the accused and place him or her under custody of the state “so as not to frustrate the ends of justice.”
Calida argued that Guerrero must be allowed to rule on De Lima’s motion to quash, as what the rules dictate, instead of the SC doing the same on behalf of the trial court which may be construed as shortcutting the process and tantamount to granting special treatment to De Lima. Calida feared ruling favorably for De Lima will open the floodgates to other accused similarly challenging findings of probably cause and arrest warrants against them to file similar pleas with the SC.
HIERARCHY OF COURTS
Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco, Jr., the justice-in-charge of De Lima’s petition, agreed with the OSG that there must be strict adherence to the hierarchy of courts, stressing that the same rule must apply to all individuals indicted before the courts.
“We (SC and judiciary) are quite serious on following the rule of hierarchy of courts. I stated during the last oral arguments that for the year 2016 alone, 204,000 criminal cases were filed before the RTCs only. You can just imagine if we allow and entertain this petition now then they (accused in these cases) will use this case… the SC will be deluged with a lot of petitions under rule 65 to question the order of the trial courts to issue warrants of arrest,” Velasco said.
The magistrate further said De Lima’s case is no different from the case of two other former senators, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla, who are also incarcerated due to their indictment for plunder. Estrada and Revilla both questioned their arrest and detention and the finding of probable cause by the Sandiganbayan on plunder charges over their alleged involvement in the “pork barrel” scam.
Velasco explained that apart from hierarchy of courts, De Lima even had the remedy to file a motion for reconsideration and petition for review to challenge the Department of Justice (DOJ) resolution that led to her indictment.
“If we will now rule on lack of jurisdiction [on the part of the RTC] over the subject matter of the offense, what part of the rule will be disregarded? There’s a pending motion to quash before RTC Muntinlupa and the judge is supposed to decide the motion,” Velasco said.
“These two tracks — the administrative track going to the Secretary of Justice [on petition for review] and later to the CA and SC — and with respect to the procedure allowed to the accused pending before the RTC, all these things will be disregarded by this court if we decide that the RTC has no jurisdiction; the SC will now be disregarding the rules that lay down the procedures, disregarding also possibly the rights of all the people of the Philippines and we will be ruling directly in disregard of all these rules on a petition filed by the accused,” he added.
The OSG stressed that De Lima failed to show “exceptional and compelling” circumstances to invoke an exception to the rule.
“De Lima, no matter her stature, is not exempt from the principle of hierarchy of courts. Under this principle, direct recourse to this honorable court is improper because it is the court of last resort, Calida told the high court.
The OSG also argued that for "falsifying" the notarization and verification of her petition by claiming that she signed the same and took her oath before Notary Public Maria Cecile Trevalles-Cabalo on February 24, 2017 when this never took place, Calida said De Lima's petition must be dismissed outright by the high court.
RTC JURISDICTION OVER DRUG CASES
Contrary to De Lima’s claim that the Sandiganbayan, not the RTC, has jurisdiction over her case since she was indicted for acts allegedly committed while she was still Justice Secretary with salary grade of 31, the OSG argued that under Section 90, Article 11 of Republic Act (RA) No. 9165, also known as the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act, RTCs have the “exclusive” jurisdiction to try and hear drug cases regardless of whether the accused is a public official or not.
He also stressed that the SC issued Administrative Matter (AM) No. 5-9-03-SC which state that “[p]ursuant to Section 90 of RA 9165, only courts designated by this court (SC) as special courts for drug cases can take cognizance of violations of RA 9165.”
The OSG further said that even prior to the passage of RA 9165, the SC issued AM No. 00-8-01-SC which designates certain branches of RTCs as special drugs courts.
“Under this circular, this honorable court designated RTCs as the only drugs courts, to the exclusion of the Sandiganbayan. In fact, the Sandiganbayan has not tried any drug case since its creation,” Calida said.
The OSG was able to obtain a certification from the Sandiganbayan stating that “it has not heard and tried” a single drug case since its establishment.
DRUG OFFENSE NOT COMMITTED IN RELATION TO OFFICE
The OSG also debunked De Lima’s claim that the offense raised against her was “in relation to her office” as then Justice Secretary and cognizable by the Sandiganbayan.
Calida said that her being Justice Secretary was “not a constituent element” of the crime charged, and, instead, the allegation in the case against her is for “taking advantage of her position” which is an aggravating circumstance.
This was also Calida’s answer to a series of questions by Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who said that the actions allegedly committed by De Lima which reportedly led NBP inmates to trade illegal drugs may not have been possible had she not been Justice Secretary.
“In all the testimonies [of NBP inmate-witnesses] there was nothing that Secretary De Lima could have authorized had she not been Secretary of Justice… are you now saying that this is immaterial to the Sandiganbayan’s jurisdiction?” Sereno asked.
To which Calida replied, “I would say that it is irrelevant to the drug offense punished by Section 26 b (conspiracy to commit drug trading) because, first of all, the Secretary of Justice is not a constituent element of the crime charged.”
"The allegation is taking advantage of her position or taking advantage as Secretary of Justice; this is just an aggravating circumstance, it does not qualify the offense,” Calida added.
The offense is not exclusive to public officials and may be committed by anyone, Calida stressed.
Calida was interpellated for more than four hours by the magistrates.
De Lima and the OSG were given twenty days to submit their respective memoranda, after which the case will be deemed submitted for resolution.