A profile of Quezon City Branch 221 Presiding Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes and her close to 10-year journey on top of one of the most celebrated cases in Philippine history
It was a conflict between two erstwhile allies-turned-bitter-rivals. A clash of giant political clans in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao—each powerful in their own sphere.
Prior to the bloody November 23, 2009 Maguindanao massacre, dubbed as the single deadliest attack on journalists worldwide, and one of the bloodiest massacres in Philippine history, the Ampatuans ruled the province of Maguindanao for decades, while the Mangudadatus were lords of Sultan Kudarat.
The clans are said to even be related by blood—through Shariff Kabunsuan, ancestor of the Mangudadatus, and Shariff Saydona Mustapha, ancestor of the Ampatuans.
Kabunsuan was an Arab missionary from Johore in the 14th century, and credited for propagating Islam in Mindanao. Mustapha, an Arab missionary from Mecca, was a paternal uncle of Kabunsuan, and recorded to have helped spread Islam in the region in the mid-15th century.
The Ampatuans’ and Mangudadatus’ warrior ancestors are said to have fought side by side during the Spanish and Japanese occupations. But the clans grew further apart as they drew closer and closer to politics.
The rivalry culminated in the gruesome massacre of 58 individuals, mostly journalists and female Mangudadatu clan members, in Ampatuan town.
In Mindanao, where the barrel of the gun is said to rule, both clans had—and still have—their own following.
When the multiple murder cases reached the court in December 2009, specifically the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC), as ordered by the Supreme Court (SC) because of the complexity of the consolidated cases, the first judge to whom the case was raffled inhibited himself.
FIRST JUDGE RECUSES
On December 15, 2009, Branch 84 Presiding Judge Luisito Cortez explained the Ampatuans’ clout could reach Metro Manila, and he and his family may not be spared from any threat and attack.
Cortez already survived an ambush try during his Bulacan station, and admitted to receiving threats in handling the case involving the assassination of Abra Representative Luis Bersamin in December 2006. The primary accused in the latter case was former Abra Governor Vicente Valera. The Bersamins and Valeras, too, are high-profile political clans.
“Isang magandang karangalan makapaglingkod ka sa bayan mo (It's an honor to serve ones country), but you have to take into consideration also what is glory without family?” Cortez told reporters after declaring his inhibition.
“Maganda 'yun (That's good) [handling the Maguindanao massacre case] for a career of a trial judge on the matter. Malaking bagay 'yun (It's big). Pero siyempre (but of course), you have to take into consideration also the other factors — hindi lang yung familia ko, perhaps security rin ng lahat dito (not just my family, but the security of everyone here in court),” he added.
The day after, on December 16, the Quezon City judges had no less than then Chief Justice Reynato Puno as visitor.
“Pinulong niya (Puno) 'yung mga huwes noong panahon na 'yun at sinigurado niya na wala nang mag-inhibit, at kung kanino man mapunta 'yan (case) ay binigyan din niya ng assurance na bibigyan siya ng kaukulang proteksyon by the Supreme Court,” Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez said, looking back to that time when the chief magistrate’s visit caused the judges to commit that no more inhibitions would take place in the re-raffle.
(He met with the judges that time and made sure no one else would inhibit, and that to whoever the case will go, he gave the assurance that the Supreme Court will give protection.)
Puno was concerned about the damage further recusals may cause on public confidence in the judiciary.
At the Senate, lawyer lawmakers were already lashing at Cortez’s inhibition.
“Kaduwagan 'yan (That's cowardice). If he cannot handle it, then he has to get the hell out of that (profession),” said then-Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile.
“Huwag kang tumanggap ng puwesto kung hindi mo kaya. Mag-resign ka na lang (Don't accept a job you can't handle. Just resign),” said Sen. Richard Gordon.
The late feisty Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, herself a former trial court judge, had this to say: “I think that should be the attitude of every judge: you just have to go and discharge your duty.”
“You applied for the post or, at least, you accepted your appointment, so you have to take the good with the bad,” she added.
Puno knew the SC had to plug the crack; the nation and the international community, after all, were closely watching developments at the trial court.
“This (case) is not only a challenge, but also an opportunity to vindicate the trust of the people on our system of justice,” he told reporters that day.
ENTER JUDGE JOCELYN SOLIS-REYES
On December 17, 2009, at the height of the QC Regional Trial Court Branch 221’s staff party, Presiding Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes learned she would face the gargantuan task of handling the celebrated case.
Solis-Reyes, who was not known for any high-profile case before, did not hesitate to take on the responsibility.
“Tinanggap niya kaagad (She readily accepted). Sabi niya (she said), ‘What I can only say is that it was raffled to my sala, and I am ready to take over the case,’” said then-Philippine National Police (PNP) deputy chief for operations Jefferson Soriano, who went to the Quezon City Hall of Justice with police escorts in tow for the new Maguindanao massacre case trial judge.
Solis-Reyes would ask the 10 police escorts being offered by the PNP to leave.
“As of now, sinabi niya sa akin (she said to me), ‘General, I do not need yet any security. I think I will not need one, but if I will need one, I will call you,’” Soriano said, narrating his conversation with the judge of the hour.
Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) chief Persida Acosta describes Solis-Reyes, who was her colleague at the PAO Manila district office, as “smart,” “sweet,” “strict” and “brave.”
Solis-Reyes was with PAO for three years in the 1990s.
Acosta believes Solis-Reyes is incorruptible.
“More than one year kami nagsama… kilalang-kilala ko siya dahil siya ay isang smarteng lawyer. Sabi nga, mabait pero estrikta, 'yun ang kanyang personality. Malambing, pero kung ano 'yung tama, 'yun ang tama; kung mali, mali. Ganoon si Josie," Acosta said.
(We were together for more than a year... I knew her well because she is a smart lawyer. As they say, kind but strict, that's her personality. Sweet, but she goes with what is right; what's wrong is wrong.)
“Matapang kasi, ano 'yan eh, walang inuurungan 'yan eh. Ang personality niya, straight 'yan. Talagang...kumbaga, nakita ko na hindi siya maba-bribe ng kahit sino,” Acosta said.
(She's brave, she does not cower. She has a straight personality... I saw that she can't be bribed by anyone.)
Solis-Reyes religiously updates the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) on developments in the trial.
For example, during the last hearing of the case, last October 17, where the defense and prosecution panels appeared before her sala over primary accused Datu Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr.’s motion for a reopening of trial, Solis-Reyes directed that a copy of the proceedings be furnished Court Administrator Marquez.
“Talagang tinututukan 'yan, minomonitor ang kasong yan (by the SC). At pati na rin si judge, kung ano’ng mga concerns niya, ano’ng mga challenges that she’s confronted with, para matulungan natin… hindi naman natin sinasabi paano siya magdesisyon because we do not interfere with her judicial discretion.
(We really keep close watch, we monitor that case. And even the judge, if she has concerns, challenges she's confronted with, to help her... we're not telling her how to decide because we do not interfere with her judicial discretion.)
“Ang talagang tinututukan lang natin d'yan na maayos niyang nadidinig 'yung kaso at walang external influence na umaabot sa kanya,” Marquez said.
(What we focus on is that she will hold the trial properly and that no external influence could reach her.)
In a full-court resolution issued on June 28, 2011, the SC exempt Solis-Reyes from the raffle and assignment of cases, and designated her sala as a “special court” dedicated to the Maguindanao massacre case trial.
Solis-Reyes was accorded “sufficient time and resources to focus and concentrate on the trial proceedings of the Maguindanao massacre cases and to decide the said cases with dispatch.”
Assisting judges were designated to aid her in disposing the cases earlier assigned to her sala.
While the court administrator admits Solis-Reyes faced “many challenges” in the course of the trial, more so that the case involves over 190 accused and hundreds of witnesses, he pointed out that not once did she show any sign of faltering.
“There were many challenges in the beginning, in the middle [of trial]," Marquez said.
"Pero since nakatutok naman tayo, inaalalayan naman natin, parang wala naman siya sa aking nabanggit na ganoon. She may have felt that way but she never told me anything to that effect.”
(But since we were keeping watch, we assisted her, she did not mention any challenges. She may have felt that way but she never told me anything to that effect.]
Solis-Reyes made requests, but mostly for additional staff.
Marquez said because of the sheer volume of the case records, the judge sought additional researchers to help review documents, pleadings and transcripts of proceedings to make sure that all bases are covered in making her decision.
Not much has been heard of Solis-Reyes since she handled the Maguindanao massacre case, except for news reports on the trial itself.
She does not agree to interviews, does not make public pronouncements, and her court staff have been tight-lipped since that fateful December day when the case was re-raffled to the seemingly recluse judge.
At the October 17 hearing, Solis-Reyes was mostly quiet, giving both parties as much time to argue their positions — the Department of Justice represented by Senior Assistant City Prosecutor Arthur Velasco, and Andal Jr. represented by his new counsel, Paul Laguatan.
Solis-Reyes asked prosecution star witness and state witness Sukarno Badal, who doused Andal Jr.’s bid for a reopening of trial by denying the accused’s recantation claim, a question or two. She also directed clarificatory questions at the defense and prosecution, and ended the hearing without any fanfare or eventuality.
Former Maguindanao Governor and now Maguindanao 2nd District Representative Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, who lost his wife Genalyn, his sisters Eden and Farina, several other female relatives, and his female lawyers to the massacre, is satisfied with Solis-Reyes’ handling of the case.
“Si judge, napakamatinong tao. Maraming nagsasabi na mabagal, pero surely naman 'yung ginagawa niya,” Mangudadatu told ABS-CBN News.
(The judge is very upright. Many say [the trial] is slow, but she's doing it surely.)
Mangudadatu had sent his wife, female relatives, and female lawyers, accompanied by 32 media workers, for the proxy filing of his gubernatorial certificate of candidacy in Shariff Aguak town, thinking the rival Ampatuan clan would honor convention sparing women, children, and the elderly in violent clan wars.
They would not be seen alive again.
The Mangudadatu and media convoy was allegedly flagged down by private armed goons of the Ampatuan family and policemen. Their bodies would later be recovered from shallow graves.
Lawyer Maria Gemma Oquendo, who lost her father, Catalino, 75, and sister, Cynthia, 35, one of Mangudadatu’s lawyers, in the massacre, shares Mangudadatu’s view on Solis-Reyes.
“Although she struggles, she’s excellent kasi napakaraming akusado, napakarami ring nagrereklamo, napakaraming complainants (because there are so many accused, she gets so many complaints). So kung ico-compute mo 'yung mga araw, mabilis na ito (Maguindanao massacre case trial) kumpara sa iba (So if you compute the days, this is a fast trial compared to others).
“Sampung taon para sa 196 accused at para sa  complainants, medyo mabilis na 'yun. Ang iba, naghi-hearing once every three months, dito pwede tayo mag-hearing three times a week,” Oquendo said.
(Ten years for 196 accused and for 58 complainants, that's fast. The other cases, you get hearings once every three months, here we can have hearings three times a week.)
The private complainants, especially Mangudadatu’s camp, were not always pleased with the judge.
In August 2018, the Mangudadatus were mulling the filing of an inhibition plea after Solis-Reyes allowed former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor Zaldy Ampatuan, one of the principal accused, to attend his daughter’s wedding for “humanitarian reasons.”
Maguindanao Rep. Zajid Mangudadatu, brother of Toto Mangudadatu, quipped, “Ang katanungan natin diyan, are they human?”
(The question there is, are they human?)
On the other side of the fence, the defense showed disapproval of Solis-Reyes as early as February 2010, as it filed a motion for her recusal.
In his 23-page motion, Andal Jr. claimed the judge committed “serious misconduct in disregarding simple evidentiary rules,” “seemed enmeshed with what the prosecution wanted to prove,” and “deprived the defense once again of a means to discredit [prosecution] witness and to show that he was in fact telling a lie.”
“A judge is not only required to be impartial; he must appear to be impartial. It is the duty of the members of the bench (judges) to avoid any impression of impropriety to protect the image and integrity of the judiciary.
“A judge must preserve the trust and faith reposed in him by the parties as an impartial and objective administrator of justice. When he exhibits actions that give rise, fairly or unfairly, to perceptions of bias, such faith and confidence are eroded, and he has no choice but to inhibit himself voluntarily,” the motion stated.
Andal Jr. and his father and co-accused, former Maguindanao Governor Andal Sr., filed at least five motions for Solis-Reyes’ inhibition. She junked them all for “lack of merit.”
Andal Sr. died of a heart attack in July 2015.
ACADEMIC AND PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND
Solis-Reyes’ academic record is as modest as she is low-profile.
She finished college at the Lyceum of the Philippines, taking up journalism.
In a feature story in January 2010, The Varsitarian, the official school publication of the University of Santo Tomas (UST), her alma mater, noted that Solis-Reyes wanted to become a news anchor, but she decided to pursue law.
“My mother was only able to study law for three years. This probably motivated me to become a lawyer someday,” Solis-Reyes said in the article.
And so she enrolled at the UST Faculty of Civil Law, where she graduated in 1986. While taking up law, she worked as clerk II at the Commission on Population - Region IV.
She passed the Bar Examinations in November 1987, with a grade of 80.80 percent.
From January to October 1987, she served as clerk II at the Institute for Labor Studies, and became labor and development analyst of the same office from November 1987 up to September 1988.
She then moved to the National Labor Relations Commission in September 1988 up to August 1992 as research attorney, climbing up the ranks during her four years there.
From August 1992 to February 1995, she stayed with the PAO as public attorney II in Manila.
She later joined the Department of Justice as prosecutor I of the Olongapo City Prosecutor’s Office from March 1995 up to March 1996; prosecutor I of the Makati City Prosecutor’s Office from March 1996 to May 1998; and, prosecutor II of the Quezon City Prosecutor’s Office from February 2000 up to June 2001.
On June 7, 2001, she joined the judiciary and was designated Municipal Trial Court in Cities Angeles City Branch 1, serving as presiding judge.
She was appointed to her current post at the Quezon City RTC on December 28, 2004.
Solis-Reyes applied for vacant posts at the Court of Appeals and Sandiganbayan in 2015 and 2016, but failed in her bid. It is not clear if she became too indispensable in the Maguindanao massacre case trial that it became a liability in her hopes for a career movement.
Be that as it may, her name is already etched in history and in the annals of the legal profession.
How she rules, and how that ruling shall be taken, remains to be seen.
When news broke close to 10 years back about Solis-Reyes landing the Maguindanao massacre case, the late Senate President Aquilino Pimentel, Jr. and former Senator and now House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, both lawyers, were but two of many who expressed support and admiration.
“She’s just taken the first step to greatness,” Pimentel said.
As for Cayetano, his words were: “The best man for the job is a woman.”