CJ Sereno keen to resolve jurisdiction issues in De Lima case

Lian Buan

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CJ Sereno keen to resolve jurisdiction issues in De Lima case
Sereno says that it's possible for the SC to grant partial relief to De Lima without saying that the RTC judge committed grave abuse of authority

MANILA, Philippines – Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno is keen on deciding the issue of jurisdiction over drug cases, even as the Supreme Court is set to rule on the petition of detained Senator Leila de Lima, who faces drug charges.

Citing the Duterte administration’s pronouncements that it will go after more officials involved in illegal drugs, Sereno said the timing is right to finally provide a clear guideline on jurisdiction. (READ: EXPLAINER: Issues in jurisdiction in De Lima cases)

“Because the campaign against illegal drugs will be taking on a high gear, we have the opportunity to provide stability now to the system by ruling on the matter of jurisdiction,” Sereno said on Tuesday, March 28 during the third and final day of oral arguments on De Lima’s petitions.

Solicitor General Jose Calida, who argued for respondent trial court judge Juanita Guerrero, called on the SC to dismiss the petition on technicalities.

Calida’s “knock-out punch” was his discovery that the notarization on De Lima’s affidavit was falsified, which he said, renders the entire petition defective. Calida also reiterated that De Lima committted forum shopping and violated the hierarchy of courts.

While the Chief Justice acknowledged that Calida’s arguments were valid, she said it was equally important to resolve the jurisdiction issues once and for all “not for the sake of De Lima, but for the sake of all.”

Calida offered his solution to the problem: “If it’s drug offense, then it should be with the Regional Trial Court (RTC), if it’s corruption, then it’s the Sandiganbayan.”

Sandiganbayan and RTC

On the second day of the oral arguments last March 21, Associate Justice Noel Tijam said the Sandiganbayan might drown in cases if the SC rules in favor of De Lima and all similar offenses are sent the anti-graft court’s way.

Tijam noted that the anti-graft court has 21 justices only, compared to the many trial court judges who can handle drug cases.

Sereno, however, looked at the issue differently. Rather than looking at the quantitative value of the courts, she said it is more relevant to consider the qualitative value of how these courts are set up.

“We have 3 justices for every division of the Sandiganbayan, when they vote and there’s a dissent, you can even have a division of five. On the other hand, in the RTC there’s only one who will judge. This already makes a difference for the treatment so that we should not allow an arbitrary policy to be adopted by the DOJ or the Ombudsman,” Sereno said.

She added: “The Sandiganbayan’s decision is appealed immediately to this court, on the other hand, any RTC decision will have to go two more appellate levels. That is already a major consideration.”

Sereno said it is possible for the SC to partially grant relief to De Lima without having to say that Guerrero committed grave abuse of authority when she had De Lima arrested even when there was a motion to quash pending before her own court.

Selective justice?

Calida had repeatedly asked the SC justices to just let Guerrero finish her task and rule on the motion to quash, which will also answer questions on jurisdiction.

Sereno insisted that it is the right time for the High Court to step in and provide a ruling.

“I really am worried whether the DOJ or the Ombudsman will be properly guided in this instance,” Sereno said, referring to the two prosecutorial bodies that have the responsibility of filing cases before the courts.

Calida pushed some more and reminded Sereno why she dissented in the SC decision granting bail to former senator Juan Ponce Enrile, which was to shield the High Court from accusations of being selective.

Calida even cited the dissenting opinion of Associate Justice Marvic Leonen in the Enrile case: “It amounts to selective justice, it is meant to apply in a blanket manner for all other detainees, it will weaken administration of justice because judicial standards are not clear. That’s it.”

Sereno agreed with Calida and said: “The SC, if it grants partially or fully the petition of De Lima, must not give the impression that it was just because she’s a senator.”

Calida and De Lima’s camp are ordered to submit their memoranda after 20 days, after which the case will be submitted for decision. – Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.