Sereno: De Lima’s case ‘clearly falls within Sandiganbayan’s jurisdiction’

Jee Y. Geronimo
Sereno: De Lima’s case ‘clearly falls within Sandiganbayan’s jurisdiction’
'The drug not have the necessary machinery, expertise, or competence that the Sandiganbayan has to resolve the accusations against petitioner,' says Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno in her dissenting opinion

MANILA, Philippines – Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno insisted that only the anti-graft Sandiganbayan, and not drug courts, has the “necessary machinery, expertise, or competence” to resolve the accusations against Senator Leila de Lima.

With a vote of 9-6, the Supreme Court en banc on Tuesday, October 10, junked the petition of De Lima and ruled that it is the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC) and not the Sandiganbayan, that has jurisdiction over the drug trade cases filed against her.

But in her 52-page dissenting opinion, Sereno said De Lima’s case “clearly falls within the Sandiganbayan’s jurisdiction” as it involves a senator with a salary above Grade 27 who is being charged with a drug offense “that was clearly described as committed in relation to her office as Secretary of Justice.”

“The drug courts specified in [Republic Act] 9165 do not have the necessary machinery, expertise, or competence that the Sandiganbayan has to resolve the accusations against petitioner,” Sereno explained.

“Therefore, its structural framework further affirms the conclusion that as between a single-judge trial court and a collegiate Sandiganbayan, the latter retains original and exclusive jurisdiction over high-ranking officials accused of committing drug offenses in relation to their office,” she said.

She said salient points of the Sandiganbayan’s structural framework would affirm its jurisdiction over De Lima’s drug case:

  1. There is a marked focus on high-ranking officials
  2. Its jurisdiction covers offenses or felonies involving substantial damage to the government or public service
  3. These offenses or felonies involve those that are committed in relation to public office

For Sereno, regardless of how the court classifies the crime – whether a crime of bribery or illegal drug trading – there is only one conclusion: the alleged crime could not have been committed if not for De Lima’s position as justice secretary.

She said the anti-graft court contemplates not only an offense against the people, as in any ordinary crime, but an offense against the people “committed precisely by their very defenders or representatives.”

“It involves an additional dimension – abuse of power – considered over and above all the other elements of the offense or felony committed,” she added.

Thus, more than the salary level, Sereno said the focus of the Sandiganbayan’s jurisdiction and expertise is on the nature of the position held by the public officer.

Government employees with Salary Grade 27 and higher “are recognized as holding more concentrated amounts of power that enable them to commit crimes in a manner that lower-ranked public officers cannot,” she further explained.

Salary Grade 27, she said, is also deemed by Congress as the “proper demarcation distinguishing the ‘big fish’ from the ‘small fry.'”

“It is the intention of Congress to focus the expertise of the Sandiganbayan not only on high-ranking public officials but also on high-profile crimes committed in relation to public office,” she added.

Sereno said placing drug offenses committed by high-ranking public officials within the jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan is in consonance with the fundamental principle that the court must interpret criminal rules in favor of the accused.

She said it is more favorable not just for De Lima but even for similar public officials accused of drug offenses committed in relation to their office to be placed within the Sandiganbayan’s jurisdiction:

  • First, the appeal route is shorter at the Sandiganbayan, since review of convictions is generally elevated to the SC. In contrast, Sereno said convictions by trial courts still undergo intermediate review before ultimately reaching the SC, “if at all.” 

  • Second, the direct elevation of a petition to the SC means the “application of a tighter standard” in the trial of the case, since the 3 justices of a Sandiganbayan division – instead of a single RTC judge – is “naturally…expected to exert keener judiciousness and to apply broader circumspection in trying and deciding such cases.”

War on drugs

Sereno was among the 6 justices who voted in favor of De Lima, together with Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, and Associate Justices Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Francis Jardeleza, Marvic Leonen, and Benjamin Caguioa.

In her dissenting opinion, the Chief Justice said the court order that found probable cause for the issuance of a warrant of arrest against De Lima, as well as the warrant of arrest itself, should be annulled and set aside.

Sereno asserted that De Lima’s petition has clearly established enough basis for the SC to grant relief:

  1. There is substantial compliance with respect to the rule on the verification and certification against forum shopping.
  2. The petition presents exceptions to the doctrine of hierarchy of courts. 
  3. The petition is not entirely premature. 
  4. Forum shopping was not willful and deliberate.

While De Lima “failed to observe the hierarchy of courts,” Sereno said the senator’s petition presented several exceptions which justifies the direct resort to the SC.

“The issue involved is one of transcendental importance. There is an urgent necessity to resolve the question of whether it is the DOJ or the Ombudsman that should investigate offenses defined and penalized under RA 9165 in view of the government’s declared platform to fight illegal drugs,” she explained.

Sereno said the Duterte administration’s war against illegal drugs “predictably led to a spike in drug-related cases brought before the courts involving public officers.”

What’s more, Sereno said the President has already identified a large number of public officials allegedly involved in the drug trade. The “broader interest of justice,” she said, demands the resolution of the issue on jurisdiction. 

“The difficulties in reading the various statutes in light of the 84,908 pending drug-related cases that are foreseen to sharply increase even more in the near future demands a clarification of the parameter of jurisdiction that will guide the [Department of Justice], the Ombudsman, the Sandiganbayan, and the lower courts in addressing these cases,” she added.

Sereno also believes that between the instant petition for certiorari and the motion to quash filed before the RTC, it is the latter that should be disregarded because the former is the “appropriate vehicle” to settle whether it is the RTC or the Sandiganbayan that has the jurisdiction over De Lima’s case.

In the end, it was De Lima’s petition that was dismissed after 9 justices voted against her: Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr, Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Mariano Del Castillo, Samuel Martires, Noel Tijam, Andres Reyes, and Alexander Gesmundo. –

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Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.