MANILA, Philippines – On December 7, Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Efren de la Cruz had to sit as the losing chairman of the anti-graft court’s 1st Division bench, as his colleagues outvoted him to acquit former senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr of plunder.
By the end of the day, he would also learn that he did not make it to the short list for a justice position at the Supreme Court.
Months earlier, he did not make the cut as Ombudsman.
It has been a tough year for the ethics man of the Sandiganbayan, the justice who prides himself as a man with no connections, and who would always say that those chosen over him for higher positions are more competent.
The Revilla dissent
In one of the most important cases of his career, De la Cruz penned a comprehensive ruling that would have convicted Revilla. His ruling was later relegated to a dissent.
In the Sandiganbayan, divisions of 3 members have to arrive at a unanimous vote in order to promulgate a decision. But De la Cruz failed to get the agreement of his co-members, Justices Geraldine Faith Econg and Edgardo Caldona. Under the rules, they had to bring in two special members, Justices Ma Theresa Dolores Gomez Estoesta and Georgina Hidalgo.
On December 5, two days before the promulgation of the verdict, De la Cruz went on leave for his public interview for a justice position at the High Court. At this point, it was already apparent to him that he had lost in the special division of 5.
The Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) did not discuss the Revilla case during the public interview, but Judge Toribio Ilao asked De la Cruz: What would make you sleep at night?
“We convict and we acquit. Even though we know that the accused is a notorious person, if the evidence does not warrant a conviction, we acquit, your honor… We always base on the evidence presented by the parties and facts of the case, that’s why even though I’ll be the minority, for as long as I adhere to my principles, I will do it,” said De la Cruz.
In his 141-page ruling ponencia turned dissent, De la Cruz declared that Revilla had conspired with the former senator’s staff Richard Cambe and Janet Napoles to plunder a recomputed amount of P185.4 million. The winning ruling acquitted Revilla, and lowered the amount to P124.5 million which must be returned to the national treasury.
“In face of insurmountable evidence presented against accused Revilla, the original ponencia of Justice De la Cruz was haplessly dissented by Justice Econg and Justice Caldona,” said Estoesta, who voted with De la Cruz “without reservation.”
“I always pray that the Lord will guide me, and in connection with our work, I always adhere to the ethics of the position,” De la Cruz said in his JBC interview.
A legal ethics teacher, De la Cruz once said that he would institute reforms to make sure that not just anybody can “access” Sandiganbayan members and influence their decisions. He said this when he was applying for presiding justice of the anti-graft court in 2013, a job he also did not get.
De la Cruz said he would push for more units of ethics for the Mandatory Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) for lawyers, and at the Philippine Judicial Academy (Philja) for judges.
“Whenever I lecture, I always tell them that the love of money is the root of all evil, I always tell the lawyers,” De la Cruz said.
De la Cruz is currently the most senior justice in terms of years at the Sandiganbayan. Since then president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo appointed him to the anti-graft court in in 2003, De la Cruz has been known for having one of the highest disposition rates at the Sandiganbayan.
In 2013, De la Cruz led the 1st Division that denied bail to Arroyo in her plunder case related to the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office scam. A year later, De la Cruz would deny Arroyo bail again in a special division vote which he won 3-2.
But the SC acquitted Arroyo of plunder in 2016, and essentially obliterated the prosecution case for having no “main plunderer.” De la Cruz was left with no choice but to eventually acquit all other co-accused of Arroyo, heeding the High Court ruling.
De la Cruz’s consistent concurring justice in the Arroyo cases was Justice Rafael Lagos. Later, Lagos chaired the 5th Division, where he also lost 3-2 when his colleagues used the main plunderer doctrine to grant bail to Jinggoy Estrada.
During Revilla’s promulgation, Lagos came to watch at the gallery. De la Cruz acknowledging with a smile the presence of his former tag team on the bench.
De la Cruz’s Revilla dissent was soberly written, a purely legal presentation of arguments – mirroring the soft-spoken justice with a ready smile for people at the court canteen where he takes his lunch with the so-called mortals.
It was Justice Estoesta who had strong words for her and De la Cruz’s loss: “The consequential ruin runs deep, and may eventually free a man once accused of having conspired in raiding the public treasury of hundreds of millions.”
De la Cruz, a devout Christian, would always say he’d just pray. “I always keep in mind the Bible verse, acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent, the Lord detests them both.” – Rappler.com
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