Justices told: Explain refusal to try Jinggoy’s plunder case

Aries C. Rufo
Justices told: Explain refusal to try Jinggoy’s plunder case
Has there been undue pressure exerted on the justices to back out from the case?

MANILA, Philippines – The members of the Sandiganbayan 5th Division will no longer inhibit from the plunder and graft charges filed against Senator Jinggoy Estrada, but they are still compelled to explain why they initially refused to hear the case.

A source privy to what’s happening in the anti-graft court said the 5th Division justices “will desist” from pursuing their letter requesting that they be recused from handling Estrada’s case before their bench.

“They have been advised that this matter may reach the Supreme Court (SC) and the SC will have to require the justices to explain why they are inhibiting from the case,” the source said.

In a letter to Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang, 5th division chair Roland Jurado and co-members Alexander Gesmundo and Ma Theresa Gomez Dolores-Estoesta asked to recuse themselves from handling Estrada’s case due to “personal reasons.”

It is the first time that the entire membership of a division sought to inhibit itself from trying a particular case.

If their request reaches the SC, the justices will have to be more specific than “personal reasons” in citing the cause of their wanting to inhibit from the case – and even changing their minds after.

A Sandiganbayan source said the inhibition was not automatic since the 5th Division sought permission through a letter-request. “That letter-request cannot be decided by the Presiding justice, it is the en banc (entire court) that will decide,” the Sandiganbayan justice explained.

“It would have been a different case if the 5th Division issued a resolution to that effect.”

In all probability, the Sandiganbayan en banc will reject the letter-request and could even refer the matter to the High Tribunal.

And in deciding whether to grant the inhibition or not, the SC will order the 5th Division justices to justify their move, a scenario that the anti-graft court justices are precisely trying to avoid. 

Convenient excuse 

Whatever the final scenario is, the 5th Division is still compelled to explain their refusal to try the plunder and graft charges against Estrada, a move which caught many, including their colleagues, by surprise. 

Former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo, reached for comment, said citing personal reasons to inhibit is not sufficient reason to recuse from the case, which involved the lawmaker’s alleged misuse of his pork barrel allocation in connivance with financier Janet Lim Napoles.

“I remember I was scolded even by the Supreme Court before when I sought to inhibit from a case,” Marcelo said, as “there has to be a valid ground” that satisfies the rule of inhibition.

Lawyer Levito Baligod, who acted as counsel for pork barrel whistleblower and principal witness Benhur Luy, also said the justices should inform the Presiding Justice and the Supreme Court the actual reason for their inhibition, and not use “personal reasons” as a convenient excuse.

Baligod explained that there are two grounds for inhibition. One is compulsory inhibition when the magistrate is faced with a conflict of interest situation such as when one of the parties involved is related by consanguinity (blood) or affinity (marriage). The other is voluntary inhibition where the inhibition is left to the discretion of the magistrate, with conscience as his or her guide.

In both instances, the judge or the justice is presumed to have lost the impartiality and objectivity to further try the case and bring it to its logical conclusion.

Clearly, Baligod said, the first was not the trigger for the surprise inhibition of the members of the 5th division.

“There is no reason for the voluntary recusal other than the exertion of undue pressure and influence upon the honorable justices. The degree of pressure is such that they may violate their oath of office if they continue hearing the case. It behooves the justice to report this to the Sandiganbayan en banc and the SC,” Baligod said.

He said he had gathered information as early as Friday, December 12, that the justices would recuse themselves.

What the SC says

What does the SC say on magistrates voluntarily inhibiting from a case?

Before 1964, judges and justices were barred from voluntarily inhibiting themselves. Otherwise they faced the prospect of being accused of dereliction of duty.

However, the case of Umale v. Villaluz granted magistrates the discretion to inhibit from the case, with conscience as their guide. 

The Court widened this ground of discretion for magistrates in Gutierrez v. Santos and Del Castillo v. Javelona. However, the Court stressed that this right is not absolute, and “does not give judges the unfettered discretion to decide whether to desist from hearing a case. The inhibition must be for just and valid causes.”

Complications

And this is where things get more complicated.

The 5th Division took jurisdiction of Estrada’s case last June and has been conducting marathon hearings for bail.

Baligod said “something must have happened” that prompted the justices to suddenly change their mind and decide that the case was too hot for them to handle.

As it is, using the blanket alibi of “personal reasons” is not enough to quash suspicion that an extraordinary circumstance occurred for them to seek to inhibit themselves. 

Did something happen that compromised the impartiality and objectivity of the justices that prompted them to inhibit? Baligod could only speculate as inhibition is expected to result in the delay of the case.

What now?

What will happen now to Estrada’s plunder and graft charges?

Two other divisions are handling pork barrel-related plunder cases – the 1st Division handling Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla’s case and the 3rd Division for Senator Juan Ponce Enrile. Napoles is a co-respondent in all the pork barrel plunder and graft cases.

A Sandiganbayan justice said Estrada’s case will be re-raffled to the 2nd and 4th divisions but the situation is trickier than it appears.

The 2nd division is chaired by Justice Teresita Diaz-Baldoz with Justices Oscar Herrera Jr and Maria Cristina Cornejo as members.

However, it is likely that Cornejo will inhibit herself as she was a member of the 4th Division before it cleared Napoles from the Kevlar helmet case. The chair of the 4th Division at the time was Justice Gregory Ong who was dismissed by the SC this 2014 for his links to Napoles. 

The 4th Division this time is chaired by Justice Jose Hernandez, who was part of the triumvirate that cleared Napoles over the Kevlar case. Hernandez is also expected to inhibit and with him, the entire division.

The anti-graft court justice said it would be “unfair” to the 1st and 3rd Divisions if Estrada’s case is raffled to them. “Given the sensitivity and the public interest nature of the cases, it should be distributed to the other divisions.” – Rappler.com

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