Leonen: De Lima relief from SC may set precedent

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – "What's so special about this case?" Associate Justice Marvic Leonen asked on Tuesday, March 14, during Supreme Court (SC) oral arguments on the petitions of detained Senator Leila de Lima.

In his interpellation of former solicitor general Florin Hilbay, lead oralist for the De Lima camp, Leonen said the High Court does not want to create a precedent that will encourage big names, politicians, and other high government officials to go to the SC to seek a special remedy for their cases. (READ: Hilbay: OSG case vs De Lima different from DOJ charges)

"Any exceptions we will create in this case can affect others involved... in narcopolitics," Leonen said, voicing concern about precedents that the Court may set if they grant the petitions of De Lima.

De Lima is asking the SC for immediate reliefs which will have the effect of a recall of the arrest warrant. In sum, the senator is asking the High Tribunal to nullify the drug cases filed against her before a Muntinlupa court, arguing that the trial court does not have jurisdiction over her cases.

Leonen first established the premise that there exists a possibility that more public officials will be charged for crimes – drug-related or not – especially since President Rodrigo Duterte has indicated his tough stance on drugs and criminality.

"Whatever we do here may set a precedent for another public official who may want to avail of the same remedy," Leonen said.

Special accommodation

Leonen also cited the SC ruling that granted former senator Juan Ponce Enrile the right to post bail in his plunder case, a ruling Leonen dissented from and which he even called a case of "special accommodation."

"If it can be used for Enrile, it can be used for everybody. If it can be used for De Lima, it can be used for anybody," Leonen said.

Hilbay argued that their petitions do not mean to promote the non-prosecution of public officials.

"What De Lima wants is that if she will be prosecuted, that it be done by a body who has jurisdiction over her," Hilbay said.

Leonen's answer to Hilbay: "That's not the point. The point is precedent and that is scary."

Felons as principal witnesses

Leonen however pointed out that the principal witnesses in the case against De Lima are convicted felons who have been provided witness protection by the government. "Why are they not in the information?" he asked Hilbay.

He also noted that it was the Department of Justice that collected the evidence against De Lima.

In addition, he said that courts do not do "mindless acquiescence" to a prosecutor's findings and that there are cases when a judge must conduct his or her own examination of the facts to establish if there is probable cause to issue a warrant of arrest. Was there grave abuse of discretion when the judge issued a one-paragraph order to issue a warrant, asked Leonen.

Citing past cases, he said the High Court has shown that it "stood ready to correct procedural defects". De Lima's camp has argued that it is the Office of the Ombudsman and the Sandiganbayan – not a regional trial court – that should have jurisdiction over her case.

Leonen advised Hilbay to point out what makes De Lima's case special for it to merit the special remedy of the SC.

"Your response to this is your defense," Leonen said, referring to charges of "forum shopping" made by the Office of the Solicitor General. 

SC Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta earlier said De Lima's camp could be charged with forum shopping because they filed "two petitions before two different fora with the same prayer." Its effect is dismissal of a case and lawyers being cited for contempt. – Rappler.com

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.