Much ado about calls: Judges hit for ‘late’ warrants vs De Lima

MANILA, Philippines – Lawmakers hearing the impeachment complaint against Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno cannot, or refuse to, believe there was no influence on the decisions of two trial court judges to issue warrants of arrest against Senator Leila de Lima.

The issuance of their arrest warrants took longer than it took another judge.

Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC) Judges Patria Manalastas de Leon and Amelia Fabros Corpuz opened their testimonies on Monday, February 19, with a straight-up denial: they weren’t instructed by anyone not to order a warrant of arrest against De Lima in February 2017.

“That is a brazen lie!” said Corpuz of Branch 205.

Complainant Larry Gadon could not rebut the denials when asked, saying he had not brought his records with him. For a while it looked like it would stop there, with some lawmakers deferring their interpellations until more information surfaced.

But other members were determined to squeeze something out.

The calls

They centered their scrutiny on phone calls – made by SC Deputy Court Administrator (DCA) Jenny Lind Aldecoa-Delorino to the Muntinlupa judges once it was known that they were going to handle the 3 cases of alleged involvement by De Lima in the drug trade.

“I feel that it is important for judges to know that there are people in the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) who are willing to assist them in their needs,” Delorino said.

She added that she told the judges they could assist with requests for additional stenographers and other resources. She also reminded them of guidelines for media coverage in such a high-profile case.

Delorino initially claimed it is usual practice of the OCA, but that statement did not have the support of her boss, Court Administrator Midas Marquez, who said it is not protocol, but just an exercise of discretion.

“That was her discretion, so Muntinlupa is her area. I just left it at that. I have my own way of addressing situations like those, since I have respect for them especially Delorino as she was a former judge, she was an executive judge, an assistant court administrator, I just left it that,” Marquez said.

Rep Gloria Macapagal Arroyo arrives at the House Committee on Justice hearing Sereno’s impeachment. It’s her first attendance ever. pic.twitter.com/D5YAPKVG0G — Lian Buan (@lianbuan) February 19, 2018

Just before the hearing went to the issue of the judges, Pampanga 2nd Representative Gloria Macapagal Arroyo entered the room to attend the hearing for the very first time.

She did not speak at first, but the reason for her presence later became apparent.

Delorino claimed she usually calls trial court judges handling high-profile cases. She said she did the same to trial courts handling the Maguindanao massacre and Mamasapano cases – these fell within her jurisdiction when she assumed the post of DCA in 2013.

Sitting next to Arroyo, SAGIP Partylist Representative Rodante Marcoleta asked Delorino: "You did not do it for the former president?"

Marcoleta was referring to Arroyo’s electoral sabotage case at the Pasay Regional Trial Court, which was, however, filed in 2011.

Marcoleta further grilled Delorino on what he described as an unusual phone call. But he had others to pick on – the two judges.

Judge Guerrero

The first warrant of arrest against De Lima, and which got her jailed, was issued by Branch 204 Judge Juanita Guerrero on February 23, 2017, or 4 working days after the case was filed.

Corpuz issued her warrant on June 21, 2017, while De Leon issued hers on November 28, 2017 after the Supreme Court had ruled that the trial court had jurisdiction over De Lima.

“Why did you not take after Guerrero, are you saying she was wrong?" Marcoleta asked Corpuz in Filipino.

Corpuz tried to explain that judges work differently and that they may have a different appreciation of their cases. Corpuz said De Lima filed several motions that she needed to resolve before she could determine probable cause to issue a warrant. The process takes time, Corpuz explained.

But Marcoleta was not interested in her reasoning, and then shifted the discussion back to Arroyo. Marcoleta recalled that in November 2011, Judge Jesus Mupas of Pasay ordered the arrest of Arroyo only hours after the case was filed.

“Did that not inspire you (to also immediately issue a warrant)?” Marcoleta asked, to which Corpuz reiterated her previous response.

Arroyo eventually spoke and recalled that De Lima barred her from leaving the country in 2011 despite permission from the Supreme Court to do so. It was the only thing she said in the hearing. She left not long after. 

Link to Sereno, Aquino administration?

Delorino’s phone calls are relevant only to the impeachment hearing if they link back to Sereno. Several lawmakers tried to establish that link, but Delorino was firm.

“I categorically say I was not instructed by anyone to call the judges,” she said.

ABS Partylist Representative Eugene Michael de Vera shifted his attention back to Corpuz, who had been holding her ground the entire hearing despite hours of grilling from lawmakers.

Some of the questions even bordered on condescension such as the one asked by Leyte 3rd District Representative and former Court of Appeals justice Vicente Veloso: "What is your definition of probable cause?"

De Vera noted that Corpuz was transferred to the Muntinlupa RTC because she lives in Muntinlupa. “The Chief Justice transferred you there?” De Vera asked.

“Yes, Chief Justice (Reynato) Puno,” Corpuz said.

Not getting the answer he wanted, De Vera turned to De Leon to ask her who appointed her judge.

“President Arroyo,” De Leon said. That ended De Vera’s line of questioning.

Quezon City 1st District Representative Vincent Crisologo jumped in and asked Delorino: "Are you related to De Lima? You look like her."

Delorino said she is not related to, nor does she personally know, De Lima. 

Substantiate charges

Corpuz repeatedly tried to explain that she did not issue a warrant immediately because she did not want to waste her court’s time. “If it turns out I do not have jurisdiction over the case, why would I issue a warrant?” Corpuz said.

Corpuz said it was the same thing she told Guerrero when the latter asked her.

A lawmaker’s takeaway from Corpuz’s statement: “They said judges never talk to each other, they talk to each other after all.”

Several times during the hearing, committee chairman Reynaldo Umali lectured everyone, especially Gadon, that he would take it as an affront to the House if it turned out that the accusation was "fake news".

“Either you lied, or the two judges lied. If you lied, this is an affront to this committee. Let me put you to task, substantiate your charges,” Umali told Gadon.

Dominguez case

Still, Umali allowed the hearing to drag on, long enough that they were able to discuss the entirely unrelated case of carnapping leader Raymond Dominguez.

De Leon said that Delorino assisted them with their safety concerns relating to the handling of the high-profile cases of Dominguez.

De Leon said that Dominguez-related cases were assigned to Muntinlupa because judges from Malolos, Bulacan RTC inhibited out of fear. In 2015, Malolos RTC Judge Wilfredo Nieves, who convicted Dominguez, was murdered.

“The judges of Muntinlupa had to get an audience with the Court Administrator because we had been talking to Delorino and she said let’s get an audience with the Court Administrator," De Leon said.

But this anecdote still ended up being a negative for Delorino, because Umali was able to establish that in the case of Dominguez, it was the judges who called her and not the other way around.

“At least what we established in the particular cases of Dominguez, you did not take the initiative to confer with the judges concerned unlike in the De Lima cases,” Umali told Delorino.

At the end of the day, Sereno’s camp issued a statement, saying Gadon committed perjury.

“The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Atty Gadon had completely made up his allegation,” Sereno’s spokesperson lawyer Jojo Lacanilao said. – 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.

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