EXPLAINER: Issues on jurisdiction in De Lima cases

Lian Buan

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EXPLAINER: Issues on jurisdiction in De Lima cases

LeAnne Jazul

What are the issues on jurisdiction being threshed out at the oral arguments before the Supreme Court?

MANILA, Philippines – The main contention over the charges against Senator Leila de Lima is whether the Department of Justice (DOJ) as investigating body and the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC) have jurisdiction.

This is what De Lima’s petition before the Supreme Court (SC) is all about – to dismiss the charges against her for lack of jurisdiction. In her petition, De Lima’s lawyers cited the pronouncement of Muntinlupa RTC Branch 204 Judge Juanita Guerrero during a hearing that she does not have jurisdiction over the detained senator yet.

I have no jurisdiction yet over the persons of the accused, right? So how can I rule on your motion to quash?” said Guerrero, based on the official transcript of the hearing on February 24, the day De Lima was arrested and her camp filed a motion to quash before the same court.

2 kinds of jurisdiction

There are two kinds of jurisdiction: jurisdiction over the person and jurisdiction over the offense.

During the first round of oral arguments at the SC on March 14, former solicitor general Florin Hilbay, lead oralist for the De Lima camp, asserted that according to the Sandiganbayan Act of 2014, it is the anti-graft court which shall have the jurisdiction to try an appointed official like De Lima, who was justice secretary when she allegedly committed the crime. (READ: Hilbay: OSG case vs De Lima different from drug charges)

Hilbay said De Lima belongs to this category under the law: “Officials of the executive branch occupying the positions of regional director and higher, otherwise classified as Grade ’27’ and higher.”

In his interpellation, Justice Diosdado Peralta pointed out the difference between the two kinds of jurisdiction, and said that the Sandiganbayan Act only has jurisdiction over De Lima as an accused.

“I think the Sandiganbayan law refers to jurisdiction over the accused. If you look at paragraph A and paragraph B, the Sandiganbayan has jurisdiction over the following: those who have salary grade of 27, and those who occupy the following positions. In paragraph B, it says: those who belong to category…those who receive salary grade 27 as provided by paragraph A in relation to office. It’s not actually jurisdiction over the offense, but jurisdiction over the person or the accused,” Peralta said in a mix of English and Filipino.

“The Sandiganbayan law…there was an obvious legislative intent to cover as much ground as possible when you talk about offenses committed by public officials in relation to their office, that’s why exclusive, original, that’s why it says all, and then you have specification of the crimes, and then you have a catch all provision, all other offenses and felonies in relation to their office, that exhausts all possibilities, your honor,” Hilbay answered.

Is the crime related to office?

Peralta’s interpellation shifted to whether De Lima’s alleged crime is related to her office then, the Department of Justice. 

Peralta used the example of Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson who was then accused, along with other policemen, of killing suspected members of the Kuratong Baleleng robbery gang. Lacson was then police chief superintendent and head of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF).

“The court says the RTC has jurisdiction over the crime of murder, although those who died allegedly were killed while the PNP officials were performing their duty, and there was an allegation of in relation to their office,” Peralta said.

Hilbay said De Lima could not be likened to Lacson in that case because the latter could still have committed the crime even if he wasn’t the police chief.

“The police officers who were accused in that case could have performed or done what they did without even having to pretend that they were public officials. in that case, they simply used their position as a cloak to perform what is otherwise murder. [In De Lima’s case] the allegations say the money was given for protection so that she can run for public office, they would not have allegedly given her money because they supported her campaign, she extorted, and the only way she could have extorted was because she was the secretary of justice,” Hilbay said.

Corruption charge or drug charge?

Justice Lucas Bersamin reminded Hilbay that to prove the Sandiganbayan has jurisdiction, he has to cite the specific contents in the 3 informations filed against De Lima that would say so. (READ: Explainer: What is Leila de Lima being accused of?)

Hilbay mentioned two phrases: 

1. “By taking advantage of their position…”

2.  “With the use of their power, position and authority, demand, solicit and extort money…”

Echoing the argument of Solicitor General Jose Calida, Bersamin cited Section 28 of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act which states that any government official found guilty of violating the law shall be held criminally liable with the maximum penalties provided for by the said law.

“This is hypothetical theory – if one is charged, a govenrment official is charged under these portions of the law on drugs, would you have these government officials charged and tried with the Sandiganbayan?” Bersamin asked Hilbay.

Hilbay said, “The basic question is whether or not this is a corruption charge or a real drug trade charge.”

In arguing his position, Hilbay said that the informations do not accuse De Lima of drug trade but of corruption.

“It wasn’t as if she talked to an inmate and said, ‘I want to become part of the trade, I want to become part of the business, I want to enter into contract in the sale of drugs, now I’ll give you cellphone so you can do that.’ No, she did not do that, as per the allegation, she was interested in running for the Senate, she needed money, and therefore she demanded and solicited. That is corruption,” Hilbay said. (READ: Leonen: De Lima relief from SC may set precedent)

Calida’s arguments

In his argument on jurisdiction, Calida cited Section 39 of RA 6425 or the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972, which stated that the “circuit criminal court shall have exclusive original jurisdiction over all cases involving offenses punishable under this act.”

He also cited the Judiciary Act of 1948 which says that the courts of first instance shall have original jurisdiction in all criminal cases in which the penalty is imprisonment for more than 6 months or a fine of more than P200.

The circuit criminal court and the court of first instance are what we now know as the RTC.

Calida also cited Section 90 of RA 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, which says the “Supreme Court shall designate special courts from among the existing regional trial courts in each judicial region to exclusively try and hear cases involving violations of this act.”

Peralta used the same provision when he interpellated Hilbay.

“That is clear – the Supreme Court shall designate RTC as special court; that is the law. The law does not say the SC shall likewise designate MTC courts to try drug cases; that’s specific, it’s actually a directive to us,” Peralta said.

Hilbay argued that the power of the SC was only administrative, and that the determining law shall still be the Sandiganbayan law.

“If it happens that the RTC has jurisdiction, that’s only when Section 90 would kick in because that grants the SC the power to administratively designate RTCs that have jurisdiction to act exclusively on drugs cases,” Hilbay said.

Hilbay reiterated during round one of the oral arguments that even if there are disagreements due to different laws, the Sandiganbayan law shall prevail because it is the latest among the laws.

Calida has promised to throw “knock-out” punches when it’s his turn to argue before the SC.

Ahead of turn, however, Calida made public last week his manifestation that De Lima’s petitions should be dismissed by the High Court because she falsified the notarization on her affidavits.

Citing logbooks and testimonies from security officers at the Philippine National Police (PNP) Custodial Center, Calida said there was no evidence that De Lima personally appeared and swore before the notarizing lawyer, Maria Cecile C. Tresvalles-Cabalo, in relation to her affidavits on February 24, the day the senator was detained at Camp Crame.

De Lima’s lawyer, Alexander Padilla, said the execution of the affidavits happened at the headquarters of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) where De Lima spent a couple of hours before she was taken to her detention cell.

The second round of the oral arguments will begin at 2 pm on Tuesday, March 21. – Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.