Get to know the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan

MANILA, Philippines – At the hands of the Sandiganbayan now are cases that implicate 3 Philippine senators and Janet Lim Napoles, the woman said to be behind the country's biggest corruption scandal in recent history.

The anti-graft court raffled on Friday, June 13, the plunder and graft cases involving Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jose "Jinggoy" Estrada, and Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr. Revilla's cases were assigned to the 1st division, Enrile's to the 3rd division, and Estrada and the rest to the 5th division.

From the Office of the Ombudsman that filed the cases with the anti-graft court, public attention shifts to the Sandiganbayan, which is expected to be under tremendous pressure to dispose of the cases in the soonest possible time, while mindful of perceptions it is railroading decision on these controversial cases.

The Sandiganbayan was actually first conceptualized when the country was put under martial rule by then president Ferdinand Marcos. It was created via Presidential Decree 1486 in June 1978, as provided for by the 1973 Constitution, which called for the creation of a special court that would deal exclusively with corruption cases against government officials and employees.

Particularly covered by the Sandiganbayan's jurisdiction are cases involving anti-graft and corrupt practices and other offenses of the following officials:

1. Officials of the executive branch occupying the positions of regional director and higher, specifically including: 

2. Members of Congress and officials classified as Grade 27 and up under the Compensation and Position Classification Act of 1989

3. Members of the judiciary without prejudice to the provisions of the Constitution

4. Chairmen and members of Constitutional Commissions, without prejudice to the provisions of the Constitution

5. All other national and local officials classified as Grade 27 and higher under the Compensation and Position Classification Act of 1989

The Sandiganbayan was originally put on the same level as the Regional Trial Court. It was elevated to the level of Court of Appeals in December 1978.

Composition

The anti-graft court was originally composed of one presiding judge and 8 associate justices, with 3 divisions of 3 justices each. In 1995, the number of divisions was increased to 5: the first 3 divisions were stationed in Manila, the 4th division in Cebu City for cases in the Visayas, and the 5th division in Cagayan de Oro City for cases in Mindanao.

In 1997, the 5 divisions were retained but all trial and determination of cases was brought back to Manila, and the composition of sitting members was increased to 15 (a presiding justice and 14 associate justices).

The current composition of the Sandiganbayan is as follows:

First Division
Chairperson - Efren N. dela Cruz
Sr Member - Rodolfo A. Ponferrada
Jr Member - Rafael R. Lagos

Second Division
Chairperson - Teresita V. Diaz-Baldos
Sr Member - Napoleon E. Inoturan
Jr Member - Oscar C. Herrera Jr.

Third Division
Presiding Justice and Chairperson - Amparo M. Cabotaje-Tang
Sr Member - Samuel R. Martires
Jr Member - Alex L. Quiroz

Fourth Division
Chairperson - Gregory S. Ong
Sr Member - Jose R. Hernandez
Jr Member - Maria Cristina J. Cornejo

Fifth Division
Chairperson - Roland B. Jurado
Sr Member - Alexander G. Gesmundo
Jr Member - vacant

A vacancy was created after the retirement of former presiding justice Francisco Villaruz, a member of the 3rd division, in 2013. Cabotaje-Tang, former junior member of the 5th division, was appointed as new presiding justice and was moved to the 3rd division.

Among the 14 justices, 3 were appointed under the Aquino administration (Cabotaje-Tang, Lagos, and Herrera), 10 under the Arroyo administration (Jurado, dela Cruz, Diaz-Baldos, Hernandez, Ponferrada, Gesmundo, Martires, Inoturan, Quiroz, Cornejo), and one under the Estrada administration (Ong). 

All justices are between the ages of 40 and 65, are natural-born Filipino citizens, and have been in the practice of law for at least 10 years prior to their appointment to the anti-graft court.

In 2007, the Supreme Court barred the nomination of Ong to the High Tribunal following issues about his citizenship. But the Pasig Regional Trial Court Branch 264 later declared that year that he is a natural-born Filipino, allowing him to retain his post in the Sandiganbayan. The Supreme Court upheld this decision in 2013.

Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales earlier requested for the creation of two special divisions in the Sandiganbayan to “exclusively try and conduct continuous trial” for the cases related to the multi-billion-peso fund scandal. The justices agreed, although not unanimously, that there is no need to create the special divisions.

Procedures

Based on the procedures stated in Proclamation Decree 1606, all cases to be filed with the Sandiganbayan shall be received from 8 am to 12 pm, and from 12:30 pm to 4:30 pm Mondays to Fridays, except on public or special holidays. All proceedings are to be conducted at no cost to the complainants.

All cases filed with the Sandiganbayan shall be distributed among the 5 divisions for hearing and decision by raffle. Cases arising from the same incident or series of incidents, at the discretion of the Sandiganbayan, may be consolidated in only one division.

After the raffle, copies of the complaints should be distributed to each division for review. The justices then conduct a judicial determination of probable cause to proceed with the case.

Once they are convinced there is probable cause, they can issue the arrest warrants, tasking the Sandiganbayan’s sheriff office to implement their order. Arraignment can be set once the Court acquires jurisdiction over the accused.

In the case of the 3 senators implicated in the pork barrel scam, the arrest warrants may not come immediately, considering the legal remedies that the accused may resort to. (READ: Arrest of 3 senators may take a while)

The unanimous vote of 3 justices in a division shall be necessary for the rendition of a judgment. In the event that they do not reach a unanimous vote, the Presiding Justice shall designate by raffle two other justices to temporarily sit with them. The vote of the majority of this special division shall be necessary for the rendition of a judgment

The judgment shall be rendered within 3 months from the date the case was submitted for decision.

Within 15 days from the division's promulgation of a judgment, a petition for reconsideration may be filed. A party may appeal a division judgment by filing with the Supreme Court a petition for certiorari.

Slow court?

Despite various amendments to the Sandiganbayan law, the last of which took effect in 1997, the disposition of cases in the Sandiganbayan has still been snail-paced.

According to former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo, it took an average of 6.6 years for the Sandiganbayan to complete a case – from the filing of charges to the release of a verdict – in 2002. More than a decade later, the situation has worsened, as it now takes an average of 10.2 years to process cases against government officials.

He suggested fixing the bottleneck in the Sandiganbayan as a key component in the war against corruption.

Meanwhile in the Senate, senators Franklin Drilon and Teofisto “TG” Guingona III earlier filed two separate measures that aim to fast-track the disposition of cases in the country’s anti-graft court. – Rappler.com