MANILA—Supreme Court Justices on Tuesday asked the camp of detained Senator Leila De Lima why they immediately elevated the case to the high tribunal even before the Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court’s (RTC) hearing of the pending motions they have filed.
During the oral argument on the petition filed by De Lima questioning the legality of her arrest in connection to the drug raps filed against her, Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr., questioned the move of De Lima’s camp lead counsel and former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay to seek relief directly from the Court despite unresolved motions before the lower court and for ignoring the principle on hierarchy of courts .
“What I gathered and based on the relief prayed for in the instant petition is that you are merely asking the annulment of the February 23, 2017, the warrant of arrest itself and the February 24 order committing the petitioner to the Camp Crame custodial service,” Velasco said.
“We are just confined to the alleged illegality of lack of basis on the part of the judge to issue such directive…,” Velasco noted during his interpellation.
Velasco asked Hilbay why petitioner could not wait for RTC Judge Juanita Guerrero to resolve her motion before elevating the case to the SC.
Hilbay answered and told the Court that the lawyers of De Lima already raised the same arguments before the judge, but the latter disregarded them.
“This should be resolved by the judge herself… You are asking this Court to order dismissal of the case, without waiting for judge’s decision on the motion to quash,” the magistrate pointed out.
“This is too premature in my reading,” he stressed, citing the hierarchy of courts.
For his part, Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta said de Lima should have exhausted all remedies before going up to the SC adding that she might have committed forum shopping since she also filed the same petitions before the RTC and the high court.
According to the SC, the rule against forum shopping alone constitutes a sufficient ground to dismiss a petition and, in some instances, even sanction legal counsels.
Peralta, a former justice in the Sandiganbayan, told Hilbay that De Lima missed out on the remedies available for her during earlier preliminary investigation on the drug charges before the Department of Justice.
“She should’ve filed counter-affidavit in the DOJ and that should’ve been best time to argue (for the lack of jurisdiction of the DOJ on the case),” he explained.
Associate Justice Marvic Leonen also pointed out the same comment adding this could even set a precedent for other government officials.
“If it can be used for de Lima, it can be used for anybody,” Leonen said to which Hilbay said that what they are pointing out is if de Lima will be tried for the alleged offense, the at least it should be done by people who have jurisdiction over the case.
Leonen persisted and at one point asked Hilbay what is the difference with the instant case with the cases of offenders caught in buy-bust operations.
“What makes this case special,” Leonen said.
During oral arguments, Hilbay noted the OSG and the DOJ do not agree on the nature of the charge against De lima.
Hilbay pointed out that e the DOJ has charged the senator with the crime of illegal drug trading under Section 5 of the Dangerous Drugs Act before the Regional Trial Court of Muntinlupa City.
However, in its comment submitted to the SC, the OSG headed by Solicitor General Jose Calida said that the charge against the senator is conspiracy to engage in illegal drug trading under Sec. 26(b) of the same law.
This discrepancy, according to Hilbay, violates de Lima constitutional right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against her and is an indication indicates that the government does not actually have a case against her.
“In essence, what the OSG is now saying is that Judge [Juanita] Guerrero found probable cause and issued a warrant of arrest against petitioner for the wrong case! For this reason alone, and without further arguments, the case against petitioner should be immediately dismissed. She should be released without further delay,” Hilbay said.
Aside from this, Hilbay accused the DOJ of recruiting and using the testimonies of convicted felons to justify the filing of drug charges against de Lima despite their “self-serving and hearsay stories.”
He further argued that the DOJ disregarded its duty to refer the case to the Ombudsman, which has primary jurisdiction over the case and that the DOJ filed the case before the Muntinlupa RTC, in violation of the exclusive original jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan.
“Your Honors, you only have to agree with petitioner in one of these categories of remarkable acts of lawlessness committed by government to grant her petition. Either that, or you can consider the OSG’s disagreement with the DOJ about the actual nature of the crime as a peremptory justification to dismiss the case,” Hilbay said.
The other magistrates, for their part, tackled the issue involving jurisdiction on the drug cases against De Lima.
Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro, for her part, stressed that the RTC can try cases against high-ranking officials as long as the cases do not involve public funds or bribery in relation to office.
A former presiding justice of the Sandiganbayan, De Castro explained that the amendments in the charter of the anti-graft court were precisely meant to limit its jurisdiction and pass to the RTCs other cases against government officials.
Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio focused his interpellation on the exclusive jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan on cases against high-ranking government officials with salary grade of 27 and above.
The hearing that lasted for three hours and a half ended at 5:30 p.m. and will continue next Tuesday, March 21, for the presentation of the government’s side by Solicitor General Jose Calida.
Tuesday’s oral arguments focused on six procedural and substantive issues on the plea of de Lima to nullify the arrest warrant issued by a Muntinlupa court in connection with the drug trafficking charges filed by the Department of Justice.
On the procedural side, the SC will determine whether or not de Lima is excused from compliance with the doctrine of hierarchy of courts considering it said that the petition should have been filed first with the Court of Appeals and whether or not the pendency of the motion to quash the information before the Muntinlupa RTC Branch 204 renders the instant petition premature.
Likewise, the SC will also rule whether the petition violated the rule on forum shopping considering the pending motion to quash she filed before the trial court and a petition for certiorari before the Court of Appeals questioning the preliminary investigation conducted by the DOJ.
On the substantive issued, the Court will determine whether the Muntinlupa RTC or the Sandiganbayan has the jurisdiction over de Lima’s case and whether or not the respondent-Judge Juanita Guerrero-gravely abused her discretion in finding probable cause to issue the arrest warrant.
The Court will also decide whether or not the petitioner is entitled to a temporary restraining order and or a status quo ante order in the interim until the instant petition is resolved or until the trial court rules on the motion to quash.
De Lima, now detained at the PNP custodial center, argued that the allegations against her do not actually constitute sale and trading of illegal drugs and liability of government officials under Republic Act 9165 (Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act), but rather only direct bribery.
Under the law, petitioner stressed that such charges should fall under the jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan – not the RTC – because her position at that time was secretary of Justice which has salary grade higher than 27.
Separate cases for three counts of drug trafficking were filed against De Lima before the Muntinlupa RTC which were assigned to three different courts.
The cases for sale and trading of illegal drugs and liability of government officials under Republic Act 9165 (Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act) were assigned to RTC Branch 204 Judge Juanita Guerrero, Branch 205 Judge Amelia Fabros-Corpuz and Branch 206 Judge Patria Manalastas-De Leon.
The first case in Branch 204 includes De Lima, Dayan and Ragos.
De Lima is joined by her nephew Jose Adrian Dera in the second case in Branch 205.
The third case in Branch 206 is against De Lima, Dera, Dayan, former BuCor chief Franklin Bucayu, his alleged bagman Wilfredo Elli, high-profile inmate Jaybee Sebastian, and De Lima’s former bodyguard Jonel Sanchez.