MANILA—The Supreme Court on Tuesday ended the oral argument on the petition filed by detained Sen. Leila De Lima questioning the issuance of warrant of arrest by a Muntinlupa court in connection with the drug trafficking charges filed against her by the Department of Justice (DoJ).
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno asked both parties to submit their memoranda simultaneously after 20 days after which the case will be submitted for decision.
Appearing as counsel for respondent Muntinlupa RTC Branch 204 Judge Juanita Guerrero and PNP chief Director General Ronald Dela Rosa, Solicitor General Jose Calida asked the High Court to dismiss the petition of De Lima against her indictment and detention in drug trafficking cases.
During the continuation of oral arguments, the top government lawyer argued that the detained senator’s move to bring the case immediately to SC was a clear forum shopping and violation of hierarchy of courts.
Calida said De Lima is not entitled to special treatment from the SC adding that as far as they are concerned, her case is similar to the thousands of drug-related cases filed by the government.
“Senator De Lima’s case is only one of the tens of thousands of drug-related cases now being handled by 955 branches of the Regional Trial Court. There is nothing remarkable about this case except for her insistence that she be treated above the law so my plea on behalf of the people — kindly dismiss the petition and let Judge Guerrero finish her task,” Calida told the justices led by Chief Justice Sereno in his opening statement during Tuesday’s resumption of the oral arguments.
Calida said De Lima is asking the SC basically to waive the rules for her when she violated numerous rules, including the rule against forum shopping and the hierarchy of courts, when she elevated the case to the SC instead of waiting for Guerrero to rule on her motion to quash which he stressed is the plain, speedy and adequate remedy as required under the Rules.
He also pointed to the embattled senator’s alleged “fabrication” of her affidavit which was notarized without her presence in violation of the Rules on Notarial Procedure.
“No matter her stature, she is not exempt from the principle of hierarchy of courts. Her case does not fall within the exceptions and her petition fails to show that the order of Judge Guerrero is a patent nullity,” Calida added.
He observed that before De Lima was indicted and arrested, there was the perception that only the less privileged members of society are being charged with drug offenses but that when the DOJ indicted her, the same detractors still cried foul.
“Now that the government has put one of the high and mighty on the dock, the same detractors are crying foul,” the Solicitor General said.
At one point, Calida reminded the justices of what he described as De Lima’s arrogance when she was still the DOJ chief when she refused to follow the injunction issued by the High Court allowing former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to leave the country to seek medical treatment in 2011.
At the same time, Calida maintained that the Muntinlupa RTC has jurisdiction over the case under Section 90 of Republic Act 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act contrary to De Lima’s assertion that it should be heard by the Sandiganbayan.
He said the anti-graft court has never tried drug-related cases before since RA 9165 has made it clear that RTCs has jurisdiction over such cases.
During the interpellation by Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr., the Solicitor General also pointed out that De Lima failed to raise a valid constitutional issue or any issue of transcendental importance to justify relief from the High Court.
Calida likewise cited as another procedural ground for dismissal of the petition the supposed violation of court rules in the notarization of the verification and certification in De Lima’s petition.
He explained that since the verification and certification against forum shopping were fabricated or not signed in the presence of the notary public as required by law, the petition should be considered unsigned pursuant to Section 4, Rule 7 of the Rules of Court and therefore has no legal effect.
Velasco pointed out during questioning that lawyer Maria Cecille Tresvalles-Cabalo, who supposedly administered De Lima’s signing of the petition last February 24 inside Camp Crame in Quezon City, admitted in her affidavit submitted to the SC that De Lima did not personally subscribe to the petition before her.
The magistrate hinted that this could be a violation of the 2004 Rules on Notary Public, which require the signing and subscription of affidavits personally before the notary public.
He said that notary public Tresvalles-Cabalo admitted that De Lima’s affidavits were already signed before they met when he stressed that Section 6 of the Rules on Notarial Practice requires that the individual personally appear before the notary public and signs the document in his or her presence.
In her affidavit, Cabalo said that while she is already familiar with De Lima’s signature, she still asked for a government issued identification card to compare the signatures.
“The petition was already signed at the time she met Senator De Lima. She did not sign the petition before the notary public. So, from the affidavit alone of the notary public, there was non-compliance of our 2004 Rules on Notarial Practice,” Velasco said.
During the interpellation by Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo, Calida differentiated the act of “taking advantage of public office” as alleged against De Lima and crimes committed “in relation to public office,” which fall under jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan.
He argued that the position of De Lima as secretary of Justice was “just an aggravating circumstance” and that her purpose really was to raise drug money for her senatorial bid last year.
Sereno and Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, for their part, grilled Calida on the jurisdiction issue.
Both magistrates pointed out that De Lima’s case requires the SC to settle if the drug case falls within the jurisdiction of the RTC or Sandiganbayan to set the standard for similar drug cases expected to be filed against public officials.
Sereno tackled the issue of violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution in De Lima’s case, citing the gray area on which criminal cases against public officials should be filed before the RTC or the Sandiganbayan.
She stressed it would be necessary for the SC to clarify the issue to serve as guide for the Department of Justice on when to pursue cases in RTC and when to refer the cases to the Ombudsman, which is tasked to prosecute cases in the anti-graft court.
Calida, in response, suggested that drug cases should be left to the jurisdiction of RTCs while graft cases to the Sandiganbayan.
Leonen, on the other hand, quizzed the Solicitor General on De Lima’s allegation that she is being persecuted by the Duterte administration for her persistent criticisms on the war on drugs.
The justice cited exemptions to the general rule on hierarchy of courts in criminal cases as set by the SC in previous cases.
The three-part 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 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.