SC rulings double whammy for De Lima
BAGUIO CITY – It was a double whammy yesterday for Sen. Leila de Lima after the Supreme Court (SC) rejected her petition to be released from detention and voided her authority when she was justice chief to stop individuals facing criminal charges from leaving the country.
Insiders said the SC justices voted 9-5 in summer session here to deny with finality De Lima’s motion for reconsideration of their decision in October last year to dismiss for lack of merit her petition seeking her release from detention and stopping her indictment for allegedly taking part in and benefitting from the illegal drug trade at the New Bilibid Prison.
The justices also voted unanimously to declare as unconstitutional De Lima’s Circular No. 41, which she used in 2011 to stop former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from leaving the country to seek treatment abroad for her hypoparathyroidism and metabolic bone disorder while facing electoral sabotage charges.
Two sources, who requested anonymity for lack of authority to speak for the court, revealed that a majority of justices believed De Lima’s arguments in her appeal for release from detention were “mostly rehashed of her previous arguments.”
Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr. penned the ruling with eight magistrates – Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Mariano del Castillo, Samuel Martires, Noel Tijam, Andres Reyes and Alexander Gesmundo – concurring.
The senator has been in detention at the PNP custodial center since February 2017. Her arrest was on the strength of a warrant issued by Muntinlupa City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 204 Judge Juanita Guerrero.
The five magistrates who dissented were acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio and Associate Justices Estela Perlas Bernabe, Marvic Leonen, Francis Jardeleza and Benjamin Caguioa.
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who is facing ouster cases in both Congress and the SC, did not participate in the voting as she has been on indefinite leave.
The SC has not announced and released the ruling pending completion of all concurring and dissenting opinions of justices, sources said.
The high court, according to the insiders, stood firm in its finding that the RTC has exclusive jurisdiction over the drug charges against De Lima – even if her position has a salary grade higher than 27, which is the jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan.
“The exclusive original jurisdiction of the RTC over violations of RA 9165 is not transferred to the Sandiganbayan whenever the accused occupies a position classified as Grade 27 or higher, regardless of whether the violation is alleged to have been committed in relation to the office being occupied,” the court had explained in its earlier decision.
“The Sandiganbayan’s jurisdiction is limited to violations of the anti-graft laws and does not extend to violations of the drugs law,” it said.
The SC also rejected De Lima’s argument that the criminal cases against her should be direct bribery and not violation of Republic Act 9165 (Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act).
It also ruled that Judge Guerrero of the Muntinlupa RTC did not commit grave abuse of discretion in ordering the arrest of De Lima and finding probable cause in the charges against her.
“The court noted that respondent judge considered all the evidence presented at the preliminary investigation and not simply the report and the supporting evidence the prosecution proposed to present at the trial, which was based on the evidence presented during the preliminary investigation,” the SC pointed out.
Lastly, the SC added that De Lima’s petition was premature as it violated the rule on hierarchy of courts and the prohibition against forum shopping.
The senator 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.
In the drug cases, De Lima is accused of receiving around P10 million in drug payoffs from November 2012 to early 2013 through her co-accused, former Bureau of Corrections officer-in-charge Rafael Ragos.
2010 order scrapped
Also yesterday, the SC struck down a 2010 order of then justice chief De Lima granting herself the authority to prevent the flight of suspects and personalities facing criminal charges.
De Lima had used the same order to prevent Arroyo’s husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, and former Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. chairman Ephraim Genuino from leaving the country.
The Arroyos and Genuino contested the circular which had the same effect as a court-issued hold departure order.
The court ruled that the DOJ secretary has had no authority under the law to stop respondents or accused in criminal cases from leaving the country, as only trial courts can issue hold orders.
The SC held that the assailed circular and all succeeding watchlist orders based on it violated the right to travel of the subjects under Article III, Section 6 of the 1987 Constitution.
“The Court, in interpreting Article III, Section 6, determined that there was no legal basis for the Department Circular No. 41 because of the absence of a law authorizing the Secretary of Justice to issue Hold Departure Orders, Watch List Orders (WLO) or Allow Departure Orders,” SC spokesman Theodore Te said in a press conference.
“The liberty of abode and of changing the same within the limits prescribed by law shall not be impaired except upon lawful order of the court. Neither shall the right to travel be impaired except in the interest of national security, public safety, or public health, as may be provided by law,” read a provision in the Constitution.
The high court has not immediately released copies of the decision pending submission of all concurring opinions by justices.
It was not clear then how the ruling would apply to the current policy of the DOJ on issuing an Immigration Lookout Bulletin Order, which De Lima formulated to replace the WLO and which Vitaliano Aguirre II also implemented when he was justice chief.
The SC had issued a temporary restraining order on Circular No. 41 on Nov. 15, 2011 upon petition of Mrs. Arroyo.
The former president, in a wheelchair, arrived at the airport later that day armed with the order from the SC. De Lima issued the WLO against her after the DOJ indicted her in an electoral sabotage case, for which she was later cleared.