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Slash and burn

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:39:00 08/03/2008

Filed Under: Crime, Law & Justice

IF THERE?S ONE THING TRAINED LAWYERS CAN BE relied upon to do, it?s to avoid lying outright in an affidavit. And so the public must consider the possibility that both Justice Jose Sabio Jr. of the Court of Appeals and Francis de Borja may be telling the truth -- though selectively, and therefore, partially. This is a dilemma the Supreme Court will have to wrestle with, as it addresses on Tuesday, the question of whether Court of Appeals justices acted improperly or not, in handling the Meralco vs GSIS case.

Behind Justice Sabio are arrayed not just the inherent authority and even prestige of his office, but the credibility and good judgment of the institutions with whom he has been affiliated, including the Ateneo de Manila?s law school, whose leading lights have spoken up to endorse Sabio. It was Sabio, with the encouragement of Justice Myrna Vidal (his colleague in the 9th Special Division) who informed the presiding justice of the Court of Appeals, Justice Conrado M. Vasquez Jr., that a bribery attempt had been made.

According to Sabio, De Borja, an acquaintance, offered him P10 million, for which the justice in turn would recuse himself from the Meralco case originally brought before the appellate court?s Special 9th Division, which Sabio chaired. Apparently De Borja was a rather crude name-dropper, and Sabio claimed that after he declined the offer of a bribe, the Meralco case was suddenly and unceremoniously transferred to the 8th Division of the Court of Appeals, which immediately and unanimously upheld Meralco?s argument that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had no jurisdiction over the GSIS-Meralco dispute.

In retaliation, De Borja then issued a counter-affidavit, in which he claimed that Sabio said that changing his mind would cost P50 million, since he?d been offered money and a Supreme Court seat by the administration.

Against Justice Sabio are the troubling questions of his ?casual friendship? with De Borja -- a friendship that seems to have been based on a prior business relationship dating back to the days when Sabio was a Regional Trial Court judge in Cagayan de Oro City. This was a lucrative friendship, according to De Borja.

It was certainly a friendship that enabled De Borja to meet with Sabio last July 1?a meeting that ought never to have taken place at all. The Judicial Code of Ethics is quite clear: ?Judges shall ensure that not only is their conduct above reproach, but that it is perceived to be so in the view of a reasonable observer.?

There was no reason for Sabio to be entertaining people in the lobby of the Ateneo de Manila?s college of law; no justification for him to even entertain questions on cases, past, pending, or future; and no way he could have been viewed to have been acting in any manner except with imprudence, and to the prejudice not only of his reputation but also of the Court of Appeals.

The legal profession is rife with stories of cases up for sale to the highest bidder; and of decisions being determined less by the law and more by interventions made by powerful parties on susceptible judges. Both the private and public sectors are widely perceived to be engaged in influence-peddling on a particularly lucrative scale when it comes to the higher courts. The only thing unusual about the allegations being made now is that they are being made in public, by means of affidavits, and not merely being whispered about in legal circles.

And yet it is Sabio?s decision to go public with the bribe allegedly offered to him by De Borja that, for now, gives weight to the justice?s claim. His having gone public, while embarrassing to the Court of Appeals, is the proper action of a man who has nothing to hide, and who fulfilled his duty by informing his superior of an attempt at bribery, and of the possibility that his colleagues may have succumbed to similar blandishments.

For its part, Meralco, if shown to be indeed behind De Borja, cannot justify the alleged bribe offer in the context of self-preservation and self-defense, just because the GSIS, its current institutional nemesis, has proven adept at using institutions like the SEC to further its own ends. The only thing going for Meralco is that the link between De Borja and his alleged client (Meralco) is slightly more tenuous than the damaging link between De Borja and Sabio himself.

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