Trial judges on trial by the gallery
High-profile criminal cases normally begin in the regional trial courts or in the Sandiganbayan. The presiding magistrates bear the brunt of public scrutiny; they are praised or damned by the peanut gallery. In public interest cases, the sub judice rule is relaxed in favor of fair comment and free speech. Ironically, trial judges are put on trial in the courts of public opinion.
AS RECENT EXAMPLES OF THESE IRONIES, three criminal cases for alleged drug trafficking were filed against former senator Leila de Lima (and several others) that were raffled to three branches of the Regional Trial Courts of Muntinlupa (RTC-M). Charged with capital offenses, the former solon has been detained without bail since then up to now.
In one case, she was acquitted without much ado. In another raffled to Branch 204, she was also acquitted by Presiding Judge Abraham Joseph Alcantara on the ground that—though the crime may have been committed—the recantation of former director of the National Bureau of Investigation Rafael Ragos created a doubt on her participation therein. In the third raffled to Branch 256, Presiding Judge Romeo Buenaventura denied her motion for bail on the ground that the prosecution’s evidence was “strong.”
This year alone, I have written four columns on these three cases—(1) on Jan. 30, on whether she was entitled, like Jessica Lucila “Gigi” Reyes, to temporary freedom via a petition for habeas corpus in the Supreme Court; (2) on June 5, on whether the motion for reconsideration filed by the prosecution in the RTC-M to overturn her acquittal by Judge Alcantara would succeed (it did not); (3) on June 12, on the various options the feisty lady solon has to overturn the denial of her bail; and (4) on June 26, on the viability of habeas corpus at that late stage given the “omnibus motion” filed by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) in the Supreme Court in the case of Gigi Reyes. Since I already wrote four times about De Lima’s plight, let me, today, in turn, tackle the tribulations of the presiding judges in these cases.
THE DECISION OF JUDGE ALCANTARA TO ACQUIT DE LIMA—though normally final and executory and cannot be appealed—will not yet rest because the OSG has filed a formidable 71-page petition for certiorari in the Court of Appeals to declare it null and void on the ground that it was rendered with “grave abuse of discretion.”
In law, a decision, or any action for that matter, that is judged by a higher tribunal to have been rendered with grave abuse of discretion is deemed nonexistent. Therefore, the acquittal itself would be void because no judgment exists to support it.
In general, petitions for certiorari stand little chance of success, given the strong presumption that judges perform their duties diligently and fairly. However, this time, this presumption is stressed because the petition is backed up by Solicitor General Menardo I. Guevarra who has a solid reputation for probity and fairness. While Judge Alcantara’s personal integrity is not directly at issue and while he is not required to defend his decision in the Court of Appeals, still his competence and honesty would be adversely affected by a judgment finding him to have committed grave abuse of discretion. And, thereafter, he could still be held administratively liable depending on the decision of the appellate court. And to think that he is not even required to defend his decision. The accused (and her lawyers) who benefitted from the acquittal are the ones required by law to defend the decision.
ON THE OTHER HAND, JUDGE BUENAVENTURA FACES AN ADMINISTRATIVE COMPLAINT filed against him personally, not against his order denying bail to De Lima (this order is the subject of a separate attack), but for inhibiting only after a motion to inhibit had been filed showing that his brother, Erwin, had been the lawyer who prepared an affidavit of one of the accused.
Consequently, De Lima’s counsels filed a complaint in the Judicial Integrity Board (JIB) against His Honor for not immediately disclosing his prohibited relationship thereby delaying unreasonably the case, which required a new raffle, this time to Branch 206 under Judge Gener Gito who understandably needs time to study the case anew, thereby resulting in the prolonged detention of the accused. Since the complaint is against him personally, he has to retain and pay for his own counsel.
(The JIB was created a few years ago by the Supreme Court to investigate misbehaving magistrates and judicial personnel nationwide. Headed by retired Justice Romeo J. Callejo Sr., chair, and retired Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez, vice chair, the JIB has been quietly chasing shenanigans in the judiciary.)
These are just samples of high-profile cases that show the risks and tribulations of trial judges, some self-inflicted, some by failure to follow the ethical codes, some by neglect to live up to the constitutional standards of “proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence” and some by conveniently ignoring what I call the “plague of ships”: kinship, relationship, friendship, and fellowship.
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