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With Due Respect

How to hasten the pork cases

That the Supreme Court allowed the Sandiganbayan (SBN) to raffle the pork barrel cases to its different divisions, despite the pendency of a request by the Office of the Ombudsman (OOO) to create two special divisions, indicates that these high-profile cases will get no special treatment, at least for now.

Full speed ahead. Since the high court did not issue a restraining order, the antigraft court simply raffled the cases in the normal course. Moreover, by objecting to the OOO’s proposal, the SBN assumed full responsibility for the resolution of these high-profile cases in the usual way. Unless restrained by the Supreme Court, the SBN should indeed move full speed ahead despite the pendency of requests, motions or petitions filed in the Supreme Court by any party.

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This is not to say that the OOO’s proposal was wrong. Its reasons for wanting two special divisions—“national magnitude of these cases, the complexities of the issues involved, the number of accused and the far-reaching consequences of these cases”—are persuasive.

However, I believe only one special division, if at all, should be created. And the justices assigned thereto should be cleared of their dockets so they can devote full time and attention to the pork cases.

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This is exactly what the Supreme Court did for the Ampatuan massacre. It emptied the docket of Presiding Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes, assigned her “assisting judges” and issued five special guidelines to speed up the trial. (See my Jan. 12 column, “SC hastens Maguindanao massacre cases.”)

Creating two special divisions or raffling to several divisions may result in differing rulings, needless repetition of testimonies, hiring of several sets of lawyers, and unnecessary delays.

The folly of having more than one division was shown by the different treatment given to the determination of probable cause. The First Division, without much ado, simply adjudged its existence and promptly issued the warrants of arrest on Sen. Bong Revilla, et al., while the Third and Fifth Divisions opted to hold hearings first.

Numerous, complicated cases. Thus far, the OOO filed with the SBN a total of 45 pork barrel cases, as follows:

One plunder case against Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, his chief of staff Gigi Reyes, Janet Lim Napoles, Ronald John Lim, and John Raymund de Asis; plus 15 cases for graft against Ponce Enrile, Reyes, Napoles and about 21 others;

One plunder case against Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, his deputy chief of staff Paulene Labayen, Napoles and De Asis; plus 12 graft cases against Estrada, Labayen, Napoles and about 11 others;

One plunder case against Revilla, his office director Richard Cambe, Napoles, Lim and De Asis; plus 16 cases of graft against Revilla, Cambe, Napoles and about 16 others.

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Each of the accused in each of these 45 cases can appoint at least one lawyer, who may file all kinds of petitions and motions, which need to be answered by the OOO and ruled upon by the SBN.

Of course, all these 45 cases will have to be tried by the SBN, with the prosecution presenting several witnesses and “truckloads” of documents, which must be identified, marked as exhibits, authenticated by witnesses and accepted by the SBN.

Truly, these pork barrel cases are numerous and complicated, even mind-boggling. And to think that these are just the “first batch.” The SBN must prepare for the long haul and make adequate preparations NOW. Given its 6-year average case disposal, the SBN will take over 10 years to finish these complicated pork cases in the usual way.

Anticipate problems. Thus, it must anticipate problems. Under its internal rules, it can still “recommend to the Supreme Court the creation of a special division,” even if it initially frowned on the OOO’s request. The SBN did this quite belatedly in the plunder trial of President Joseph Estrada. And only after the special division was created that the case was speeded up with daily hearings and decided after six years.

The June 16 Inquirer editorial demolished the myth that special divisions are created to nail down the accused, correctly pointing out that while the Special Division convicted President Estrada, it acquitted Jinggoy Estrada and Edward Serapio.

Alternatively, the SBN, under its rules, can conduct “joint trials” or consolidate “cases arising from the same incident, or series of incidents, or involving common questions of fact and law…”

For its part, the Supreme Court can promulgate new rules to hasten the cases, in the same way that it did in issuing new “guidelines” in the Ampatuan murders. Let it not wait for four years before acting in the pork cases, as it did in Ampatuan.

A speedy and fair trial is vital not only to the nation but also to the accused, who may be detained pending trial. If innocent, let them be acquitted and freed pronto. But if guilty, let them suffer the proper penalty.

In many cases, the Court—citing the all-embracing mantra of “transcendental importance”—acted speedily and fairly, upholding always our people’s faith in the rule of law and judicial system. As I opined on June 1, “Yes, the Supreme Court can!”

So also, Congress should urgently pass Senate President Franklin Drilon’s bill creating more SBN slots, authorizing trial by only one SBN justice (instead of three) and moving minor graft cases to the regular courts.

The point is: unless innovative and creative solutions are used, the pork cases will drag on for decades to the prejudice of the innocent and the public interest.

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Comments to [email protected]

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TAGS: artemio v. panganiban, ombudsman, opinion, pork barrel scam, Sandiganbayan, Special courts, Supreme Court, With Due Respect
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