MANILA, Philippines (5th UPDATE) – Voting 9-6, the Supreme Court (SC) en banc on Tuesday, October 10, junked the petition of Senator Leila de Lima, saying it is the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC), rather than the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan, that has jurisdiction over the drug trade cases filed against her.
De Lima will remain in jail at the custodial center in Camp Crame.
SC Spokesman Theodore Te confirmed the ruling in a press conference on Tuesday.
De Lima petitioned the High Court to nullify the warrant of arrest issued against her by RTC Judge Juanita Guerrero, citing lack of jurisdiction. Included in her petition was a plea to the SC to stop Guerrero from conducting further proceedings on her drug case.
De Lima’s petition, in essence, wanted the SC to rule that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and RTC don’t have jurisdiction over her cases so that they can be dismissed and she can be set free.
In dismissing the senator's petition, the SC gave the 3 RTC branches of Muntinlupa handling her cases the go-signal to continue with their proceedings. (READ: EXPLAINER: Issues on jurisdiction in De Lima cases)
The 6 justices who voted for De Lima are Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, Associate Justices Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Francis Jardeleza, Marvic Leonen, and Benjamin Caguioa.
The 9 justices who voted against De Lima are Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr, Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Mariano Del Castillo, Samuel Martires, Noel Tijam, Andres Reyes, and Alexander Gesmundo.
De Castro, Peralta, Martires and Gesmundo were all justices of the Sandiganbayan before their appointments to the SC. They ruled that the Sandiganbayan has no jurisdiction over De Lima.
The SC decision means that De Lima's case will not be handled by the Office of the Ombudsman, but by the DOJ state prosecutors who will prove their case against De Lima before the Muntinlupa RTC.
So far, Branches 204 and 205 have issued arrest warrants. The one issued in February by Branch 204 Judge Guerrero was the subject of De Lima's petition, saying the judge committed grave abuse of discretion.
The SC decision marks another episode in the battle of De Lima, staunchest critic of President Rodrigo Duterte. (READ: De Lima in jail: 'I never imagined Duterte would be this vindictive')
One of De Lima's counsels, former solicitor general Florin Hilbay, said that the ruling affects DOJ prosecutors who are the “most worried” and who will “now have to establish a case without evidence.”
Hilbay said on Twitter: “The path to justice for Leila De Lima is a steep incline, but her strong heart & unconquerable spirit will persist till justice is done.”
Solicitor General Jose Calida said the ruling only proves that Duterte’s war on drugs is not a war against the poor.
“The decision further negates the erroneous perception that the government’s war on drugs is waged only against the unlettered and the underprivileged,” Calida said in a statement.
The SC sided with Calida’s argument that under the Dangerous Drugs Act, it is the RTC which has sole jurisdiction to try the charges under that law.
“The Court did not agree with petitioner’s characterization of the offense as Direct Bribery under the Revised Penal Code but maintained that the Information are sufficient to characterize the offense as a violation of the Dangerous Drugs Act,” the SC said in a summary sent by Te.
De Lima’s camp had insisted that she falls under the jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan because she falls under the classification of a public official with Salary Grade 27 and higher, and that the alleged offense was committed in relation to her office.
The SC did not agree, saying, “The Sandiganbayan’s jurisdiction is limited to violations of the anti-graft laws and [does] not extend to violations of the drugs law.”
The Sandiganbayan, however, handles other cases of public officials apart from graft. In the case of the "Morong 43", for example, police and soldiers are accused of violating the rights of arrested or detained persons.
The SC also ruled that Judge Guerrero did not commit grave abuse of discretion in ordering De Lima’s arrest before resolving the Senator’s motion to quash. Judge Guerrero was just complying with the Rules of Court, which impose a 10-day period to evaluate evidence upon filing of charges, the High Court said.
The SC also said De Lima “violated the rule on hierarchy of courts and the prohibition against forum shopping.”
The SC also gave merit to Calida's argument that De Lima falsified the jurat or notarization of her pleading.
"The Court also found that the petition was not properly executed under oath and that the jurat (certification) was defective for not having subscribed to the same in the presence of the notary public," the SC said.
Criticized by the De Lima camp then as "legal nitpicking and hairsplitting," they admitted that the notarization was not done face to face. They said De Lima met with the notary public on the day of her arrest, but due to the circumstances, could not be in the presence of the lawyer when it was officially signed, also on the same day.
The ponente of the case is Justice Velasco, whose inhibition from the case De Lima sought, citing conflict of interest. It is unclear whether the en banc also resolved De Lima’s motion for inhibition, but Velasco had already voted against the senator.
De Lima was arrested late February for allegedly receiving money from drug convicts inside Bilibid in exchange for their protection. The money, the convicts said, was intended to fund De Lima's senatorial bid in 2016. (READ: EXPLAINER: What is Leila de Lima being accused of?)
It was the conclusion of a series of sensational congressional inquiries where Bilibid convicts pointed to De Lima, as having been complicit in the proliferation of the drug trade inside the jails.
A panel of prosecutors from the Department of Justice (DOJ) handled the complaints, despite De Lima's contention that it is the Ombudsman who has jurisdiction over her.
De Lima first sought relief from the Court of Appeals but the CA refused to give her a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO). A week after, the DOJ proceeded to file the charges before the Muntinlupa RTC.
The DOJ also cleared 5 high-profile convicts in the De Lima cases, in order to use them as witnesses against the senator.
De Lima immediately filed a motion to quash. In her petition, De Lima said Judge Guerrero committed grave abuse of discretion because she issued a warrant of arrest without ruling on the motion to quash first.