Justice Peralta cites Congress debates on drug law vs De Lima

MANILA, Philippines – Supreme Court (SC) Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta cited congressional debates on Republic Act 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 to back the SC decision against Senator Leila de Lima. (READ: Supreme Court's 9-6 ruling keeps De Lima in jail)

Peralta, in a 30-page separate opinion, said that even if drug violations were committed by government officials, the regional trial court (RTC), not the Sandiganbayan, has jurisdiction over them.

"Going over the records of Congressional deliberations due to the transcendental importance of the jurisdictional issue raised by petitioner [De Lima], however, I found that the RTC, not the Sandiganbayan, has exclusive original jurisdiction over all drug cases even if they were committed by public officials or employees in relation to their office," said Peralta, a former Sandiganbayan justice.

Peralta cited the House debates on RA 9165 – then a pending bill meant to repeal RA 6425 or the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972.

Article 10, Section 39 of the old law states that "Circuit Criminal Court shall have exclusive original jurisdiction over all cases" involving drugs. The Circuit Criminal Court is now the Regional Trial Court.

Peralta said the sole original jurisdiction of RTCs over drug cases under the old law was not intended to be repealed, based on House interpellations.

At the time, former Maguindanao representative Didagen Dilangalen asked former House dangerous drugs committee chair and Cebu Representative Antonio Cuenco if it is the House committee's intention to mandate the SC to designate certain RTC salas to try drug-related offenses.

"Cuenco replied in the affirmative… He added that the Committee's intention is to assign drug-related cases to judges who will handle exclusively these cases assigned to them," said the House journal cited in Peralta’s opinion.

Dilangalen then manifested that he would propose the following amendment in due time: "The Supreme Court shall designate specific salas of the RTC to try exclusively offenses related to drugs."

Justice Peralta also cited records of the bicameral conference committee on the bill, saying RA 9165 does not repeal, but upholds RTC jurisdiction as originally mandated by the old law.

Cuenco defended the need for "special attention" by courts on drug cases.

"There have been many apprehensions, thousands upon thousands apprehensions, thousands upon thousands of cases filed in court but only one percent have been disposed of. The reason is that there is no special attention made or paid on these drug cases by our courts," he said.

Former senator Richard Barbers shared the same view but asserted that the SC should just "designate," and not create, courts for drug cases, citing budgetary constraints.

"I have no problem with that, Mr Chairman, but I'd like to call your attention to the fact that my proposal [is] only for a designation because if it is for a creation that would entail another budget, Mr Chairman. And almost always, the Department of Budget would tell us at the budget hearing that we lack funds, we do not have money. So that might delay the very purpose why we want the RTC or the municipal courts to handle exclusively the drug cases. That's why my proposal is designation not creation," Barbers was quoted as saying.

With this, the justice said De Lima's claim stands no ground, and added there was no grave misconduct on the part of the Muntinlupa RTC Judge Juanita Guerrero when she issued the arrest warrant against the senator in February.

De Lima claimed the warrant was issued despite having a motion to quash pending before the judge.

But Peralta said there are no laws, rules, and jurisprudence that require the judge to settle a motion to quash first before deciding on a case's probable cause.

Peralta also criticized De Lima and her camp for not exhausting all legal remedies possible, primarily pointing out that the senator did not file a counter-affidavit before the Department of Justice.

The senator’s camp has repeatedly said they did not do that because it is tantamount to recognizing the DOJ's jurisdiction, which she has been questioning since day one.

De Lima earlier wanted the SC to rule that the DOJ and the RTC have no jurisdiction over her cases, so that these cases can be dismissed and she can be set free. (READ: EXPLAINER: Issues on jurisdiction in De Lima cases)

But voting 9-6, the High Court dismissed her pleas. Aside from Peralta, the 8 other justices who voted against De Lima were Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr, Teresita Leonardo de Castro, Lucas Bersamin, Mariano del Castillo, Samuel Martires, Noel Tijam, Andres Reyes, and Alexander Gesmundo.

The 6 justices who voted for the senator were Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, and Associate Justices Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Francis Jardeleza, Marvic Leonen, and Benjamin Caguioa. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com