Sandigan justices, pork barrel cases: Eyeing the SC?

Last of 3 parts

MANILA, Philippines – The Sandiganbayan has been traditionally a rich source of future Supreme Court justices. From 2016 to 2022, during the term of the next president, there will be 11 vacancies in the High Court. How many of the present anti-graft justices will make it to the Tribunal?

The plunder case of Estrada is  instructive. Two of the justices who convicted Estrada – Diosdado Peralta and Teresita De Castro – were appointed to the SC. The third justice, Francisco Villaruz, was named presiding justice of the Sandiganbayan.

It bears watching how they will behave under a new administration, and whether their actuations will be their ticket to the High Court.

Third division justices: Senator Juan Ponce Enrile cases 

Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang

Cabotaje-Tang’s career trajectory in the judiciary is only surpassed by Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. Like the Supreme Court Chief Justice, she zoomed past her more senior colleagues to bag the Presiding Justice post.

When she was interviewed for the post by the Judicial and Bar Council, which vets nominees to the courts, Tang, 58, dismissed insinuations she was too young for the job. “I may be a junior in judicial experience but I am not a junior in legal and administrative experience,” Tang said.

As for her independence from the appointing power, Tang said, "No one has swayed me into delaying or solving a case in favor of one party.” Her backer in the judiciary is believed to be Solicitor-General Francis Jardeleza. The magistrate, in fact, cites Jardeleza as character reference in her personal data sheet.

Tang provided the third vote denying the bail petition of Arroyo in connection with the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office plunder case when the First Division was transformed into a division of 5. Tang and Lagos, both Aquino appointees, were asked to break the impasse when the 3 members of the First Division failed to arrive at a unanimous decision. Two members – chairman Efren dela Cruz and Lagos – voted to deny Arroyo’s bail petition, while Justice Rodolfo Ponferrada was in favor of granting the petition.

In the division of 5, Ponferrada and Justice Jose Hernandez, both Arroyo appointees, joined forces but were outvoted by Tang, Dela Cruz and Lagos.

It is also under Cabotaje-Tang’s division that graft charges against former Makati mayor Elenita Binay in connection with an alleged overpriced purchase of hospital equipment and supplies during her term, is pending. (READ: Mrs Binay to charge Ombudsman for reviving cases)

Tang graduated from the San Beda College of Law, finishing as one of the top 10 in her batch. She obtained a bar rating of 84.95%. She started out as a clerk at the Insurance Commission and as judicial assistant to the SC. She was Assistant Solicitor General before being appointed to the Sandiganbayan. She had been charged before the Ombudsman for administrative, criminal and disbarment proceedings but all were dismissed.

Before her appointment to the Sandiganbayan, Cabotaje-Tang, as Assistant Sol-Gen, argued before the anti-graft court’s Second Division against the approval of the plea bargain of former military comptroller retired Major General Carlos Garcia. (READ: SC stops Garcia plea bargain deal) She clashed with Martires on the controversial plea bargain deal and both of them now belong to the Third Division.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, she might stay on as presiding justice until the plunder case of Enrile is resolved. She retires on November 8, 2024, way after Aquino’s successor completes his or her term.

As of December 2013, her net worth stood at P6.267 million.

Justice Alex Quiroz

Justice Quiroz was initially involved in two plunder cases: as member of the Third Division and a special member in the Fifth Division before Justice Ma. Theresa Dolores Gomez-Estoesta got appointed to fill up the vacancy in that division. At age 57, he is the second youngest in the Sandiganbayan, with Gomez-Estoesta being the youngest at 47.

Quiroz was one of the 4 justices in the division of 5 that approved the maligned Garcia plea bargain deal. The agreement had been described by the Office of the Solicitor-General as anomalous and could seal the fate of the justices involved, including Quiroz. An appointment to the SC by President Aquino may be highly unlikely. (READ: Sandigan issued ‘corrupt order’)

Quiroz was among those nominated for the presiding justice position in the Sandiganbayan. In his interview with the Judicial and Bar Council, Quiroz batted for open public proceedings in the anti-graft court to enhance transparency. (Court proceedings right now are not open for media coverage).

As a special member of the Fifth Division, Quiroz was among those who cleared former Justice Secretary Hernando "Nani" Perez for allegedly falsifying his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth in connection with the alleged bribery and extortion case filed by former Manila representative Mark Jimenez. (READ: Anti-graft court clears Nani Perez of all charges) Three other cases filed against Perez in different divisions were also junked.

Quiroz wrote the ruling dismissing in 2012 the Pestaño murder case for lack of jurisdiction. He also wrote the ponencia dismissing in 2013 graft and malversation charges against former Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera.

In 2013, Quiroz was among the 3 justices (the 2 others being then presiding justice Francisco VIllaruz and Justice Samuel Martires) taken to task by the SC for lapse of judgment when they continued to entertain pleadings from a former mayor who was already convicted by the court.

While dismissing the grave misconduct complaint against the justices, the SC however admonished them “to be more circumspect and prudent in observing the proper rules and procedures for the execution of judgments of conviction in the absence of restraining orders or injunctive writs from the Court.” The SC also “sternly warned that repetition of the same or similar acts will be dealt with more severely.”

Quiroz obtained his law degree from Manuel L. Quezon University. In government service, he started out as special counsel to the Office of the City Fiscal of Manila. He also worked as legislative staff at the House of Representatives.

He was with the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) when he was appointed Pasig Metropolitan Trial Court judge. He was later appointed Regional Trial Court judge.

Based on his 2013 SALN, Quiroz has the highest net worth in the anti-graft court with P60 million.

Justice Samuel Martires

Of the 15 justices in the Sandiganbayan, it is only Justice Martires who refused to provide a copy of his personal data sheet (PDS) to Rappler. Our request for the justices’ PDS was deliberated on and approved by the en banc. However, Martires pulled out his PDS before Rappler got his copy. 

Martires penned the resolution approving the Garcia plea bargain deal that allowed the former military comptroller to petition for the lesser charge of direct bribery and money laundering instead of plunder. In exchange, Garcia will have to surrender P135.43 million of his assets. The deal triggered the impeachment move against Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez which eventually led to her resignation.

In that resolution approving the deal, Martires wrote: “(T)he evidence of the prosecution did not translate into proof beyond reasonable doubt that inescapably compelled the Court to ultimately give its imprimatur to the Plea Bargaining Agreement entered into between the Office of the Ombudsman and the accused Maj. Gen. Garcia.” (READ: Court upholds Garcia plea bargain deal)

The Garcia case has been a ticklish issue for the magistrate and it appears he has not fully recovered from it.  In the plunder case of Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, which is being heard by the Third Division, he referred to the criticism hurled at him resulting from the Garcia case. “I will not yield to public pressure or opinion. I do not hear opinions that are baseless. I will not care what lawyers and media will say,” Martires was quoted as saying during a hearing. “I am already castigated in Garcia’s cases.”

In the Third division, Martires was the last justice to determine whether there is probable cause to proceed with the trial. He justified the delay pointing to the prosecution being late in giving him all the documents in the plunder case. (READ: Does Juan Ponce Enrile have a vote in the bag?

At one point, he lectured the prosecution on the proper filing of documents with the courts. “No offense, but it seems that you just adopted all the evidence turned over by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). You did not segregate what belongs to Enrile, what belongs to Estrada and what belongs to Revilla,” Martires said.

Martires also penned the decision that cleared the late President Ferdinand Marcos, the late Fabian Ver, and businessman Roberto Ongpin in connection with the alleged Binondo Central Bank scam. (READ: Court clears Marcos, Ongpin in Binondo bank scam).

When the Presidential Commission on Good Government and the OSG commented that the ruling “was not an honest and good faith attempt to resolve the instant case in a principled way,” Martires was livid. “I demand an explanation. This is a malicious accusation and an insult to the ponente. The only wealth I have is my reputation. It pains me so much that this accusation has been hurled to the court. This is contemptuous language,” Martires said. (READ: Judge fights back after Marcos ruling described as ‘not honest’

The justice also penned the decision in 2011 dismissing a case against Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte over the demolition of a park installed by his political rival in 2008. He also wrote the ruling acquitting in 2011 a graft case against former Parañaque City mayor Joey Marquez over overpriced walis-tingting (broomsticks).

Based on his 2013 SALN, Martires has a net worth of P40.6 million, the second highest after Quiroz.

Fifth Division: Senator Jinggoy Estrada's cases

Justice Roland Jurado

As chair of the Fifth Division, Justice Jurado steers the plunder case of Senator Jinggoy Estrada. The justice at one time applied for the post of presiding justice, following the retirement of Justice Edilberto Sandoval in 2011. He was not shortlisted by the JBC.

Jurado penned the decision that acquitted Perez for alleged falsification in his SALN. He also wrote the ruling that junked the government’s 60% claim on tycoon Lucio Tan’s assets.

Jurado was also part of the special division of 5 that gave the green light to Garcia’s plea bargain deal. He and Quiroz were called in to break the impasse, when the Second Division failed to unanimously agree on approving the deal.

Other high profile cases being handled by the Fifth division under Jurado include:

Before the cases related to the botched $329 million national broadband network deal with China’s ZTE Corporation was consolidated in the Fourth Division, the Fifth Division was handling the case of former National Economic Development Authority director general Romulo Neri who was said to be involved in the deal.

Jurado, with Quiroz and Alexander Gesmundo as members, blocked former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from testifying against Neri. The Fourth Division however reversed this position.

Jurado also penned the decision convicting in 2011 former Public Works Secretary Florante Soriquez over a breach of a section of the P38.29-million Pampanga “megadike” that buried in 1996 three towns under water and lahar.

He also wrote the ponencia that acquitted Imelda Marcos, then as Human Settlements Minister, and Jose Conrado Benitez over accusations that they pocketed money from housing and realty business transactions through a dummy firm.

In the Estrada plunder case, Jurado warned the prosecution against amending the information they filed against the senator or the court would be forced to order Estrada’s release. “f I were you, I would not amend the information,” Jurado advised. (READ: Prosecutors flip-flop on charge sheet vs Jinggoy)

Jurado completed his law studies at the University of Santo Tomas.

He has a net worth of P17.230 million, based on his 2013 SALN, up from P15.5 million in 2012.

Justice Alexander Gesmundo

Justice Gesmundo previously aspired to be elevated to the SC following the successive retirements of Justice Leonardo Quisumbing and Minita Chico-Nazario in 2009. Along with Devanadera, Gesmundo actually topped the informal survey conducted among SC justices. He was however bypassed by Arroyo for SC posts.

Gesmundo concurred with Jurado and Quiroz in dismissing the SALN falsification case against Perez, and in blocking Neri from testifying against Arroyo over the NBN-ZTE deal.

Gesmundo penned the ruling convicting former San Vicente, Palawan mayor Vicente Villapando for ghost delivery of cement. He also wrote the ruling clearing former Merida, Leyte mayor Rodrigo Wenceslao of perjury charges in connection with his SALN declaration.

He also wrote the ruling clearing retired Major General Garcia of perjury in connection with his 1997 SALN where he supposedly failed to declare ownership of 3 vehicles.

“Any false declaration in the SALN is not in itself unlawful…the prosecution must also prove that the accused did not believe his statement to be true,” Gesmundo wrote.

Gesmundo also wrote the ponencia convicting two retired and 7 active police officials for graft in connection with the P38 million worth of ghost purchases in 1992. 

A faculty member of the Ateneo de Manila School of Law, Gesmundo could not help but lecture during hearings in the plunder case of the younger Estrada. One time, he lectured the prosecutors on the difference between conspiracy and connivance.

The prosecution has sought to amend the information filed against Estrada, where they removed the element of “conspiracy” and changed it to “connivance.” The prosecution argued that the two words were “interchangeable” anyway.

But Gesmundo would not have it any other way. He pointed out that under the doctrine of conspiracy, the acts charged are presupposed to have been committed by all the accused. “This is a criminal indictment so every word in the information must be precise,” Gesmundo said.

The justice is also stern and impatient as well.

In one hearing, he cut short the lawyer of Janet Lim Napoles, Stephen David, in cross-examining a field investigator of the Ombudsman. David was interrogating the witness for not including in the Ombudsman's investigation one of the persons listed as incorporator of a foundation used to siphon pork barrel funds. “You’re a good lawyer and investigator. You should know that,” David commented, when the witness said he failed to inform the whistleblowers that their testimonies might be used against them.

At this point, Gesmundo interjected. “Stop lecturing him about the Miranda rights. If you want, you can just file a case against him,” Gesmundo told David.

Gesmundo obtained his law degree from the Ateneo de Manila School of Law in 1984 and passed the bar the same year. Before his stint in the Sandiganbayan, he took on a few odd jobs: as research analyst for Business Day and as marketing officer at the Australian embassy.

In 1986, he joined the OSG as trial attorney, inching his way as Associate Solicitor to Solicitor III.  He was also a one-time PCGG commissioner. He was Assistant Solicitor-General before his stint at the Sandiganbayan.

Gesmundo has the second lowest net worth in the anti-graft court. As of December 2013, his net worth stood at P4.28 million. Justice Oscar Herrera has the lowest net worth, at P3 million.

Justice Maria Theresa Dolores Gomez-Estoesta

At age 47, Justice Gomez-Estoesta is the youngest in the Sandiganbayan. The second youngest in the court is Justice Quiroz, and he is 10 years older.

In 2011, Gomez-Estoesta applied with the Sandiganbayan for the vacancy created by the appointment of Justice Francisco Villaruz as presiding justice. Also in the running at the time was then Assistant Solicitor General Amparo Cabotaje-Tang, who was the one eventually chosen.

She would soon fill up the vacancy that was created when Cabotaje-Tang was named presiding justice.

In the first voting conducted by the JBC, Gomez got 5 votes out of the 6 possible votes. Two others got perfect votes – Makati Regional Trial Court Maryann Corpus Mañalac and Quezon City Presiding Judge Bernelito Fernandez. 

When the shortlist was finally submitted to the President, Estoesta got 4 votes, while Corpus-Mañalac and Fernandez retained their 6 votes. (READ: Aquino appoints new Sandiganbayan justice)

Malacañang announced her appointment on June 23, 2014, more than 4 months since the JBC submitted its shortlist to the President. Four days earlier, on June 19, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa asked the JBC to revisit the shortlist. On June 20, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who also chairs the JBC, rejected the request, saying that the 90-day period for the President to choose from the list had already lapsed.

Malacañang, in justifying the review of the JBC list, said it only wanted additional information on the nominees. “The nominee to be appointed has to be like Caesar’s wife, completely above suspicion,” Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte said.

In her personal data sheet, Gomez-Estoesta indicated June 24, 2014 as her date of appointment to the Sandiganbayan.

The justice started out as a junior associate in a law firm before joining the OSG in 1991. In 2002, she was appointed judge at the Metropolitan Trial Court of Manila. She was later named Regional Trial Court judge of Manila, assuming the post for 8 years.

She obtained her law degree from Ateneo de Manila. 

During her stint in the lower courts, Gomez-Estoesta received several awards, including Most Outstanding Judge for First Level Courts and Best Decision in Criminal Cases. She was also recognized by the SC as most outstanding judge for first-level courts. In 2012, she was recipient of the Chief Justice Cayetano Arellano award as most outstanding judge for second-level courts. – with reports from Michael Bueza/Rappler.com