THE Palace expressed concern Tuesday over the decision of three Sandiganbayan justices to inhibit themselves from trying the plunder and graft cases against Senator Jinggoy Estrada.
“The interest of the people is that there should be no delay in the proceedings and the wheels of justice must continue to turn,” said Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma.
In a letter to the anti-graft court’s presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang, Associate Justices Roland Jurado, Alexander Gesmundo and Ma. Theresa Dolores Gomez-Estoesta of the Sandiganbayan 5th Division all asked to be recused from trying Estrada’s case for “personal reasons.”
Both the defense and the prosecution said they were surprised by the move eight months after the trial had started.
Coloma said the Palace was surprised as well, and denied suggestions that the justices recused themselves because of pressure from the government.
“There is no basis and there is no truth to that accusation,” Coloma said.
A source in the anti-graft court said the pressure came from the Anti-Money Laundering Council and the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
The source declined to divulge details, but the Supreme Court granted last month the request of the BIR to get copies of the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth of Sandiganbayan justices.
Estrada’s lawyer Stephen David said the inhibition would put their pending motions before the court in limbo.
Fifth Division clerk of court Ma. Teresa Pabulayan said even Estrada’s request for a Christmas and New Year furlough filed last Friday “will not be acted upon.”
Only the Supreme Court can question the motives of the three justices.
Cabotaje-Tang can only transfer the case to another division for trial once she finalizes the three justices’ inhibition, which is legally presumed to be “on just and valid grounds or compelling reasons” even if they are personal.
Other than saying that it was for personal reasons, the three Sandiganbayan justices remained mum over what prompted them to inhibit themselves.
The rules of court allow a judge or justice to inhibit himself from hearing a case in which he or his family has an interest, or in which he is related to either party within the sixth degree of consanguinity or affinity, or to counsel within the fourth degree. A judge may also exercise his discretion and disqualify himself from sitting in a case for just and valid reasons.
The Supreme Court, on the other hand, has ruled that a judge’s decision to inhibit “should be based on his rational and logical assessment of the circumstances prevailing in the case before him”
Estrada, from his detention cell, said he was surprised by the inhibition of the three justices.
“I sincerely hope that this is not a product of political maneuverings from outside forces in an effort to influence the PDAF [Priority Development Assistance Fund] cases,” Estrada said in a text message Tuesday. “I hope that the development will not result in further delay in the resolution of my case, especially the bail proceedings.”
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