RELATIONS between the new Duterte administration and the judiciary in 2016 were far less rocky than they were when Presi dent Benigno Aquino III came to power in 2010 and used all his po litical powers and state resources to oust Chief Justice Renato Corona through impeachment.
In contrast, there was no test of wills between President Rodrigo Duterte and Aquinoappointed Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno. Still, the last six months have seen Sereno losing clout in the high tribunal, ending up in the minority in two major cases—the burial of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, and the dismissal of plunder charges against former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
In both cases, the Duterte adminis tration had its way.
In November, the Supreme Court voted 95 to uphold the decision of President Duterte to allow Marcos’ interment at the hero’s cemetery, over the objections raised by peti tioners who challenged the move.
Nine justices found that Marcos was qualified to be buried at the Lib ingan ng mga Bayani as a “former president and commanderinchief, a legislator, a secretary of national defense, a military personnel, a vet eran and a Medal of Valor awardee.”
The decision triggered mass pro tests by victims of martial law, but the Marcos family and the Armed Forces proceeded with the burial on Nov. 18, even before appeals could be filed before the Supreme Court.
Another highprofile case was the dismissal of charges against Arroyo in July, shortly after Duterte took of fice.
Voting 114, the Court ordered the release of Arroyo after almost four years of hospital detention as it dismissed the remaining plunder case against her involving the P366 million Philippine Charity Sweep stakes Office fund anomaly during her term.
In its decision, the Court blamed the Ombudsman for its failure “to prove the predicate act of raiding the public treasury because it failed to prove that petitioners Arroyo and [PCSO budget official Benigno] Aguas, as public officers, had ben efitted from the act.”
It held that the Ombudsman was only able to prove that Arroyo af fixed her unqualified “OK” on re quests for additional funds from the PCSO from its confidential and intelligence funds, which “could not be considered an overt act for pur poses of plunder.”
In both these cases, Sereno found herself in the minority blocs with fewer than five fellow justices of the 15 members of the Court siding with her.
Observers have said that the Court is controlled by a major ity bloc composed of appointees of Mrs. Arroyo and not by Sereno and other Aquino appointees.
Sereno’s waning power in the Court was further proven again in December, when the justices voided schemes she implemented in the Judicial and Bar Council in the se lection process for judicial appoint ments.
In a ruling written by Associate Justice Teresita LeonardoDe Cas tro, the Court struck down JBC’s clustering of nominees per vacancy as well as its removal of the Court’s recommendatory powers in the se lection for Supreme Court posts.
The ruling specifically stated that the “changes in settled rules and practices recently adopted by the JBC under Chief Justice Sereno are disconcerting.”
“There appears to be a system atic move by the JBC, under Chief Justice Sereno, to arrogate to itself more power and infl uence than is actually granted by the Constitu tion and this Court, and at the same time, to ease out the Court from any legitimate participation in the nomination process for vacancies in the Judiciary, specifically in the Supreme Court,” the decision said.
The majority ruling, approved by nine justices, held that the seven member council should be censured for removing the longstanding rules that give the President a free hand to pick multiple appointments from a single shortlist and that al lows the Court to submit its recom mendations to the JBC before the council votes on a shortlist.
It held that the scheme clipped the power of the President to freely choose among nominees as the clustering has reportedly been a scheme to control or condition the appointments in multiple vacancies by the inclusion of “strong bets” in the same shortlist.
The Court ruled that the Presi dent may pick two or more appoin tees from the same shortlist just as President Aquino did in the vacan cies in the Sandiganbayan and ap pointments of Associate Justices Geraldine Faith Econg and Michael Frederick Musngi last January.
It also scolded the JBC for “un ceremoniously relieving” Justices LeonardoDe Castro and Presbitero Velasco Jr. from their posts in the council as consultants, thereby de fying a practice since the JBC was created in 1987 that the two most senior SC justices sit in the council.
Those who concurred with the ruling and agreed to censure Sereno and JBC without reservation were Associate Justices Arturo Brion, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Mariano del Castillo, Jose Portugal Perez, Jose Catral Mendoza, Bien venido Reyes, and Francis Jardeleza.
But while the SC appeared friendly to the Duterte adminis tration in major cases, it has also demonstrated independence from the executive branch on several in stances.
Duterte has reportedly promised to help detained former Senator Ra mon Revilla Jr. during his campaign in Cavite, bailiwick of the Revillas.
But in its decision last Dec. 6, the SC dismissed Revilla’s peti tion seeking dismissal of the P224 million plunder case against him in connection with the Priority Devel opment Assistance Funds anomaly.
The justices voted 131 to dis miss the petition filed by Revilla in June 2014 seeking to stop his trial in the Sandiganbayan and void the plunder and graft cases filed by the office of the Ombudsman against him.
The majority ruling upheld the findings by the antigraft office of existence of probable cause in the charges against Revilla.
This means the trial of the cases will proceed as scheduled in Janu ary 2017.
Revilla, however, still has an other pending petition with the SC seeking to post bail.
The Supreme Court has also in vestigated the role of two judges in the cases against Albuera town Mayor Rolando Espinosa, who was killed inside the Leyte subprovin cial jail in Baybay City last Nov. 5 by policemen that Duterte has per sistently defended.
The President publicly stated that he believes in the version of the Criminal Investigation and De tection Group team that they killed Espinosa in a shootout.
However, the Court still decided to probe the issuance of the search warrant used by the CIDG during the operation.
The SC Office of the Court Ad ministrator, which has administra tive supervision over all judges nationwide, specifically directed Judge Tarcelo Sabarre Jr. of Basey, Samar RTC Branch 30 and Judge Carlos Arguelles of the Baybay City RTC Branch 14 to answer re spective questions on their roles in Espinosa’s cases.
Sabarre was ordered to explain the necessity and circumstances for his issuance of a search warrant on illegal possession of firearm charges against Espinosa, who was already under custody of authorities in a government detention facility.
Arguelles, on the other hand, was directed to explain his failure to im mediately resolve the motion of Es pinosa to transfer out of his place to another detention.
Apart from Sabarre and Ar guelles, the Court also issued a sim ilar order to Judge Janet Cabalona of Calbiga, Samar RTC Branch 33, who issued a search warrant against Allan Alvarez, an inmate in the regional penal colony in Abuy og, Leyte, who was also killed by CIDG men when he allegedly at tempted to lob a grenade while the policemen were serving the war rant in August.
Bigger tests ahead
While the relationship between the SC and the Palace has improved under the Duterte administration, bigger tests still lie ahead in the coming year.
The Court is set to tackle and resolve two big cases seen to test its independence from the Duterte administrationthe petition for writ of habeas data filed by Senator Leila de Lima challenging the immunity from suit of the President and the electoral protest of former Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. against Vice President Leni Robredo.
In her petition, De Lima sought issuance of writ of habeas data stop ping Duterte from allegedly using government resources in his “per sonal vendetta” against her.
She challenged the applicabil ity of presidential immunity in Duterte’s case, saying the violations of Republic Act No. 6713 (Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials) and R.A. 9710 (Magna Carta for Women) by the President were beyond his duties as President.
De Lima, who has been tagged in illegal drugs trade in New Bilibid Prison and subjected to a congres sional investigation, also asked the Court to compel Duterte to dis close how he was able to listen to her private conversation and direct that her private information illegally obtained by authorities be “deleted, destroyed, or rectified.”