The Supreme Court has paved the way for the Quezon City Regional Trial Court to hear and resolve the P5 million damage suit filed by a businessman against Senator Antonio Trillanes for accusing him as a “dummy” of former vice president Jejomar Binay in the purchase of a 150-hectare property in Rosario, Batangas which has been tagged as “Hacienda Binay.”
In a 22-page decision, the SC’s First Division through Associate Justice Noel Tijam junked the petition filed by Trillanes seeking to reverse the resolutions issued by Judge Evangeline Castillo-Marigomen, presiding Judge of the QC RTC Branch 1010, on May 19, 2015 and Dec. 16, 2015.
The RTC, in the said resolutions, denied Trillanes’ motion to dismiss the civil suit filed by Antonio Tiu, who claimed ownership of the property through his company Sunchamp Real Estate Corp. (Sunchamp), and his motion for reconsideration.
The SC ruled that Trillanes cannot invoke parliamentary immunity to escape prosecution for damages over the statements he gave to mediamen in October 2014 accusing Tiu as a mere dummy of the former vice president.
“A lawmaker’s participation in media interviews is not a legislative act, but is ‘political in nature,’ outside the ambit of the immunity conferred under the Speech or Debate Clause in the 1987 Constitution,” the SC ruled.
“Contrary to petitioner’s stance, therefore, he cannot invoke parliamentary immunity to cause the dismissal of private respondent’s complaint. The privilege arises not because the statement is made by a lawmaker, but because it is uttered in furtherance of legislation,” the high court said.
Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro and Mariano del Castillo concurred with the ruling.
In his complaint, Tiu asserted that he is a legitimate businessman engaged in various businesses in the agricultural sector and that he has substantial shareholdings in numerous corporations and companies.
The complainant claimed that because of Trillanes’ claim, his reputation was tarnished which affected his businesses as shown by the steep drop in the stock prices of his publicly listed companies, Tiu also vehemently denied being a dummy of Binay saying that he has financial capacity to fund the development, operation and maintenance of the “Sunchamp Agri-Tourism Park.”
In seeking the dismissal of the civil suit, Trillanes asserted that Tiu was not able to prove his supposed ownership of the said estate.
The senator said that former Makati vice mayor Ernesto Mercado testified on how he helped the former vice president acquire and expand the property.
Trillanes also explained that his statements were protected by his constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech and freedom of expression and of the press considering that these were made as part of an ongoing public debate of a matter of public concern Trillanes also insisted that his statements, having been made in the course of his duties as senator, are covered by his parliamentary immunity under Article VI, Section II of the 1987 Constitution.
However, in an order dated May 19, 2015, the trial court denied Trillanes motion to dismiss the complaint saying that the allegations raised in the complaint were sufficient to enable the court to issue judgment.
The lower court also said that the defense of parliamentary immunity may be invoked only on special circumstances, which must be established in a full blown trial.
This prompted Trillanes to elevate the issue before the Supreme Court.
In upholding the trial court’s decision, the SC rejected Trillanes’ assertion that there is a clear threat to his parliamentary immunity as well as his rights to freedom of speech and freedom of expression in justifying his decision to immediately sought relief from the Court.
The SC held that there is sufficient standards and guidelines that has been set in its past decisions by which the trial court and the Court of Appeals can address and resolve the issue of parliamentary immunity raised by petitioner.
Even if the direct filing of the petition before it is allowed, the SC said Trillanes’ petition must still be dismissed for lack of merit.
The SC held that the senator’s statements in media interviews are not covered by the parliamentary speech or debate privilege.
It pointed out that parliamentary non-accountability cannot be invoked when the lawmaker’s speech or utterance is made outside sessions, hearings or debates in Congress.
“The statements were clearly not part of any speech delivered in the Senate or any of its committees. It cannot likewise be successfully contended that they were made in the official discharge of performance of petitioner’s duties as a senator, as the remarks were not part of or integral to the legislative process,” the SC ruled.
Besides, the Court noted that responding to media interviews is not considered an official function of any lawmaker.