The landmark court decisions of 2019
MANILA, Philippines — “The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine,” is an expression of assurance that although justice may be slow, it will come eventually
In the Philippines, it would take years, reaching up to decades before justice is served, with court decisions taking just as long to materialize.
However, we hold in our hearts the hope that justice will be served with fairness.
In 2019, Philippine courts laid down decisions on some of the most controversial cases the country had ever faced for years, including the verdict on the most gruesome attack on media workers and by far, the most violent election-related incident ever to be recorded in the Philippines.
INQUIRER.net recaps the landmark court decisions in 2019 that shook the entire with either anger or awe.
Maguindanao massacre verdict
It took 10 years before justice was served for the 57 lives out of 58 that were lost in the most gruesome and violent election-related incident in Philippine history.
On November 23, 2009, death came for 58 people in the town of Ampatuan, in the southern province of Maguindanao. Their bodies were hastily buried in three shallow graves on a hilltop.
The wife and sister of Maguindanao governorship candidate Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu and 32 media workers were among those killed.
Mangudadatu was gunning to end the 20-year rule of the Ampatuan family. His rival was Datu Andal Ampatuan, Jr., mayor of Datu Unsay town, and son of the incumbent governor, Andal Ampatuan, Sr.
On Dec. 19, 2019, Ampatuan Jr. and his brother Zaldy Ampatuan — along with 26 others — were found guilty beyond reasonable doubt of committing 57 counts of murder for the massacre. Even though the police said 58 people were killed, the body of the 58th victim, photojournalist Reynaldo “Bebot” Momay, was never found.
The accused who were found guilty were sentenced to reclusion perpetua which meant 40 years of imprisonment without parole.
Also found guilty as accessories were 15 individuals — mostly police officers — at the time of the massacre. They were sentenced to imprisonment of from six years to 10 years and eight months.
However, despite the convictions, more than half of the 101 suspects who were tried for the massacre, or 56 individuals, were acquitted, including former mayor Sajid Islam Ampatuan and his brother-in-law Akmad “Tato” Ampatuan.
Most were police officers were also deemed by the court to be “totally innocent” of the crimes charged.
Of the 197 people eventually charged with murder, eight have died during the hearings, including Andal Ampatuan Sr. Some 80 suspects still remain at large.
The Marcos wealth cases
2019 was a year of losses for the government in terms of its efforts to retrieve billions worth of ill-gotten wealth from the late former president Ferdinand Marcos and his family.
The Sandiganbayan has dismissed five out of seven ill-gotten wealth cases filed by Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), the agency in charge of recovering the Marcos ill-gotten wealth and the plaintiff in the case, the against the Marcoses due to insufficient evidence.
Weakening the cases filed against the Marcoses was the inability of the PCGG to submit to the Sandiganbayan original documents, instead of photocopied ones.
The Sandiganbayan ruled that under the Rules of Court, this is a violation of the Best Evidence Rule (or Rule 130, Section 3 of the Rules of Court, which states that no evidence is admissible other than the original document itself).
In August, the Sandiganbayan’s Second Division dismissed a P102-billion forfeiture case against the Marcoses and cronies led by Roberto S. Benedicto. The case was filed 32 years ago on July 31, 1987.
The anti-graft court said the PCGG “miserably failed to adduce evidence” to prove its allegations that officials of the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP), acting on orders of the Marcoses, extended loans to various shipping companies held by Marcos cronies.
It added that the PCGG also had only provided photocopies of documents that could have connected the transactions to the Marcoses, including a resolution by the DBP’s board of governors approving a $32.7-million loan favoring Benedicto’s companies.
Last September, the same Sandiganbayan branch junked the P1.052-billion civil case filed against former ambassador Bienvenido Tantoco, some of his relatives, and Dominador Santiago for supposedly acting as dummies of the Marcoses in acquiring artworks, jewelry, real estate and stakes in businesses.
The PCGG filed the case in March 1988.
The anti-graft court said the government had “failed to prove by a preponderance of evidence” that the defendants by themselves, or in conspiracy with the Marcoses, obtained ill-gotten wealth.
Also in September, the Sandiganbayan Fifth Division affirmed the dismissal of an ill-gotten wealth case against the heirs of Luis Yulo, identified as one of Marcos’ cronies, and the family’s Yulo King Ranch (YKR) Corporation involving Busuanga Properties in Palawan—the property that is the subject of the still pending ill-gotten wealth case numbered Civil Case 0024 against the late President Ferdinand Marcos and his cronies.
The anti-graft court said the Philippine Agri-Business Center Corporation (PABC)—one of the intervenors in the said Civil Case 0024—only presented evidence consisting mainly of photocopies and that these photocopies were not compared with the original.
The PABC bought the Busuanga Properties from the owner, Alfonso Doronilla, in March 1975. The Busuanga Properties was taken over by YKR Corporation led by lawyer Roberto Sabido and Luis Yulo in 1976.
In October, the Sandiganbayan’s Fourth Division found defects in the pieces of evidence presented by the PCGG and OSG in relation to the forfeiture case against the Marcos family and their cronies, spouses Fe and Ignacio Gimenez, involving some P267.37 million ill-gotten wealth.
It said the prosecution only submitted mere photocopies of documents, unauthenticated private documents and had failed to produce on the witness stand the declarants of the affidavits and testimonial evidence for the dismissal of Civil Case No. 0007 was insufficient.
However, the Sandiganbayan ruled that even if the defects of these proofs were disregarded, “little or no probative value can be accorded to them.”
The PCGG and OSG filed the case before the Sandiganbayan on July 21, 1987. The anti-graft court already dismissed the case in 2006, but the Supreme Court ordered the reopening of the case in 2016.
The same branch also dismissed a P200-billion forfeiture case against the Marcoses, which was filed in 1987. It ruled that the bulk of documentary evidence submitted by the PCGG were “mere photocopies, most of which are barely readable.”
Of around 200 documents submitted by government prosecutors, only 24 were original copies.
Among the alleged ill-gotten assets the PCGG had wanted to seize were around P976 million in bank deposits in Security Bank and Trust Company and another P711 million in Traders Royal Bank; P1.6 billion shares of stock in Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT); $292 million in foreign bank deposits; and $98 million in investments in foreign banks, financial houses and industrial, mining, and other corporations.
The PCGG also went after investments in real properties in New York and London; several multi-million peso residential properties and agricultural land in Leyte province; 177 paintings; US$8.9 million, P27 million, jewelry, time deposit certificates, bearer certificates and other documents in 42 crates; plus a separate cache of jewelry worth P236 million that were all taken by the Marcoses to Honolulu in Hawaii.
In addition, there were P14 million worth of “vanity items” such as jewelry, medallions, perfumes, and gowns in 24 boxes and suitcases that the Marcoses had abandoned in Malacañan Palace when they fled for Hawaii.
So far, the government has failed to recover a staggering P303.31 billion in illegally amassed wealth from the Marcoses and their alleged cronies.
But it was not a total loss for the government in its bid to recover ill-gotten wealth from the Marcoses.
In December, the Sandiganbayan Special Third Division ordered known associates of the late president to return assets of their shares in Eastern Telecommunications, after finding these to be part of Marcos’ ill-gotten wealth.
The court referred to the shares of businessmen Jose Africa and Manuel Nieto Jr., which were acquired on June 10, 1974, in Eastern Telecommunications Phils Inc. and other investments which were proceeds from Marcos’ illegally amassed assets.
The court also tagged as ill-gotten wealth, shares in Polygon Investors and Managers Inc, Aerocom Investors and Managers Inc. The order also covered shares of other individuals that have been transferred to Africa and Nieto.
The Sandiganbayan said Africa and Nieto should pay the government P68.16 million, which is the value of Eastern Telecoms shares held by Aerocom Investors and Managers and Nieto before these were transferred to ISM Communications Corp.
The Sandiganbayan Special Division has also ordered the forfeiture of over 800 pieces of artworks amounting to $24.32 million, which the late president Marcos and his family acquired during his 20-year rule.
The anti-graft court declared 896 pieces of art, including paintings by renowned masters Manet, Cezanne and Van Gogh, as ill-gotten and “unlawfully acquired,” and ruled that “the forfeiture of said properties in favor of petitioner Republic is warranted.”
The Marcoses were also ordered to render an accounting of the paintings and artworks still under their control and possession, and to make a list of paintings and artworks that they already sold, and to surrender the proceeds to the government.
They were also ordered to divulge the current location of some 156 paintings included in the PCGG’s list of missing artworks.
Additionally, they were directed to return the Grandma Moses painting collection and the Metropolitan Museum of Manila’s art collection. The forfeiture case also included silverware already sold at a public auction in the United States, jewelry and other valuable decorative arts.
During his 20 years of rule, Marcos, his family, and cronies amassed an estimated $10 billion in wealth, according to the PCGG.
After Marcos died in exile three years after he was overthrown, his widow Imelda faced hundreds of cases to recover assets believed to have been stashed abroad and in the Philippines.
The government won a victory in 2018 when the Sandiganbayan sentenced Imelda to 11 years in prison for making illegal bank transfers worth $200 million to Swiss foundations while she was governor of Metropolitan Manila in the 1970s.
She is now out on bail pending an appeal.
Despite the cases filed against her, Imelda was able to run and was elected to several terms in the House of Representatives, while her daughter Imee is now a senator.
Imelda’s son Bongbong also served as a senator but lost the 2016 vice-presidential election to Leni Robredo, the widow of Jessie Robredo, a popular former Interior, and Local Government secretary during the administration of former president Benigno Aquino III.
Bongbong Marcos is still contesting Robredo’s electoral victory.
Salary Grade 15 for nurses upheld
After four years of battle, government nurses finally won their case for salary upgrade when the Supreme Court ruled that their salary grades should be at 15 and not at 10-11.
During an en banc session last October, the High Court upheld the validity of the provision in the Philippine Nursing Act of 2002, which states that the minimum base pay of government nurses should not be lower than salary grade 15.
At present, salary grade 15 is pegged at P31,545 a month, while salary grades 10-11 are pegged at P22,055.
In 2015, Ang Nars Partylist brought its case to the Supreme Court because government nurses had been relegated to salary grades 10-11.
This was due to the signing of Executive Order (EO) 811 by former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2009. That EO was based on Joint Resolution No. 4 which allowed Arroyo to modify government salaries.
The party-list filed a petition asking the Court to enforce Section 32 of Republic Act 9173 or the Philippine Nursing Nursing Act of 2002.
While the provision was deemed valid, the High Court, however, said that a law still needs to be passed by Congress for its implementation.
Supreme Court junks same-sex marriage legalization
September 3 was a sad day for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, as the Supreme Court unanimously voted to dismiss a petition seeking to legalize same-sex marriage in the country.
Dismissing the petition as “premature,” the Court also castigated the petitioners for using the issue to pull a publicity stunt.
The High Court added that the petition filed by Atty. Jesus Nicardo Falcis III violated the principle of hierarchy of courts just as he failed “to raise an actual justiciable controversy.” Falcis has no legal standing on the case, it argued.
In a petition filed by Falcis in 2015, he asked the Court to nullify portions of Articles 1 and 2 of the Family Code, which define marriage as “a union between a man and a woman” and to nullify portions of Articles 46 (4) and 55 (6), which include lesbianism or homosexuality as grounds for annulment and legal separation.
According to Falcis, the Family Code – in limiting marriage between man and woman – is unconstitutional because it deprives the right to liberty without substantive due process of law and equal protection of the laws, violating Section 3(1) Article 15 of the 1987 Constitution.
The Court then left to Congress the decision whether or not to amend the Family Code to accommodate same-sex marriage.
Complaint vs. China junked
The International Criminal Court (ICC) junked the communication made by former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales and former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario against China and its president on its aggressive island-building and occupation of islands in the West Philippine Sea.
Morales and Del Rosario claimed that thousands of Filipino fishermen have been “persecuted and injured” by China’s activities on the West Philippine Sea.
They presented documented cases of Chinese blockade of fishermen in the disputed waters, Chinese destructive fishing activities and dozens of instances where China built military installations on contested islands.
The ICC said that the crimes against humanity complaint lodged against Chinese officials led by Chinese President Xi Jinping cannot be acted upon as China is not a state party to the Rome Statute — the treaty that established the ICC.
The ICC also said that while it may exercise jurisdiction if the alleged crime was committed on territories that are state parties to the Rome Statute, the activities in question were not within the territory, but only on the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
However, Morales and Del Rosario maintained that the chief prosecutor of the ICC did not completely reject the complaint, saying that the prosecutor welcomes “new facts and evidence” to proceed with the case.
Arbitral ruling favors water concessionaires
One decision of an international arbitration panel riled up the wrath of President Rodrigo Duterte towards water distribution concessionaires Manila Water Co. and Maynilad Water Services, Inc. which supply water for Metro Manila and its neighboring provinces.
After the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Singapore ordered the Philippine government in November to pay Manila Water Co. P7.4 billion for losses incurred due to the non-implementation of rate hikes, President Rodrigo Duterte, vented his rage on the two concessionaires.
Maynilad had won its own case in 2017 in the arbitration court, which directed the government to pay it P3.4 billion.
The President then threatened to file economic sabotage charges against the officials of Manila Water and Maynilad and others involved in what he called “onerous” water concession agreements.
He also ordered Solicitor General Jose Calida and Finance, Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, to come up with a new water concession contract that is favorable to the public and the government.
During a congressional probe days after the President’s pronouncement, the two concessionaires announced that they will waive the close to P11 billion arbitral award given to them by the international court.
Officials of Manila Water and Maynilad added that they were also open to renegotiating the “onerous” provisions of their water concession agreements with the government to distribute water in the metropolis and nearby areas.
Despite this, however, regulator Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) decided to revoke the 15-year extension concession agreements of Manila Water and Maynilad.
The agreements would supposedly end in 2037 but due to the revocation, these will expire in 2022.
Both concessionaires warned of a possible 100% water rate increases should the revocation of the agreements push through.
The Supreme Court likewise removed the Philippine Law School Admission Test (PhilSAT) as a requirement for admission to law schools.
The High Court declared as unconstitutional the memorandum circular issued by the Legal Education Board (LEB) which prescribes the passing of PhilSAT as a prerequisite for admission to law schools.
In 2017, the LEB required that prospective law students pass PhilSAT first before they are admitted to law schools, notwithstanding if they pass the schools’ respective entrance examinations.
In March 2019, the Court issued a temporary restraining order against PhilSAT, acting on a petition not only the national law school test unconstitutional, but also the LEB itself.
Also declared as unconstitutional is Paragraph 9 of LEB Memorandum Order 7-2016, which requires all college graduates or graduate students applying for admission to the basic law course to pass PhilSAT as a requirement for admission to any law school in the country.
The same memorandum order said no applicant shall be admitted for enrolment as a first-year student in the basic law courses leading to a degree of either Bachelor of Laws or Juris Doctor unless the passed PhilSAT was taken within two years before the start of studies for the basic law course.
Both memorandums issued by LEB are “ultra vires” or issued beyond its authority.
The High Court also ruled as unconstitutional the provisions on the LEB orders dictating the qualifications and classifications of faculty members and deans of graduate schools which it said is “in violation of institutional academic freedom on who may teach.”
The Supreme Court (SC) struck down certain provisions of the said memorandum establishing law practice internship as a requirement to taking the bar impinges on the powers of the High Court.
Edited by MUF
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