With two new divisions, Sandigan to be dominated by Aquino appointees
With the new law adding two new divisions to the antigraft court, the Sandiganbayan is now on its way from being dominated by appointees of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to those of President Benigno Aquino III.
President Aquino has signed into law Republic Act No. 10660, which aims to strengthen the Sandiganbayan by adding two new divisions to the existing five divisions currently dominated by appointees of Arroyo, who is detained for plunder over a charity funds mess.
The new law also allows the Sandiganbayan to constitute a quorum with two of three justices per division who will be enough to render a judgement, doing away with forming a special division of five in instances of failing to meet the quorum.
The law also declogs the backlog in the antigraft court by giving to the regional trial courts cases that do not involve damages to government or those that do allege damages but on amounts not exceeding P1 million.
The composition of the Sandiganbayan comes at an important time when the antigraft court is hearing five plunder cases of three senators—opposition lawmakers Ramon Revilla Jr., Juan Ponce Enrile and Jinggoy Estrada—and two former representatives Rizalina Seachon Lanete and Edgar Valdez over the alleged pork barrel scam.
It may also be significant because the President himself faces accusations of accountability over the botched antiterror raid in Jan. 25 in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao, that succeeded in killing international terrorist Marwan but ended in the deaths of 44 Special Action Force (SAF) commandos, 18 Moro fighters, and five civilians.
In the current setup, the antigraft court is dominated by the following Arroyo appointees: Roland Jurado (appointed Oct. 3, 2003), Efren de la Cruz (Oct. 10, 2003), Teresita Diaz Baldoz (Oct. 17, 2003), Jose Hernandez (March 9, 2004), Rodolfo Ponferrada (Aug. 23, 2004), Alexander Gesmundo (Oct. 15, 2005), Samuel Martires (Oct. 15, 2005), Napoleon Inoturan (April 4, 2008), Alex Quiroz (Dec. 5, 2008) and Maria Cristina Cornejo (March 1, 2010).
Meanwhile, those appointed by President Aquino are Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang (Oct. 7, 2013), and Associate Justices Rafael Lagos (Dec. 9, 2010), Oscar Herrera Jr. (April 26, 2011) and Ma. Theresa Dolores Gomez-Estoesta (June 20, 2014).
Vacancy in third division
There is one vacancy in the third division after Quiroz has been transferred to the fourth division since Associate Justice Gregory Ong is sacked by the Supreme Court for his alleged ties with pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles.
With the new law, Aquino will have to appoint a new justice not only for the vacancy in the third division, but also six more to accommodate the vacancies that will be brought about by the additional courts, for a total of seven new justices.
The composition of the court will then be 10 Arroyo and 11 Aquino appointees.
In a press conference, Presiding Justice Tang said the court wanted the law implemented within the year and that it would ask for a supplemental budget from the Congress to fund the additional divisions.
This means Aquino will have to appoint two new justices each in the two additional divisions before his term ends in 2016. Tang said the senior Associate Justices Ponferrada and Gesmundo would chair the two additional divisions. The President will thus appoint the two vacancies in the first and fifth divisions vacated by Ponferrada and Gesmundo.
Despite the new composition, Tang said the court had proven itself to be decisive on cases based on the merits of evidence and not on the appointing power.
She cited the conviction for graft of Liberal Party treasurer, Oriental Mindoro Governor and former congressman Alfonso Umali Jr., a favored Aquino ally, in connection with the anomalous grant of a P2.5 million loan to a private engineer.
Arroyo plunder case
The antigraft court first division is also hearing the plunder case of Arroyo over the alleged misuse of P366-million intelligence funds in the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO). Even with the division composed of mostly Arroyo allies, the former president has consistently been denied bail from her hospital detention.
“I don’t think so. I’m sure you are witness to how we have so far decided cases. The latest is that the supposed ally of the President was convicted recently,” Tang said.
But the Presiding Justice failed to mention the dismissal of the graft case of former Cavite Gov. Erineo “Ayong” Maliksi, a member of the Liberal Party, over the Ombudsman’s inordinate delay in the disposition of the case. With the dismissal of the case, Maliksi was appointed by Aquino as chair of the PCSO.
Tang added that just like what Aquino had said that the allegations on the pork barrel scam were guided by evidence, the court would also rely on the merits of testimonial and documentary evidence.
“We will be guided by what is before us, particularly the evidence. The President himself said where the evidence will lead you to, you take off from there. Where evidence requires conviction, you convict. If it fails as to the quantum of proof, you acquit,” Tang said.
Tang has assured the public that no matter its composition, the court does not take sides and it is guided by the evidence of the allegations.
“This court does not take sides. It is simply guided by the evidence … You’re witness to the proceedings, you can see whether we are suaded or influenced by considerations other than what is before us,” Tang said.
“Let us always indulge in the presumption of regularity and good faith,” she added. RC
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