Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 28 June 2014


I warn the Reader that I am going to harp on this subject until the proper action is taken. On June 6, when she filed plunder and other charges against three senators and various government officials/employees in connection with the pork barrel scam, the Ombudsman asked the Supreme Court to create two special divisions of the Sandiganbayan (SB) that would exclusively conduct hearings on these cases.

The Supreme Court still hasn’t decided on the issue, but judging from the negative reactions of the SB and some of the accused, that route to a speedy disposition of the cases can be counted out. It wasn’t such a good idea, anyway.

The SB, in an attempt to be reassuring, committed to heeding “the clarion call to speed up” its work.  Consuelo de bobo.  Exactly how does it intend to do that, with its dockets clogged, as of March 2014, with a caseload of 3,031 unresolved cases? The average time for case resolution has increased from 6.6 years to 8 years (other estimates are 9 years and 12 years, but I don’t know how these were derived), so it has not speeded up its work, it has in fact gone the other way.

To be fair, defenders of the SB claim that it is not the court, but the lawyers, who cause delays. Defense lawyers claim that the prosecutors are ill-prepared and are constantly asking for postponements. Court-watchers claim that the de campanilla defense lawyers ask for reinvestigations and file motions for reconsideration at the drop of a hat. I attended a trial at the SB last week: It lasted an hour because there were four other cases to be heard. How many one-hour sessions will be held on the plunder cases? And with at least 25 coaccused, each with a lawyer who has the right to cross-examine every witness, can you imagine the logistical nightmares that are involved?

Can anything be done? Of course (and here the nagging begins).

The first proposal was actually fielded nine years ago when then senator Mar Roxas filed two bills—the first was to increase the number of SB divisions from 5 to 15 (from 15 to 45 justices), and the second to transfer original jurisdiction over “minor” cases (i.e., graft cases of P1 million or less) to the regional trial courts (RTC). I’m not very keen on the latter because it does not solve, but transfers, the problem to a place with crowded docket problems of its own.

But the first bill merits attention. It was filed partially to address the findings of delay in the SB by a 2003 World Bank study (when the delay was 6.6 years), and was endorsed by the Office of the Ombudsman (both bills were). Obviously, it did not get very far. I am informed that the legislators were lukewarm, and the SB was cold, to the idea.

Reader, Presidential Decree No. 1606, the law creating the Sandiganbayan, was enacted in 1978 (during martial law), and it provided for nine justices—three divisions with three justices each. The law was amended in 1995 (probably to accommodate the cases filed against the Marcos dictatorship), increasing the number of justices to 15, or five divisions. Ten years later, the Ombudsman endorsed a bill increasing the number to 45 justices in 15 divisions, but nobody bit.

Nothing was heard about the problems of the SB for another seven years, until last year, 2013, when Senators Frank Drilon and TG Guingona filed two other bills. Drilon did not propose an enlarged SB but, rather, proposed an amendment to the Sandiganbayan Law which requires the presence of at least three justices before a case could be heard. His bill provided for a justice-in-charge who would monitor every aspect of the case and report to his comembers.

Guingona’s bill, at least, echoed the Roxas proposal to increase the SB justices from 15 to 45. It also echoed Drilon’s proposal for a justice-in-charge.

This may be crystal-clear to a lawyer, but I cannot understand why procedures such as the one proposed by Drilon have to be legislated. Section 5, paragraph 5, Article VIII of the Constitution states that the Supreme Court has the power to promulgate rules concerning (among others) pleadings, practices, and procedures in all courts. The answer I was given was that the original procedure was legislated in the Sandiganbayan Law. But isn’t that begging the question? The same section says that the rules of special courts shall remain effective unless disapproved by the Supreme Court. Doesn’t this mean that the Supreme Court has the final say on procedures? Just asking.

Finally, Drilon and Guingona, together with Sen. Koko Pimentel, filed Senate Bill No. 2138, which substituted for the two individual bills.  It has been approved on third reading but unfortunately, it no longer has the important feature of increasing the number of justices.  Rather, it focuses on a justice-designate, reduces the quorum in divisions from three to two, and proposes the transfer of “minor” cases to the RTC. The latter, I said earlier, is merely transferring the problem. I leave others to determine the impact of a two-member quorum, or of a justice-designate.

The need for the increase in the SB justices was already felt in 2005. Surely, by 2014 the need has become greater. Is the legislature incapable of acting speedily to address a pressing problem? One only has to recall the speed with which it impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona: less than a day. That should answer that question.

Come on, senators and congressmen. Let’s get behind Senator Guingona’s bill. The Filipino people want to see a case, especially against government officials, disposed of speedily, not just within their lifetime.

It can be done.