A libertarian decision; a decent jurist

Mabuhay to the Court of Appeals for its speedy decision in “Guerrero vs Garcia” (Sept. 23, 2008) liberating Rev. Berlin V. Guerrero, a pastor of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, from illegal incarceration.

Libertarian decision. On Sunday, May 27, 2007, about 5 p.m. in broad daylight, a white unmarked van blocked the tricycle that Guerrero and his family were riding. Thereupon, without showing any warrant of arrest, five unidentified “military-looking” men alighted and “forcibly boarded” the surprised pastor into the van.

Much later, he was told that his arrest was authorized by a warrant of arrest issued eight years ago due to a murder charge. However, he was never informed of the indictment, much less given the opportunity to defend himself during the preliminary investigation. Moreover, the judge—prior to the issuance of the warrant—did not examine the lone alleged eyewitness to the crime.

Because the Regional Trial Court of Bacoor, Cavite refused to quash the warrant and to dismiss the indictment, Guerrero’s lawyer Emilio Capulong Jr.—assisted by Catholic Bishop Deogracias Yñiguez, Protestant Bishop Solito Toquero, Kilosbayan Foundation and others—sued the presiding judge directly in the Supreme Court. The petition was however remanded to the Court of Appeals (CA) because it posed issues of facts.

After being raffled on Aug. 22, 2008 to CA Justice Martin S. Villarama Jr., the case was immediately set for hearing on Sept. 3, 2008. Before the hearing ended, the CA forthwith ordered Guerrero’s release from detention “under recognizance” of Kilosbayan’s Jovito R. Salonga. Twenty days later, in commendable speed, the CA issued its libertarian decision.

Written by Justice Villarama and concurred in by Justices Noel G. Tijam and Arturo G. Tayag, the decision is a reassuring ode to due process. Citing the Supreme Court’s “renewed vigilance for the protection of constitutional rights,” the CA ruled that Guerrero “did not stand a chance to defend or answer the serious accusation against him – he was not notified or subpoenaed during the preliminary investigation – had no opportunity to examine the evidence against him.”

In fact, despite the supposed filing of the murder charge 16 years ago in 1991, he never knew of its pendency until he was abruptly abducted, “physically tortured, blindfolded and interrogated in an unknown safe house, accused by his abductors of being a communist and leftist leader, a ‘pastor impostor.’”

The CA rued that “Guerrero had been languishing in jail for more than a year under an indictment with no prima facie evidence to sustain the murder charge against him and tainted with political consideration.”

Speedy and prudent decisions like this will surely uplift the reputation of the CA especially at this time when some of its members had been publicly ridiculed and sanctioned for unethical behavior.

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Decent jurist. I am saddened that Justice Ma. Alicia Austria-Martinez has opted to retire early from the Supreme Court due to “health reasons.” Appointed to the high court on April 12, 2002, she will reach compulsory retirement only on Dec. 18, 2010, one day prior to her 70th birthday. She is not bedridden. Neither is she physically or mentally incapacitated, but she has chosen to retire on April 30, 2009 because she felt she could no longer cope with the heavy caseload.

Like a few in the judiciary, she could have continued on but her deep sense of honor, decency and responsibility prevented her from just coasting along till her compulsory retirement. Low profile and magisterial in every way, she exemplifies what I call the four “ins” of an ideal judge—independence, integrity, intelligence and industry.

Her early retirement means that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would be able to appoint seven new Supreme Court justices in 2009 due to the compulsory retirement next year of six others, namely Ruben T. Reyes (Jan. 2), Adolfo S. Azcuna (Feb. 15), Dante O. Tinga (May 10), Consuelo Ynares-Santiago (Oct. 4), Leonardo A. Quisumbing (Nov. 5) and Minita V. Chico-Nazario (Dec. 4). At the end of 2009, all the 15 justices including Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno will be GMA appointees. Public scrutiny of the screening process especially at the Judicial and Bar Council is more essential than ever.

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Joint or separate. Last Sunday, I wrote that if, by the end of this month, Congress is still stymied by the issue of whether its two houses should meet and vote “jointly or separately,” it may run out of time in revising the Constitution as a constituent assembly (Con-ass). If this happens, partisans of GMA may look for other options, like martial law or emergency rule, to extend her reign.

So, a reader asked, how can her supporters find the answer to this issue? Answer: by filing a “ripe” case in the Supreme Court. If the Memorandum of Agreement with the MILF was not botched, it could have been used as the test case.

I think that within this month, proposals to revise the Constitution via the Con-ass will energetically pop up. They may rise in the guise of revising the economic provisions of the Charter to make them more investor friendly; or of abolishing the Senate (using the current “double entry” brouhaha as excuse) and installing a unicameral legislature; or of reviving the federalism bogey; or of any ploy to get a fast decision on the “joint or separate” issue. Once a favorable “joint” ruling is secured, watch the parliamentary Con-ass take off pronto.

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