By Vince Alvic A. F. Nonato, Reporter

SC hopeful squeaks on Napoles’ 2010 acquittal

Posted on January 08, 2016

THE JUDICIAL and Bar Council has begun the screening of aspirants for the replacement of outgoing Supreme Court Associate Justice Martin S. Villarama, with at least one surprising disclosure in the course of this procedure.

Five JBC members took turns grilling four applicants on Thursday morning: former University of Manila law dean Joe-Santos B. Bisquera, Justice Secretary Alfredo Benjamin S. Caguioa, Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo M. Cabotaje-Tang, and Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption (CIBAC) Party-list Representative Cinchona G. Cruz-Gonzales.

Another four were interviewed that afternoon: Court of Appeals Associate Justice Apolinario D. Bruselas, Jr., CA Associate Justice Rosmari D. Carandang, Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon Gerard A. Mosquera, and Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Maria Cristina J. Cornejo -- who admitted before the council that she did not read the evidence in a 2010 court case that led to the acquittal of Janet Lim-Napoles, who was subsequently implicated in a scandal three years later over the multibillion-peso pork barrel scam.

Ms. Cornejo was quizzed on her participation in the malversation case against Ms. Napoles that led to her acquittal on the anomalous purchase of Kevlar helmets.

To recall, this case led to the SC’s dismissal of Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Gregory L. Ong in 2014, after he was found to be linked to Ms. Napoles’s enterprise.

Asked about her concurrence in that decision, Ms. Cornejo admitted that she was under time pressure and was unable to evaluate the evidence before signing on for Ms. Napoles’ acquittal.

JBC member Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez, a former SC justice herself, recalled the decision itself read the payments went directly to Ms. Napoles’ accounts “and that is a very glaring evidence that it was Napoles who supplied the Kevlar helmets that were of inferior quality.”

“These facts are in the decision, and yet, it was only Napoles who was acquitted when the money was received by her. You are so intelligent, Justice. Why did you not dissent? Did you not happen to evaluate the findings, the conclusion was really unjust...” Ms. Gutierrez asked.

Ms. Cornejo replied: “This is the truth: at the time when the decision was penned, I was given a few days to read the decision. I did not read anymore the evidence. They just gave me the decision, and ‘tapos na ‘yan eh,’ sabi nila, pumirma ka na [it’s finished, they said, sign it already].’”

“I read it and it was okay. But it was only a few days, Ma’am,” she added, to which the JBC member exclaimed: “Oh my God! Please, Justice don’t do that again! This is a reflection on you as justice.”

Other candidates were likewise grilled on issues hounding their respective offices.

Mr. Bruselas was asked regarding the issue of the temporary restraining orders “for sale” at the CA, to which he said he had no personal information and experience.

“But, there are indeed reports, and we in the Court of Appeals are also very saddened about this,” Mr. Bruselas said. “If ever, as a member of the Court, it is our duty to report that and... under the law, we are supposed to initiate the proper complaint about it.”

For the most part, the interviews of the other candidates followed the pattern of previous screenings, where the issue of judicial reform was a dominant topic.

Mr. Caguioa said he saw the lack of prosecutors as a problem while heading the agency for the past three months. He said prosecutors have been lured by the prospect of becoming trial judges, and that law school students should be encouraged to become prosecutors.

He added he felt frustrated about the slow nature of court proceedings and the tendency of some cases to be disposed not on merit but because of other matters.

Mr. Bisquera, the first to be interviewed, pointed to the litigation process and said the judiciary should eliminate the requirement for a motion for reconsideration to be filed and resolved first before a case can be elevated to a higher court.

He questioned the necessity of an appeal before the same court, noting that judges rarely reverse their own decisions just the same.

Drawing upon his experience that wholly revolved around private practice, he said the issue of SC decisions sometimes conflicting with each other is “just a matter of managing a database of decisions.”

Ms. Cabotaje-Tang said she would focus on decongesting the country’s clogged court dockets.

Asked how his anti-corruption work would fit in with his work at SC, Mr. Mosquera said the concept of integrity and oneness would guide him and that he would be “an activist judge.”

Ms. Cornejo, for her part, recommended, apart from her disclosure in the Napoles case, that in order to minimize conflicts in the SC’s decision-making, members of the conflicting divisions should meet in order for the high court to take a single stand.

The JBC members opted not to raise any questions for Ms. Carandang because it was her fifth time being screened.

Eight more candidates will be interviewed today: CA Associate Justice Stephen C. Cruz, Solicitor-General Florin T. Hilbay, Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 90 Judge Reynaldo B. Daway, CA Associate Justice Mariflor Punzalan-Castillo, former Commission on Audit chairperson Maria Gracia M. Pulido-Tan, Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Alex L. Quiroz, CA Presiding Justice Andres B. Reyes, Jr., and CA Associate Justice Jose C. Reyes, Jr.

The JBC will draw up a shortlist to be submitted to President Benigno S.C. Aquino III, from which he will choose his sixth appointee to the SC.

Mr. Villarama, appointed by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2009, is scheduled for retirement on his 70th birthday on April 14. However, he wrote his fellow magistrates in November, expressing his intention to go on optional retirement effective Jan. 16 for health reasons.