Sereno writes Duterte on ‘narco-judges’

CHIEF JUSTICE Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno asked President Rodrigo R. Duterte to explain his basis for linking seven judges to illegal drugs, as she pointed out the impact of the premature announcement on court activities.

This was as the highest judicial officer in the country cautioned the judges against surrendering to police absent a pending warrant of arrest.

Meanwhile, Mr. Duterte has stepped up further what media now calls his name-and-shame campaign. Addressing government troops in Catbalogan, Samar, on Monday, he turned the presidential wrath this time toward tax evaders, saying he will soon disclose a list of businessmen delinquent in paying taxes.

I will be announcing formally, because I would like the list completed, all of you millionaires here in the Philippines, pay your taxes. Or [I will] invite you for questioning. If you can't I will send you the police, and have you interrogated. Well, that's what you want, that's the way you understand it, Mr. Duterte said.

'SOURCE AND BASIS'

In her four-page letter coursed through Justice Secretary Vitaliano N. Aguirre II, Ms. Sereno invoked the Supreme Court's sole administrative jurisdiction over the lower courts.

The Court would consider it important to know the source and basis of any allegation that specific judges are involved in the illegal drugs trade in line with its duty to exercise administrative supervision over all lower courts, the letter read.

Ms. Sereno wrote that Mr. Duterte's pre-dawn announcement on Sunday would have the unwarranted effect of rendering the judge veritably useless in discharging his adjudicative role.

She added that the announcement of an informal investigation caught the judiciary unprepared. The announcement is expected to disrupt ongoing court proceedings, yet the courts could not enforce the mechanisms to ensure another judge takes the place of a suspended or disciplined judge.

It would matter greatly to our sense of constitutional order, if we were given the chance to administer the appropriate preventive measures without the complications of a premature public announcement, the letter read.

Ms. Sereno noted that Mr. Duterte could have sent even an informal report to spur the judiciary to investigate the matter without requiring the judges to report to authorities and cancel scheduled court activities.

She said the high court is even already investigating one judge who was not even included in Mr. Duterte's own list.

As the sole entity charged with the discipline of judges, the Supreme Court (SC) decides when judges are excused from bench duty and report to it, she wrote.

Besides the possible disruption, Ms. Sereno said the announcement may have endangered the lives of the judges, who may be targeted by those who consider judges as acceptable collateral damage in the 'war of drugs.'

She urged Mr. Duterte to allow the judges to continue bearing defensive firearms until an investigation concludes that formal charges should be filed. The letter noted that since 1999, 26 judges have been ordered killed by crime lords or even drug lords.

BACKGROUND CHECK

The letter also clarified the current status of the seven judges, mostly identified by Mr. Duterte by their surnames.

Three no longer serve as judges. Judge Roberto Navidad of the Calbayog City (Samar) Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 32 was killed by an unidentified suspect on Jan. 14, 2008.

Meanwhile, Judge Lorenda Mupas was dismissed in 2007 as Metropolitan Trial Court judge of DasmariAas City, Cavite, for gross ignorance of law and misconduct. On the other hand, Judge Rene Gonzales of Iloilo City Metropolitan Trial Court (MTC) in Cities Branch 7 retired on June 20.

Ms. Sereno also wondered how judges who do not exercise jurisdiction over drug cases could influence the illegal drug trade.

Besides the recently retired Judge Gonzales, Judge Exequil Dagala of the Dapa-Socorro (Surigao del Norte) MTC did not preside over drug cases.

Judge Adriano Savillo of Iloilo City RTC Branch 30 presides over a family court that only tackles drug cases involving minors. Meanwhile, Judge Domingo Casiple of Kalibo (Aklan) RTC Branch 7 is only set to soon preside over drug cases after the SC is set to implement its recent plan to increase the number of designated courts.

It would be helpful to know the specifics on how judges without jurisdiction over drugs cases influence the drug trade in their localities, Ms. Sereno wrote.

Of the seven judges, only Judge Antonio Reyes of Baguio City RTC Branch 61 is currently presiding over a designated drug court.

While expressing concern over the naming of the judges, Ms. Sereno said the high court appreciated Mr. Duterte's zeal in helping us cleanse the ranks of the judiciary of misfits.

We abhor its ability to even destroy public institutions, thus our proactive investigation of any report that judges and court personnel abet the drug trade, she wrote.

PANELO'S VIEW

Sought for comment, Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador S. Panelo disagreed with Ms. Sereno's concerns and said Mr. Duterte's naming these officials would allow them to clear their names through the media instead of normal procedures.

The announcement is to the Judges' advantage as it will give them the opportunity to clear their names through the media rather than when cases are formally filed against them, which will... preclude [them] from discussing their defense in public because it will become sub judice, Mr. Panelo told reporters.

Mr. Duterte's Sunday announcement -- part of which outrightly stated that due process has nothing to do with my mouth -- drew questions on its veracity after skeptical media entities began fact-checking his statements.

For one, Jeffrey Celiz was erroneously identified as a supposed party-list congressman. Mr. Celiz turned out to be an executive assistant and consultant of Iloilo City Mayor Jed Patrick E. Mabilog, another politician accused of involvement in illegal drug activities.

Meanwhile, dozens of government and police officials turned themselves in on Monday, a day after Mr. Duterte linked them to the drugs trade, stepping up a war on narcotics that has killed hundreds since he took office in June.

On Monday, 27 mayors and 31 police officers, including a colonel, went to the Philippine National Police (PNP) office in the capital, Manila, to clear their names, fearing the President's order to hunt them down if they failed to surrender within 24 hours.

Several local officials reported to regional police offices to beat the deadline set by Mr. Duterte, who won the elections in May on a single platform of fighting crime and drugs.

On Sunday, he identified 159 officials in a name-and-shame campaign, at least two of who have since been found to be deceased for some time.

I want to change, a Cebu-based businessman tagged as a top-level drug trafficker told reporters after he met PNP chief Ronald M. de la Rosa.

Mr. de la Rosa reprimanded the police officers on Mr. Duterte's list, threatening to kill them if they continued to protect drug traders and resell seized drugs. At one point, he challenged them to a fistfight.

I am mad with what is happening, Mr. de la Rosa said in a speech to local officials and police. I am ashamed. We should be the ones arresting these people, but we are protecting them. I will kill you if you will not change.

All police officers linked to the drug trade were disarmed, investigated and could face criminal and administrative cases if there was strong evidence, said PNP spokesman Dionardo B. Carlos, adding: They will be accorded due process.

Source: Business World Online