SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 12, 2018 - 12:00am

If the Court of Appeals (CA) can effectively rule with finality on a case that hasn’t even been resolved yet by a regional trial court, why do we bother with RTC trials? We could save effort and people’s money, declog dockets and see a drastic improvement in our notoriously slow judicial process.

Of course it’s noteworthy that judicial fast-tracking seems to be available only for a privileged few, such as former Palawan governor Joel Reyes. There’s also the filing of a demurrer of evidence, which former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo successfully used to end her plunder case for which she spent several years under “hospital arrest.”

From my non-lawyer’s interpretation of this legalese, a demurrer of evidence – whether or not accepted by the court – means the defendant will no longer present its side after the prosecution has rested its case, and simply seeks a swift dismissal of the complaint for insufficiency of evidence. The case can be settled within a month. In our land where there’s a standing joke that it’s good to know the law, but it’s better to know the judge, a demurrer of evidence works best for the well-connected.

As for the “miracle” and “three-point play” that Reyes was blessed with at the start of the year, my non-lawyer’s brain can’t grasp why our system allows the CA to step into an RTC case even before a trial is concluded, and why a CA determination of probable cause (or lack of it) for an arrest warrant can effectively lead to the acquittal of a defendant. Under this process, according to some reports, the acquittal can no longer be appealed or elevated to the Supreme Court.

This is speedy justice and should be available to all defendants, and not just those who can get the best justice that money can buy.

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In January 2011, the Senate launched an inquiry into the so-called pabaon or send-off gifts for top officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines upon their retirement. Former defense secretary Angelo Reyes was grilled on charges that he received at least P50 million in pabaon on top of a monthly allowance of P5 million when he was AFP chief. Reyes, who said he was merely carrying on a military “tradition,” later killed himself as he knelt before his mother’s grave.

Today the halls of justice echo with whispers of obscenely lavish pabaon for certain magistrates. The send-off gifts, according to the grapevine, come not from public funds but from litigants who are generous in expressing their gratitude for decisions in their favor.

The Senate may want to look into this, although any such inquiry could simply run into a wall of denials from both the corrupt magistrate and corrupter.

Those who have the nerve to accept millions in bribes usually know enough not to leave a money trail. Notorious crooks in government don’t affix their signatures or thumbprints to any document, or even allow themselves to be seen in public with the bribe giver. Payoffs are done through bank transfers, with the savviest crooks keeping offshore accounts where the dirty money is deposited.

Among the most vulnerable to corruption, it seems, are officials who are set to retire from public service and who, because of their advanced age, believe they have little to lose in case they are caught.

I have previously written about an official who built a reputation for integrity, only to succumb to corruption in his twilight years because, he told close friends, he wanted to leave enough assets to ensure a comfortable life for his family upon his death.

This attitude, unfortunately, is not rare among our public servants.

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While unearthing the paper trail may be tortuous, authorities can conduct lifestyle checks and coordinate with the Bureau of Internal Revenue and Anti-Money Laundering Council to ferret out ill-gotten wealth. The Office of the Ombudsman can initiate such probes on its own.

This could be wishing for the moon, considering the limited manpower and resources of the ombudsman. But the office can zero in only on those who have gained notoriety. In the judiciary, the crooks are known among their peers.

Rodrigo Duterte isn’t the first president to clash with the judiciary or at least with the chief justice. Joseph Estrada lambasted “hoodlums in robes” during his short-lived presidency. It must have been sweet revenge for the judiciary when Erap was convicted of plunder.

Of course Erap didn’t spend even a second behind bars, thanks to his successor who herself was indicted for plunder, and was cleared last year. They carried on what has become a tradition of sorts, started by dictator Ferdinand Marcos, of former presidents being accused of large-scale corruption and avoiding conviction or punishment.

Seeing the nation’s highest officials getting away with everything has surely contributed to impunity and institutionalized corruption in all three branches of government. There are people who have been hoping that tokhang would be expanded to members of Congress and the judiciary.

The Philippine judiciary has gained notoriety for corruption, meriting mention even in foreign assessments of the state of the justice system around the world. Judicial corruption has been cited as a disincentive to foreign investments and job generation.

There seems to be little hope in sight for reforms. At this point, those who have been dealt a grave injustice because a magistrate has sold a case for a generous pabaon are advised to grin and bear it: just tiis.

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