The three justices of the Sandiganbayan’s Fifth Division no longer want to continue hearing the plunder and graft complaints filed against Sen. Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada in connection with the pork barrel scam.
Associate Justices Roland Jurado, Alexander Gesmundo and Ma. Theresa Dolores Gomez-Estoesta informed Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje Tang that they want to inhibit themselves from the case “for personal reasons.”
The case was raffled off to the Fifth Division led by Jurado in June this year.
It was the first time in the 40-year history of the anti-graft court that three magistrates wanted to recuse themselves from a case.
The letter, signed by the three justices, was dated December 10. It was received on Monday.
The Presiding Justice turned over the request to the court en banc, which will decide and issue a resolution on the matter.
The court, however, will not be able to resolve the request within the year.
It held its last en banc session also on Monday, and only one of the three magistrates wishing to inhibit was present.
According to Executive Clerk of Court IV Renato Bocar, there would be another en banc session next year to hear and ask the two other justices their reasons why they want out of the case.
The magistrate who was present in the en banc session refused to disclose their reasons for lack of authority from the two others, Bocar said.
The court withheld the justice’s identity.
Bocar, however, noted that the justices’ request will not delay the case because no more hearings are scheduled for the rest of the month and the next en banc session will be on the first Monday of January.
The cases will be re-raffled to another division when the court en banc allows the three justices to inhibit themselves.
“Whatever proceedings happened in the Fifth Division will remain in the case records. The witnesses need not testify again. It will be transferred to the division where the case will be re-raffled,” Bocar said.
The Sandiganbayan is composed of five divisions, each with three justices constituting a quorum. Under its internal rules, if the chairman inhibits, then the case will be re-raffled to the remaining four divisions.
Two other divisions are handling the plunder complaints filed against Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr.
Bocar said it will be up to the court if it will exempt these two divisions from the re-raffle of Estrada’s case.
Estrada is facing plunder and graft complaints for allegedly receiving kickbacks from projects funded by his Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel. He and Napoles, his co-accused, have pending bail petitions before the Fifth Division.
Estrada also has a pending motion for a furlough. He asked the court to allow him to spend Christmas at his father’s place and New Year at his residence.
Rule 137 of the Rules of Court prohibits a judge or judicial officer from sitting in any case in which he, his wife or his child has pecuniary interest, or when he is related to either party within the sixth degree of consanguinity or affinity or to lawyer within the fourth degree.
A judge can also seek to inhibit himself from any case in which he has been executor, administrator, guardian, trustee or counsel or in which he has presided in any lower court when his ruling or decision is the subject of review, without the written consent of all parties.
But it also provides that “a judge may, in the exercise of his sound discretion, disqualify himself from sitting in a case, for just or valid reasons other than those mentioned above.”
When asked whether the magistrates can be compelled to disclose their personal reasons to determine if these are valid or not, Bocar said the presiding justice has no such authority.
However, she can raise the matter to the Supreme Court, which has administrative supervision on justices of the Sandiganbayan.
“Perhaps the Supreme Court can then compel the justices who want to inhibit to divulge their personal reasons so it can assess if these are valid,” Bocar told reporters.
He added that Tang may be compelled to go to the Supreme Court if more justices will seek to recuse themselves to “so that citing personal reasons without saying what exactly these are will stop.”