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Brainstorm: The Next Generation | Public officers on trial

The Sandiganbayan is colloquially referred to as the country’s “Anti-Graft Court” because it is the court that has jurisdiction over criminal cases for violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, as well as other cases committed by public officers in relation to their offices.

The jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan is spelled out in Section 4 of R.A. 8249 and it is not the easiest piece of legislation to interpret because the crimes covered, as well as the people covered, are all jumbled together in one section of the law. It is just important to remember that both the crime and the person must be covered for the Sandiganbayan to have jurisdiction.

Nonetheless, the problem is the sheer number of cases handled by the Sandiganbayan which come from all over the country, all funneled to Quezon City where the Sandiganbayan holds office.

To try and address this, R.A. 10660 was enacted in 2015 where, under Section 2 thereof, the Regional Trial Courts were given jurisdiction over what would have been Sandiganbayan cases but where the damage to the government or the amount of the bribery does not exceed P1,000,000.00.

Likewise, to minimize the possibility that accused public officers would try to exert pressure or influence over the said RTCs, the law provides that such cases will not be tried in the place where the accused public officer/s hold office but in another judicial region.

This is nice to read and gives the impression of progressive thinking. However, since 2015, the Office of the Ombudsman has been at a loss as to where exactly to file such cases since the law states that the Supreme Court would issue the rules to identify the RTC having jurisdiction over this case.

Just last November 11, 2019, the Office of the Court Administrator issued OCA Circular No. 211-2019 for this purpose by stating that such cases will be referred to the nearest Regional Trial Court in another judicial Region. For example, if an accused public officer holds office in Davao City, the case will be tried by the RTC in Kidapawan City which appears to be the nearest RTC in another Judicial Region. This is because while the city is politically part of Region XII already, the RTC of General Santos City is still under the 11th Judicial Region.

While intended to solve the question on jurisdiction, however, the said circular has caused some problems and issues to arise.

First, the “SUBJECT” of the circular just states that it covers “Uniform Guidelines Concerning Cases Where the Accused Or One of the Accused is a Local Official”.

This has given the impression that the circular applies to ALL cases involving public officials and has caused some courts to already refer all cases involving public officers, regardless of the crime committed, pursuant to it.

This is INCORRECT because the circular should apply only to the cases arising from Section 2 of R.A. 10660 and NOT to all cases involving public officers. While this is evident under paragraph 1 of the circular, it would have been better to specify this in the “SUBJECT” thereof.

Second, the circular refers to “LOCAL OFFICIALS”. Does this mean that only officials of the local government units are covered? What about public officers in national offices (like Regional Offices of various departments) who hold office in cities all over the country?

R.A. 10660 does not make any distinction because it also covers public officers of national offices who just happen to be holding office in the regional offices.

Third, it appears from the circular that such cases WILL STILL be filed in the RTC where the public officer holds office but will, thereafter, be referred to the nearest RTC in another judicial region.

This is a problem because R.A. 10660 can be interpreted to mean that it is the RTC in the other judicial region that has exclusive and original jurisdiction over the case. Thus, following the circular, the case will be filed in an RTC that has no jurisdiction over it.

Moreover, the entire process of filing and, thereafter, referring the case to another court will, in reality, be time consuming and it will thus be difficult for the courts to fully comply with the provisions of the Speedy Trial Act of 1998, as well as the Revised Guidelines on Continuous Trial in Criminal Cases.

Fourth, in relation to this, the question arises as to which RTC will issue the warrant for the arrest of the accused? Will it be the RTC where the case is filed or the RTC to which the case will be referred?

Finally, the circular defines the “nearest judicial region” as the “judicial region where the nearest RTC is located from the RTC where the case is filed”. This may be nitpicking, but will the distance be measured from RTC building to RTC building, or will be based on the borders of the cities where the courts are located.

This is material because, for example, the border of Davao City going towards Cagayan de Oro is actually confusing because the road intersects parts of Cotabato but ends in the border between Davao City and Bukidnon. On the other hand, who is supposed to make the determination of distance if it is to be from RTC building to RTC building?

As it is, the circular, as well as R.A. 10660, are clearly very well-intentioned to alleviate the caseload of the overburdened Sandiganbayan but, there still needs to be a lot of clarification on the issues of jurisdiction and/or venue in the cases covered.

These are growing pains, we may say, but the thing is that the uncertainties will certainly prejudice not only the prosecution of such cases but also the interest of the accused in view of the delays this will necessarily cause so we hope that the clarifications will come sooner rather than later.

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