Why go straight to SC? Justices grill ex-SolGen on De Lima's legal strategy

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Three Supreme Court justices questioned the move of Senator Leila de Lima to run to the tribunal to seek the dismissal of the arrest warrant issued for her.

The justices pointed out, De Lima--who is facing three drug-related cases filed by the Department of Justice--already has a similar, pending motion filed before a lower court.

During the first round of the oral arguments on De Lima's petition Tuesday, Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr. told De Lima's lawyer, former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, that the plea for the the dismissal of the arrest warrant was premature at this stage.

He said De Lima effectively bypassed the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 204 by going to the Supreme Court because of the pending petition she had filed.

"Your relief actually is to order the RTC not to do anything with the case until the motion to quash is resolved," Velasco said.

"This is premature in my reading," he added.

Last February, De Lima filed a petition before the Muntinlupa RTC to dismiss the drug-related charge filed against her by the Department of Justice.

She said there is no evidence showing she took part in the criminal activities of several high-profile inmates inside the New Bilibid Prison when she was still Justice Secretary.

Forum shopping

For his part, Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta noted the various legal options available to De Lima before going to the Supreme Court.

He said the senator's failure to file a counter-affidavit during the preliminary investigation stage is an example of a remedy she "missed out" on.

While agreeing that De Lima's case is of "transcendental importance," Peralta said the senator's camp might have committed forum shopping because they filed similar petitions before two different courts.

In response, Hilbay admitted that De Lima's detention at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Camp Crame was "an important part" in their decision to go directly to the Supreme Court.

'What's so special about this case?'

Associate Justice Marvic Leonen asked Hilbay what makes De Lima's case special when other drug suspects had to go through the hierarchy of lower courts before running to the Supreme Court.

"What's so special about this case? I think that's the concern of some of the Justices because we should be even-handed with the law even if you [have] a big name or a small name," he said.

Leonen said the "danger" in De Lima's case was the precedent that the Supreme Court will set for other government officials who are or will be facing criminal charges.

"Whatever we do here in this particular case, another senator, congressman, mayor or a dean of a college in UP can also avail of," he said.

Hilbay maintained that De Lima is not avoiding prosecution but wants her case to be tried by the people who have jurisdiction over her case.

"Petitioner isn't asking that she be exempt from prosecution, but that she be prosecuted by prosecutors and the court that have jurisdiction," he said.

In his statement at the start of the oral arguments, Hilbay said the arrest warrant for De Lima must be dismissed because of the DOJ's failure to agree with the Office of the Solicitor General on the nature of the charges against her.

"Make no mistake, Your Honors, by the official conflicting, incompatible theories of the DOJ and the OSG, we now have evidence that the government doesn't have a case," he said.

Trust the trial courts

When Leonen asked Hilbay again on what makes De Lima's case special that the SC will rule on her petition even before the Muntinlupa RTC decides on her motion to quash, Hilbay responded that the case filed against the senator was "bogus."

His statement prompted Leonen to interject, saying: "You know counsel, every accused will say that the charge is bogus. The ordinary course of the law is we trust the trial courts, that our trial courts will see the evidence at certain point."

Leonen ended his interpellation with an order for Hilbay to explain what makes De Lima's case special in the memoranda they will file before the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno has set the continuation of oral arguments on March 21 at 2 p.m.