Trial Judges Put on Trial: The Impact of Public Opinion on Judicial Decisions

High-profile criminal cases often commence in the regional trial courts or in the Sandiganbayan. The judges presiding over these cases face immense public scrutiny and are subject to praise or criticism from the general public. In cases that are of public interest, the sub judice rule is relaxed in order to allow for fair comment and free speech. Interestingly, trial judges themselves are put on trial in the court of public opinion.

As a recent example of these ironies, former senator Leila de Lima, along with several others, faced three criminal cases for alleged drug trafficking. These cases were assigned to three different branches of the Regional Trial Courts of Muntinlupa (RTC-M). De Lima, charged with capital offenses, has been detained without bail since then. Surprisingly, she was acquitted without much fanfare in one case. In another case, Judge Abraham Joseph Alcantara acquitted her based on the doubt created by the recantation of former director of the National Bureau of Investigation Rafael Ragos. However, in the third case, Judge Romeo Buenaventura denied her motion for bail, citing the prosecution’s strong evidence.

I have written four columns this year alone discussing these cases, exploring topics such as De Lima’s entitlement to temporary freedom, the potential success of the prosecution’s motion for reconsideration, the options De Lima has to overturn the denial of her bail, and the viability of the habeas corpus at a late stage. Today, I will shift my focus to the tribulations faced by the presiding judges in these cases.

Judge Alcantara’s decision to acquit De Lima, although normally final and non-appealable, faces further scrutiny due to a 71-page petition for certiorari filed by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG). The petition seeks to declare the decision null and void, alleging that it was rendered with “grave abuse of discretion.” If a higher tribunal determines that a decision or action was made with grave abuse of discretion, it is deemed nonexistent. In this case, the acquittal itself would be void. It is generally difficult for petitions for certiorari to succeed, as there is a strong presumption that judges act diligently and fairly. However, the presence of Solicitor General Menardo I. Guevarra, known for his probity and fairness, lends weight to the petition. Judge Alcantara’s personal integrity is not directly questioned, but the judgment could still affect his competence and honesty. Furthermore, he may face administrative liability depending on the decision of the appellate court.

On the other hand, Judge Buenaventura is facing an administrative complaint personally, unrelated to his order denying bail to De Lima. The complaint is based on his failure to immediately disclose his prohibited relationship after a motion to inhibit was filed, revealing that his brother was the lawyer who prepared an affidavit for one of the accused. As a result, De Lima’s counsels filed a complaint against him in the Judicial Integrity Board (JIB) for unreasonably delaying the case and causing a new raffle. The case has now been assigned to Judge Gener Gito of Branch 206, who needs time to study the case from scratch, further prolonging the detention of the accused. Since the complaint is against him personally, Judge Buenaventura is responsible for retaining and paying for his own counsel. The JIB, created by the Supreme Court, investigates misbehavior by magistrates and judicial personnel nationwide.

These cases illustrate the risks and challenges faced by trial judges. Some of these challenges are self-inflicted, a result of ethical lapses or failure to meet constitutional standards. Others arise from ignoring the potential conflicts of interest posed by kinship, relationship, friendship, and fellowship.

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