By Czarina Nicole Ong
The Sandiganbayan Sixth Division saw no reason why Associate Justice Sarah Jane Fernandez, together with Associate Justices Karl Miranda and Zaldy Trespeses, should be inhibited from the extortion case of former Bureau of Immigration (BI) Deputy Commissioners Al C. Argosino and Michael Robles.
Argosino and Robles earlier filed motions to inhibit, insisting that Associate Justice Fernandez should be kept from handling their case since she was a classmate of Atty. Laurence Hector B. Arroyo, the counsel of another co-accused – Asian Gaming Service Providers Association, Inc. (AGSPA) President Wenceslao Sombero, Jr.
As for Miranda and Trespeses, it was Argosino who wanted to inhibit them “on the grounds of partiality, bias, and unfairness.” He said their partiality can be gleaned in their resolutions, which kept him from posting bail for his plunder charge and refused to quash his charges.
The three of them are facing violation of R.A. 7080 or the act defining and penalizing plunder, as well as violations of Section 3(e) of R.A. 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, Article 210 of the Revised Penal Code or Bribery, and P.D. 46, which prohibits the giving of gifts to public employees.
This was for the reported extortion of P50 million from 1,316 arrested Chinese nationals who were violating Philippine immigration laws.
In its 10-page resolution, the anti-graft court denied their motions for lack of merit. Although Arroyo was indeed a classmate of Fernandez, the court ruled that he was merely an acquaintance and not a friend.
“She does not recall any substantial interaction between them, if there was any interaction at all, after they took the bar examinations and became lawyers, or even when they were students,” the resolution read.
At the same time, the Supreme Court has held that a classmate’s appearance before a judge as counsel for one of the parties per se is not a ground for voluntary inhibition. There should be clear and convincing proof of bias or prejudice before the inhibition takes place.
For the Sandiganbayan, it is not enough for Fernandez to undergo voluntary inhibition because Argosino and Robles failed to prove any bias on her part.
The accused also failed to state the specific bias or partiality on the part of Justices Miranda and Trespeses.
“Here, accused Robles and Argosino merely made a general statement that this court’s resolutions are proof that this court’s justices were biased. They did not even cite any specific resolution or any particular instance which would indicate that this court’s rulings were grounded on something other than what was learned during the course of the proceedings,” the resolution read.
The Sandiganbayan further ruled that their lack of proof regarding the justices’ partiality is simply “an exercise in futility.”