Political Law

Panfilo Lacson vs The Executive Secretary

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G.R. No. 128096 – 301 SCRA 298 – Political Law – Constitutional Law – Equal Protection Clause – Cases Before the Sandiganbayan

On May 18, 1995, alleged members of the Kuratong Baleleng Gang (KBG) were killed in a police operation. The incident was labeled as a rub out. Panfilo Lacson was then the Chief of the Philippine Anti-Crime Commission which was a part of the Anti-Bank Robbery and Intelligence Task Group that implemented the operation against KBG. As a result, Lacson and other police officers were charged with multiple murder. The cases were filed in the Sandiganbayan. In 1996, Lacson et al  filed separate motions questioning the jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan. They aver that the cases fall within the jurisdiction of the Regional Trial Court pursuant to Section 2 (par a and c) of Republic Act No. 7975 also known as “An Act To Strengthen The Functional And Structural Organization Of The Sandiganbayan, Amending For That Purpose Presidential Decree 1606, As Amended”.

They contend that the said law limited the jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan to cases where one or more of the “principal accused” are government officials with Salary Grade (SG) 27 or higher, or PNP officials with the rank of Chief Superintendent (Brigadier General) or higher. The highest ranking principal accused in the amended informations has the rank of only a Chief Inspector, and none has the equivalent of at least SG 27. The Sandiganbayan agreed with Lacson et al and thus it issued a Resolution transferring the case to the Regional Trial Court. The Office of the Special Prosecutor filed a Motion for Reconsideration.

Pending resolution of the MR filed by the prosecutor or sometime in 1997, Republic Act No. 8249 was passed which basically expanded the jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan. The law was authored by Lagman and Neptali Gonzales. Later the Sandiganbayan denied the MR by the prosecutor but the Sandiganabyan immediately issued an addendum recanting its initial resolution as it now ruled that it has jurisdiction over Lacson’s case. This was pursuant to Section 4 of R.A. No. 8249, including Section 7 thereof which provides that the said law “shall apply to all cases pending in any court over which trial has not begun as of the approval hereof.”

Lacson assailed the resolution and the new law as it  was introduced by the authors thereof in bad faith as it was made to precisely suit the situation in which Lacson’s cases were in at the Sandiganbayan thereby violating his right to procedural due process and the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Further, from the way the Sandiganbayan has foot-dragged for nine (9) months the resolution of the transfer of the cases to the Regional Trial Court, the passage of the law may have been timed to overtake such resolution to render the issue therein moot, and frustrate the exercise of Lacson’s vested rights under the old Sandiganbayan Law (RA 7975).

ISSUE: Whether or not the right to equal protection by Lacson et al has been violated with the passage of RA 8249.

HELD: No. The SC ruled that RA 8249 did not violate the right of Lacson et al to equal protection. No concrete evidence and convincing argument were presented to warrant a declaration of an act of the entire Congress and signed into law by the highest officer of the co-equal executive department as unconstitutional. Every classification made by law is presumed reasonable. Thus, the party who challenges the law must present proof of arbitrariness. It is an established precept in constitutional law that the guaranty of the equal protection of the laws is not violated by a legislation based on reasonable classification. The classification is reasonable and not arbitrary when there is concurrence of four elements, namely:

(1) it must rest on substantial distinction;

(2) it must be germane to the purpose of the law;

(3) must not be limited to existing conditions only, and

(4) must apply equally to all members of the same class

The classification between those pending cases involving the concerned public officials whose trial has not yet commenced and whose cases could have been affected by the amendments of the Sandiganbayan jurisdiction under R.A. 8249, as against those cases where trial had already started as of the approval of the law, rests on substantial distinction that makes real differences. In the first instance, evidence against them were not yet presented, whereas in the latter the parties had already submitted their respective proofs, examined witness and presented documents. Since it is within the power of Congress to define the jurisdiction of courts subject to the constitutional limitations, it can be reasonably anticipated that an alteration of that jurisdiction would necessarily affect pending cases, which is why it has to provide for a remedy in the form of a transitory provision. Thus, Lacson et al cannot  claim that Secs 4 and 7 placed them under a different category from those similarly situated as them.

Precisely, par A of Sec 4 provides that it shall apply to “all cases involving” certain public officials and, under the transitory provision in Sec 7, to “all cases pending in any court.” Contrary to petitioner’s arguments, the law is not particularly directed only to the Kuratong Baleleng cases. The transitory provision does not only cover cases which are in the Sandiganbayan but also in “any court.” It just happened that the Kuratong Baleleng cases are one of those affected by the law. Moreover, those cases where trial had already begun are not affected by the transitory provision under Sec 7 of the new law (R.A. 8249).

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