Political Law

Rufino Nuñez vs Sandiganbayan & the People of the Philippines

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G.R. Nos. L-50581-50617 – 111 SCRA 433 – Political Law – Constitutional Law – Equal Protection – Creation of the Sandiganbayan – Ex Post Facto Law

Nuñez assails the validity of the PD 1486 creating the Sandiganbayan as amended by PD 1606. He was accused before the Sandiganbayan of estafa through falsification of public and commercial documents committed in connivance with his other co-accused, all public officials, in several cases. It is the claim of Nuñez that PD1486, as amended, is violative of the due process,  equal protection, and ex post facto  clauses of the Constitution. He claims that the Sandiganbayan proceedings violates Nuñez’s right to equal protection, because – appeal as a matter of right became minimized into a mere matter of discretion; – appeal likewise was shrunk and limited only to questions of law, excluding a review of the facts and trial evidence; and there is only one chance to appeal conviction, by certiorari to the SC, instead of the traditional two chances; while all other estafa indictees are entitled to appeal as a matter of right covering both law and facts and to two appellate courts, i.e., first to the CA and thereafter to the SC.

ISSUE: Whether or not the creation of Sandiganbayan violates equal protection insofar as appeals would be concerned.

HELD: The SC ruled against Nuñez. The 1973 Constitution had provided for the creation of a special court that shall have original jurisdiction over cases involving public officials charged with graft and corruption. The constitution specifically makes mention of the creation of a special court, the Sandiganbayan, precisely in response to a problem, the urgency of which cannot be denied, namely, dishonesty in the public service. It follows that those who may thereafter be tried by such court ought to have been aware as far back as January 17, 1973, when the present Constitution came into force, that a different procedure for the accused therein, whether a private citizen as petitioner is or a public official, is not necessarily offensive to the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Further, the classification therein set forth met the standard requiring that it “”must be based on substantial distinctions which make real differences; it must be germane to the purposes of the law; it must not be limited to existing conditions only, and must apply equally to each member of the class.”” Further still, decisions in the Sandiganbayan are reached by a unanimous decision from 3 justices -  a showing that decisions therein are more conceivably carefully reached than other trial courts.

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Justice Makasiar (concurring & dissenting)

Persons who are charged with estafa or malversation of funds not belonging to the government or any of its instrumentalities or agencies are guaranteed the right to appeal to two appellate courts – first, to the CA, and thereafter to the SC. Estafa and malversation of private funds are on the same category as graft and corruption committed by public officers, who, under the decree creating the Sandiganbayan, are only allowed one appeal – to the SC (par. 3, Sec. 7, P.D. No. 1606). The fact that the Sandiganbayan is a collegiate trial court does not generate any substantial distinction to validate this invidious discrimination. Three judges sitting on the same case does not ensure a quality of justice better than that meted out by a trial court presided by one judge. The ultimate decisive factors are the intellectual competence, industry and integrity of the trial judge. But a review by two appellate tribunals of the same case certainly ensures better justice to the accused and to the people.

Then again, par 3 of Sec 7 of PD 1606, by providing that the decisions of the Sandiganbayan can only be reviewed by the SC through certiorari, likewise limits the reviewing power of the SC only to question of jurisdiction or grave abuse of discretion, and not questions of fact nor findings or conclusions of the trial court. In other criminal cases involving offenses not as serious as graft and corruption, all questions of fact and of law are reviewed, first by the CA, and then by the SC. To repeat, there is greater guarantee of justice in criminal cases when the trial court’s judgment is subject to review by two appellate tribunals, which can appraise the evidence and the law with greater objectivity, detachment and impartiality unaffected as they are by views and prejudices that may be engendered during the trial.

Limiting the power of review by the SC of convictions by the Sandiganbayan only to issues of jurisdiction or grave abuse of discretion, likewise violates the constitutional presumption of innocence of the accused, which presumption can only be overcome by proof beyond reasonable doubt (Sec. 19, Art. IV, 1973 Constitution).

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