Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Calls for Review

The calls for review of the Webb case will not die until the Supreme Court has made a definitive decision that the Webb case is a closed case or, alternatively, that the seven justices who voted to reverse the conviction of Webb and company committed a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction. In the second alternative the Supreme Court will have to say that what the seven justices did was not an acquittal at all. But what are the chances of either alternative.

From where I sit, the odds would be heavily tilted in favor of dismissal of any appeal or any motion for reconsideration. As one colleague put it, this is Constitutional Law 101. The long standing doctrine is that "No error, however, flagrant, committed by the court against the state, can be reserved by it for decision by the Supreme Court when the defendant has once been placed in jeopardy and discharged even though the discharge was the result of the error committed." A judgment in a criminal case once final cannot be reopened. A judgment of acquittal is immediately final. “A single prosecution for any offense is all the law allows. It protects an accused from harassment, enables him to treat what had transpired as a closed chapter in his life, either to exult in his freedom or to be resigned to whatever penalty is imposed, and is a bar to unnecessary litigation, in itself time consuming and expense-producing for the state as well."

But is there any instance when an acquittal is reversed? Briefly, yes, when the acquittal was no acquittal at all because it was done with abuse of discretion. But the abuse that can justify reversal is not any simple abuse. This type of abuse has been characterized by the Supreme Court as “such capricious and whimsical exercise of judgment as is equivalent to lack of jurisdiction. The abuse of discretion must be patent and gross as to amount to an evasion of positive duty or a virtual refusal to perform a duty enjoined by law, or to act at all in contemplation of law, as where the power is exercised in an arbitrary and despotic manner by reason of passion or hostility.”

If the Supreme Court is to reverse the acquittal of Webb and company, it will have to say that the seven justices who voted for acquittal had acted in a manner that was capricious and in a whimsical exercise of judgment, had evaded a public duty or refused to perform a duty enjoined by law, and had exercised their power in an arbitrary and despotic manner by reason of passion or hostility. It is only by arriving at this conclusion that the Supreme Court can say that the acquittal was without jurisdiction and therefore not an acquittal at all.

What are the chances of the Supreme Court arriving at such a conclusion? Consider the fact that every decision of the Court is arrived at only after deliberation by a quorum in the Court. A certification to this effect is attached to the record of the case. Moreover, any member who dissents must state for the reason for the dissent. If you examine what those who dissented said, I do not think you will find any dissenting justice saying that acquitting the Webbs would amount to grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. If such were the case, the justices would be opening themselves to impeachment for culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust.

Indeed, there have been acquittals which were found to be grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack of jurisdiction. But these were committed by lower courts. For instance, there was the case of the soldiers accused of the assassination of Benigno Aquino, Jr. After they were acquitted by the Sandiganbayan the case was reopened on the premise that the proceedings in the Sandiganbyan were characterized by grave abuse of discretion.

Incidentally, the argument has been raised that the Webb decision must be reversed because the Supreme Court is without authority to decide issues of fact. In essence, what this argument means is that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction. Clearly, however, the Constitution gives to the Supreme Court power to review, reverse, modify or affirm final judgment of lower courts. More specifically, the Supreme Court has the power to review “all criminal cases in which the penalty imposed is reclusion perpetua or higher.” Reviewing a criminal case on appeal of a conviction or on certiorari of an acquittal necessarily involves a review not just of the law involved but also of the facts which are the basis of the conviction or acquittal.

Reviewing a criminal law decision always involves examining whether the right to presumption of innocence has been honored. To convict, the court must find proof beyond reasonable doubt. Proof beyond reasonable doubt cannot be determined without reviewing the facts of the case.

10 January 2011

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