CA justice’s retirement raises eyebrows

Justice Normandie Pizzaro

MANILA —  The early retirement of a Court of Appeals (CA) justice who freed former Palawan governor Joel Reyes “raises questions and suspicions,” Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said Thursday.

“He has the right to retire early, but the timing of his early retirement plan, coming as it does after he wrote the decision giving Reyes freedom, is not right and is suspect,” Zarate said, referring to Justice Normandie Pizzaro.

Zarate said people could think that Pizzaro “has other reasons for leaving his job early.”

Zarate also urged Pizarro to explain his three “controversial decisions” – the freeing of Reyes, the acquittal of suspected pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles in the arbitrary detention case involving scam whistle-blower Benhur Luy and the dismissal of the compensation claim of 10,000 human rights victims from the Marcos estate.

“If there are people who are not happy with such decisions, they can file complaints with the Supreme Court, and I am sure the high tribunal will look into these,” he said.

A Court of Appeals insider has told The STAR that Pizzaro would retire early next month, one year ahead of the mandatory retirement age of 70.

He would retire after writing the recent decision of the CA’s former 11th Division, which ordered the release of Reyes from jail and the dismissal of the murder charge against him before the Puerto Princesa City Regional Trial Court (RTC).

Solicitor General Jose Calida has said the decision “stinks” and vowed to elevate the case to the Supreme Court. Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II echoed Calida’s statements. He said there could be something “fishy” on the move of Pizzaro or some of the CA justices in dismissing the case.

Since there is no pending motion yet with the DOJ on the matter, Aguirre said it is better if he does not meddle in the issue. He said he has not received a briefer on the case.

Aguirre expressed his opinion that the local court has the authority to determine probable cause and the issuance of warrants of arrest.

Since Reyes and his brother brought the case before the CA, then the appellate court had acted on it by clearing the Reyeses of any liability in the Ortega killing, Aguirre said.

In the ruling, the CA granted Reyes’ petition and held that the evidence presented by prosecutors was “not competent” to establish reasonable grounds that he participated in the killing of journalist and environmentalist Gerry Ortega in January 2011.

In nullifying the arrest order against Reyes, the appellate court faulted the RTC for relying on the testimony of Rodolfo Edrad Jr., the former governor’s security escort who had admitted hiring the gunman, Marlon Recamata, to kill Ortega allegedly upon Reyes’ order.

The special division of five justices of the CA division voted 3-2 to acquit Reyes. Pizarro penned the ruling with Associate Justices Danton Bueser and Victoria Paredes concurring, while Associate Justices Maria Filemona Singh and Marie Christine Azcarraga-Jacob dissented.

Reyes, for his part, maintained he has no intention of fleeing the country to evade his other pending criminal cases before the Sandiganbayan.

“I will not leave. I am here because I believe in the rule (of law),” Reyes told reporters after attending a hearing at the Sandiganbayan.

Reyes made the statement while attending the hearing of a graft case stemming from his alleged anomalous renewal of the permit of a small-scale mining company in 2006 found to have been over extracting mineral ore in Palawan.

The ombudsman’s prosecution panel filed a motion before the Sandiganbayan Third Division asking the court to cancel his P60,000 bail bond and commit him to prison.

The prosecution filed the motion after Reyes was released from the Puerto Princesa City Jail on Friday last week after the CA dismissed the murder case against him in connection with the killing of Ortega.

The prosecution said Reyes must not be granted provisional liberty as he remains a flight risk, given his record of fleeing the country in 2012 just before the Puerto Princesa RTC issued a warrant of arrest against him and his younger brother, former Coron, Palawan mayor Mario Reyes.

The elder Reyes said he is “saddened” by the ombudsman’s move that came just a couple of days after his freedom from detention for his murder case.

Reyes also wanted presidential spokesman Harry Roque penalized over his pronouncements.

Reyes filed a petition last Wednesday with the appellate court seeking to cite Roque in indirect contempt. He said Roque’s statements “tended to impair the court’s independence and efficiency as well as the public’s confidence in the court’s honesty and integrity.”

While Roque claimed to speak in a personal capacity, his criticism of the decision may have a “possible influence on the public and even the courts,” Reyes said.

Roque, on the other hand, said he is unfazed when asked for comment on Reyes’ threat to cite him for contempt.

Roque earlier raised alarm bells when the CA ruled in favor of the former Palawan governor in connection with Ortega slaying.

“Well, I welcome that, so I can probably explain to the convicted felon – he is a convicted felon, remember?” Roque said.

Roque said he was speaking as a presidential spokesman when he aired his statement.

“Every crime is prosecuted by the executive in the name of the people of the Philippines. Of course, it is the duty and obligation of the state to accord its citizens justice. I spoke in that capacity. I have no regrets, and even the President approved of my statements,” he said.

Presidential Task Force on Media Security chief Undersecretary Joel Egco also called on Calida to fast-track efforts to question the CA move.

“That’s why we share the sentiments of the OSG (Office of the Solicitor General). And the OSG is a member of the task force and we give our full trust and confidence to the OSG to effectively seek a reversal of this nightmare,” Egco said.

Egco added the Task Force is in full support of Roque and agrees with the spokesman’s description of the case dismissal as “a travesty of justice.”