In the News: High-profile cases and the rule on sub judice

The past months have seen a number of controversial cases pending before the Supreme Court figure prominently in the media.  These include the Maguindanao massacre, President Aquino’s Executive Order No. 1 (creating the Truth Commission to investigate allegations of graft and corruption against the Arroyo administration) and Executive Order No. 2 (revoking “midnight appointments” of the Arroyo administration), the plagiarism charges leveled against Supreme Court Justice Mariano del Castillo by the members of the Faculty of the UP College of Law, and the acquittal of the accused in the Vizconde massacre case.  In some of these cases, the various parties involved resorted to the media to air their respective sides, and seemed to be litigating before the court of public opinion.

Does exposing a pending case to extensive media scrutiny violate the sub judice rule?

The sub judice rule is embodied in the broad language of Rule 71, Section 3(d) of the Rules of Court.  That section provides that “[a]ny improper conduct tending, directly or indirectly, to impede, obstruct, or degrade the administration of justice” is punishable as indirect contempt.  As stated in the case of Romero, et al. v. Estrada, et al. (G.R. No. 174105, 2 April 2009), the rule “restricts comments and disclosures pertaining to judicial proceedings to avoid prejudging the issue, influencing the court, or obstructing the administration of justice.”   This rule applies not only to the parties to the case, but also to the public in general, including the media.

As stated in Nestle Philippines v. Sanchez (G.R. Nos. L-75209 & L-78791, 30 September 1987), the rationale for the rule is as follows:

[I]t is a traditional conviction of civilized society everywhere that courts and juries, in the decision of issues of fact and law should be immune from every extraneous influence; that facts should be decided upon evidence produced in court; and that the determination of such facts should be uninfluenced by bias, prejudice or sympathies. (Underscoring supplied.)

In a Supplemental Opinion issued in the controversial cases of People v. Webb, et al. (G.R. No. 176864, 14 December 14, 2010) and Lejano v. People (G.R. No. 176389, 14 December 2010) – or in other words, the Vizconde massacre case – Justice Arturo Brion highlighted the growing disregard and non-observance of the sub judice rule, to the detriment of the rights of the accused, the integrity of the courts, and the administration of justice.  Justice Brion noted that the sub judice rule was essential “to preserve the impartiality of the judicial system by protecting it from undue influence.”  Although the Supreme Court had not enforced the sub judice rule in the Vizconde case, Justice Brion lamented that this was only because –

[B]oth [the prosecution and the defense] are in pari delicto as both have apparently gone to the media to campaign for the merits of their respective causes. Thus, the egregious action of one has been cancelled by a similar action by the other. It is in this sense that this Supplemental Opinion is independent of the merits of the case. Their common action, however, cannot have their prejudicial effects on both; whatever the results may be, doubts will linger about the real merits of the case due to the inordinate media campaign that transpired.

Justice Brion went on to issue a warning that “this Court has not forgotten, and is in fact keenly aware of, the limits of what can be publicly ventilated on the merits of a case while sub judice, and on the comments on the conduct of the courts with respect to the case. This Court will not standby idly and helplessly as its integrity as an institution and its processes are shamelessly brought to disrepute.”

In a somewhat related development, in 2010, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago filed Senate Bill No. 1852, also known as the “Judicial Right to Know Act.”  The bill prohibits the issuance of court orders, writs, or injunctions “that would have the effect of enjoining the press and other media from publishing information in connection with a criminal, civil, or administrative case of widespread concern to the community.”

The proposed measure only allows for the issuance of a gag order against the media in cases where the report, commentary, or publication is based on information gained from other sources, and only upon prior showing that the report, commentary, or publication “will likely prevent, directly and irreparably, a fair and impartial resolution of the case.”

Senator Santiago explained that the sub judice rule is a foreign legal concept.  It originated in countries such as the United States, whose justice systems have adopted the trial by jury system.  The courts apply the sub judice rule to isolate jury members from being influenced by the prejudicial publicity.  However, Philippine courts frequently invoke the rule, notwithstanding the obvious differences between a jury system and the Philippine court system.

Acknowledging this point, Justice Brion argues in his Supplemental Opinion that “the fact that the jury system is not adopted in this jurisdiction is not an argument against our observance of the sub judice rule; justices and judges are no different from members of the jury, they are not immune from the pervasive effects of media.”

It remains to be seen whether Senator Santiago’s bill will be enacted into law.  Even if it does, however, it should be interesting to see whether the Justice Brion and the rest of the Supreme Court will uphold its validity, seeing as it attempts to impose limitations on the judiciary’s power to punish for contempt.

Philbert wishes to thank Christine Glaisa S. Po for her assistance in preparing this post.