SC's error in Non v. Ombudsman? 'Other judicial region' rule

In the case of Alfredo Non v. Ombudsman,[1] a 2020 case, the Supreme Court granted the petition of the accused therein, annulying all orders issued by RTC Branch 155 in Pasig City and dismissing the criminal case against accused. The Court cited "lack of jurisdiction" as a ground in so doing.

The High Court said the RTC Pasig City has no jurisdiction over Criminal Case No. R-PSG-18-01280-CR because of Section 2, paragraph 3 of R.A. No. 10660 which took effect in 2015. In said law, it says:

Provided, That the Regional Trial Court shall have exclusive original jurisdiction where the information: (a) does not allege any damage to the government or any bribery; or (b) alleges damage to the government or bribery arising from the same or closely related transactions or acts in an amount not exceeding One million pesos (P1,000,000.00).

Subject to the rules promulgated by the Supreme Court, the cases falling under the jurisdiction of the Regional Trial Court under this section shall be tried in a judicial region other than where the official holds office. (Emphases supplied)

The Court cited Senate deliberations on R.A. No. 10660 to support the view that the RTC's "jurisdiction" under said law shall be tried in a judicial region outside of the place where the accused public official holds office. The following was quoted in the text of the decision:
As regards the amendment on page 3, lines 28 to 31, on the trial of cases falling within the jurisdiction of the RTC in a judicial region other than where the official holds office, Senator Angara believed that the basic reasoning behind the provision is to prevent a public official from exerting influence over the RTC judge who is hearing the case. Senator Pimentel agreed, saying that it is the assumption of the amendment. (Emphasis supplied)
Interestingly, the Supreme Court even cited Section 5 of Rule 110 of the Revised Rules on Criminal Procedure, stressing that "when a law specifically provides a venue, then the criminal action shall be instituted in such place," thus:
SEC. 15. Place where action is to be instituted. —

(a) Subject to existing laws, the criminal action shall be instituted and tried in the court of the municipality or territory where the offense was committed or where any of its essential ingredients occurred. (Emphasis supplied)
While the Supreme Court is the final arbiter as to what the law means and the opinion expressed herein has no bearing whatsoever in the Philippine legal system, it is not controversial to invite the Court to take a second look into the matter.

First of all, jurisdiction is conferred by law. The Court recognized this in the same case by citing Radiowealth Finance Co., Inc. v. Pineda, Jr.[2] Section 2, paragraph 3 of R.A. No. 10660 does not speak of jurisdiction. It is paragraph 2 which does so by giving the RTC exclusive original jurisdiction in two situations: (1) no alleged government damage; and (2) alleged government damage of 1 million or less. Paragraph 3 speaks of "trial"; it neither refers to jurisdiction nor to venue for purposes of institution. 

Second, the plain meaning of provisions of law prevails. Therefore, when R.A. No. 10660 says "shall be tried," the meaning of this phrase should not be expanded to refer to or to mean "jurisdiction." 

Third, even Section 5 of Rule 110, which the Supreme Court cited in the case of Non,[3] speaks separately of "institution" and "trial." This is for the simple reason that the place of institution of the criminal action may be different from the venue of trial. No less than the Constitution recognizes this, which says:
The Supreme Court shall have the following powers:

xxx

Order a change of venue or place of trial to avoid a miscarriage of justice.[4]
As a rule, a criminal case should be instituted and tried in the place where the offense was committed or any of its essential ingredients took place.[5] However, change of venue of trial of criminal proceedings is allowed and, in fact, has been recognized in jurisprudence[6][7] and even granted.[8]

Fourth, even the Senate deliberations cited by the Court says "the trial of cases falling within the jurisdiction of the RTC." To say that the RTC in Pasig City has no jurisdiction would run counter to the plain text of the law and the intent of the lawmakers because the drafters of R.A. No. 10660 even recognize the difference between "trial of cases" and "jurisdiction of the RTC."

However, one of the few limitations of this analysis must be discussed. The term "jurisdiction" means the power of a court to "hear and decide a case."[9] If the same law gives the RTC in Pasig City the power to "hear and decide a case" but, at the same time, takes away the element of "power to hear," a literal interpretation of this rule would lead to absurdity. If such interpretation is followed, it might mean that an RTC has the power to accept the case when the criminal information is filed but simply have to wait until the venue is changed, without further action on its part.

Nevertheless, there are situations in which this might prove useful. For example, when the statute of limitations is at the doors, the prosecution may opt to file the case at the nearest RTC, ignoring in the meantime Section 2, paragraph 3 of R.A. No. 10660, for the purpose of tolling the prescriptive period and, then, ask the Supreme Court to allow change of venue to an RTC in a judicial region in which the accused official does not hold office. This scenario is in more harmony with the constitutional power of the Supreme Court to change venue and R.A. No. 10660's "other judicial region" rule, vis-a-vis the RTC's jurisdiction under paragraph 2 of the same law.

If this opinion is allowed to go this far, however, it can even be argued that the decision of the Supreme Court in Non v. Ombudsman[10] created more injustice rather than justice, especially on the part of the Filipino people who, according to the prosecution in that case, have probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that the accused are probably the authors of said crime. The additional delay in the prosecution of the case may result in irreparable injury on the part of the State, considering, among others, the time and resources already spent. Such delay may even result in the acquittal of the accused on technical grounds, giving rise to a situation in which those who committed graft and corruption are free not because they are innocent but because they have good lawyers. After all, justice is not only for the accused but for the State as well.

Although doubt is resolved in favor of the accused, it would have been a better situation in the Non case had the Court simply ordered the change of venue of the criminal action.

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