‘No cause is hopeless if it is just. Errors, no matter how popular, carry the seeds of their own destruction.’ – John W. Scoville
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Maybe it is a not-too-sudden twist of fate. Maybe, it is the law taking its course.
Whatever it is, the records show that Supreme Court Associate Justice Consuelo Y. Santiago of the Fifth Division had three of her peers agreeing with her earlier ponencia that heirs of Homer Barque are the real owners of a 34-hectare property occupied for many decades by the heirs of Severino Manotok. The reverse is now true.
The learned lady justice stood pat on her interpretation of the law. She denied two motions for reconsideration filed by the Manotoks. The ruling was about to become final. In fact there was an entry of judgment.
In her ruling Justice Santiago ordered the register of deeds of Quezon City to transfer the title of the multi-billion property in the name of the heirs of Homer Barque. The heirs of Severino Manotok were to lose the property said to be covered by a Torrens title.
But like they say, “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings.” Up to the time, the second motion for reconsideration was denied by the 5th Division, the fat lady had not sung.
In time, rather unexpectedly, she finally sang. In the end, it was over and the heirs of Homer Barque were not to set foot on the property. It did not belong to them, after all.
The fat lady sings
The “fat lady” in this case came in the person of respected and retired Associate Justice Florentino P. Feliciano, who at this time, must be in his eighties, if not older.
It was he who sought an en banc hearing about the decision of Justice Consuelo Santiago.
There was an open debate, exchange of interpretation of what law is applicable on the case and how the facts were to be appreciated.
Procedurally, the court en banc had Justice Santiago defending her ruling. She would have been the ponente if majority of the en banc agreed with her. But the court overruled her ponencia, voting 8-6.
The ponente became the dissenter. She could have been two-time ponente in the same case had she been supported by her peers in her original ponencia in the Fifth Division.
In my interpretation, it was a simple case of illustrating the old Latin legal maxim “dura lex, sed lex.” The law is hard but it is the law.
Majority of the justices in the fifth division ruled in favor of the heirs of Homer Barque. The lone dissenter was Justice Antonio T. Carpio.
But in he en banc, eight minds are better than six.
After the Court en banc voted against the original ponencia of Justice Santiago, Justice Dante Tinga was assigned to pen the decision of the majority in the en banc vote.
That left Justice Santiago a dissenter. A ponente in a division decision becoming a dissenter in the en banc ruling does not happen that often in the Supreme Court.
When it does, we get the feeling that the law, wrongly interpreted in the division decision, is set aright in the en banc.
The law takes its course in the right direction. The division ponencia was wrong. The denial by the First Division of two motions for reconsideration did not bring the ruling of Justice Santiago remotely close to what the majority believed was right.
One way of looking or interpreting this situation is that the en banc or collective minds of majority of the 15 magistrates are more correct than the mind of one justice in a division supported by three peers.
The rule of the majority becomes more significant and credible when the number increases from five to 15. In the en banc vote, it is not incorrect to say that eight minds against six including the four in the First Division, are better.
Denied with finality
The law allows the losing litigant to file a motion for reconsideration. The lawyers of the heirs of Homer Barque did just that.
But again, the Barques could not change the ruling of the eight magistrates in the en banc. To write finis to the case, the en banc denied the motion for reconsideration with finality. The ruling is now part of the law of the land after some procedural matters are complied with.
The decision is to remand the case to the Court of Appeals.
It might be said that Justice Santiago lost again. My presumption is that, being a dissenter in the en banc, she had wished to grant the motion for reconsideration. The minority she led was out-voted.
Maybe there is a lesson to learn from this case. Maybe the Court should draw up guidelines on what to accept for orals by the en banc or what to support at the division level.
The grant of en banc orals depend on the weakness or errors of the questioned decision and the strength of the new arguments.
En banc orals are on exclusive authority of the Chief Justice but the final decision belongs to the majority in the Court.
In other words, a ponencia made at the division level, can be reversed by the en banc if the division refused, as in the case of Manotok vs Barque, to reverse itself.
A lawyer friend told me that a division ruling as in case of Manotok being reversed by the en banc is only the third such case in the history of the Supreme Court.
The ultimate meaning and interpretation of the final ruling by the en banc is that justice prevailed in the end.
Let it not be said that the en banc shamed Justice Santiago. Let it be said that her peers by a vote of 8-6 loudly told her that she was wrong although she insisted four times that she was right.
The first was her ponencia.
Then Justice Santiago and her division denied two motions for reconsideration by the heirs of Severino Manotok. That was the second.
The third was the reversal by the en banc of her ponencia.
The final blow or we might say death knell was the resolution denying the Barque motion for reconsideration with finality.
It is said that the Court is powerful because it is right even when it is wrong. In the Manotok case, the Court set aright what the en banc had seen was wrong.
The final decision is a triumph of justice. Justice Santiago herself should be happy about it.