Twice to vote

Twice to vote
By: Conrado R. Banal
Philippine Daily Inquirer

http://business.inquirer.net/51537/twice-to-vote

Disturbing issues hound Chief Justice Renato Corona regarding his actions in the Supreme Court even while he is standing trial at the Senate that may cost him his powerful position.

According to reports, in a landmark case involving a 30-year dispute over some 34 hectares of prime property in Quezon City, the Chief Justice in effect voted not just once but twice.

The SC early this month issued a ruling en banc that the so-called Piedad Estate, which is close to the Ayala Heights project of premier developer Ayala Land, should belong to the government.

The en banc voting was close at 8 versus 7, meaning it could have gone either way. It seems the Chief Justice himself broke the deadlock, but not with his own vote.

Together with his own vote, he supposedly also used the vote of a justice on leave for more than a month—Justice Mariano del Castillo. The ailing Del Castillo reportedly was not even able to take part in the deliberation.

In fact, all other SC documents would show that Del Castillo was on leave. In this particular case, the Chief Justice simply used the vote of the absent justice. It was the tie-breaking vote, at that.

Disturbing questions thus arise. For one, can an absent justice, who could not be present in the discussion of the issues in a case, vote on en banc decision? May the Chief Justice really take the place of an absent justice?

Is it legal, and if it is, is it the proper thing to do, particularly for a man who is supposed to be the paragon of fairness and morality in this country?

* * *

We have been following this interesting case since the 1990s and have written a number of pieces on it. It started way back when, in 1988, a mysterious fire broke out at the office of the Registry of Deeds at the Quezon City hall. The result was a flood of apparently spurious titles over pieces of property in the city.

The longtime owner of the Piedad Estate was the Manotok family, whose ancestor bought the land from the government in the 1930s. For the past 80 years or so, the family has been paying for the real estate tax on the property.

All of a sudden after the fire at city hall, two other titles appeared, purportedly as evidence of the real ownership of the property. Two other names surfaced in the land title mess, Manahan and Barque, both claiming ownership of the property.

Thus the Manotok family went to court to challenge the alleged “reconstituted” titles. The case dragged on for over two decades, going back and forth between the Court of Appeals and the SC.

This is important: The ownership of the Manotok family, who had control over the property for the longest time by sheer of possession, was never in question in the original case.

In an earlier decision, the SC negated the claims of the two groups—the Manahans and Barques. Thus, you would think that the Manotok family has won in the long-running land dispute.

For whatever mysterious reason, the SC also decided that the CA should answer a question that came from nowhere. And that was, “Did the Manotok family own the land or not?”

The CA eventually ruled that the property should go back to the government because of one reason: Some bureaucrat’s signature was missing in the documents presented by the Manotok family.

Look at that: it was the government that failed to do its job. The court in effect said that, because of such a government failure, the poor individual must be punished.

The SC in 2010 upheld the CA decision. The SC early this month ruled with finality on the case. That was the ruling in which the Chief Justice voted twice, if only to beat the dissenting opinion, penned by Senior Justice Antonio Carpio.

* * *

Horror stories are flying on the possible reason for the daring role that the impeached Renato Corona played in this landmark decision.

One story points at the group of lawyers specializing in land disputes in Quezon City. It is said that the Chief Justice could possibly owe the group favors in connection with the ongoing trial at the Senate.

Those stories are rather difficult to substantiate. The fact is they are going around business and legal circles. They are not doing the impeachment process any good.

But more than the reputation of the embattled Chief Justice, the land title system in this country can be in danger of collapse.

Thousands—if not millions—of individuals already have titles on their properties in former friar lands, seized by the Americans during their occupation of the Philippines, and then sold to various individuals.

More than half of Metro Manila used to be friar lands. The question is this: What will happen to the titles covering all those properties?

The recent SC ruling takes the force of law, and it could therefore encourage other crooks to lay claim on thousands upon thousands of hectares of property all over the country.

The decision may even open up an entire new racket in the property sector: Some syndicates would be selling land titles over certain property owned by millions of Filipinos for the past several years.

Officials of the Land Registration Authority have long admitted such a problem. It seems that, for some time now, the LRA has been trying to settle land disputes—all in Quezon City.

The cases were all handled by a certain group of lawyers associated with an organization.

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