SC ruling dispossesses millions of lot owners

GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) Updated April 02, 2012 12:00 AM
http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleId=793370&publicationSubCategoryId=64

Catastrophic is the Supreme Court ruling on the Piedad Estate. On surface, it merely reverts to the State a thousand hectares of Quezon City prime commercial-residential land straddling Commonwealth Avenue. Yet actually upset are the Torrens titling, home financing, and executive-legislative-judicial remediating systems.

That this occurs because an absent justice was made to “cast a tie-breaker” is another blow against impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona. The implications are farther-reaching, though. From the SC’s 8-7 final vote, millions of lot owners nationwide can lose their property if falling within former friar lands like Piedad Estate.

It all began with the Manotok clan, owner of a 34-hectare slice of Piedad near UP-Diliman and posh Ayala Heights, repelling two belated claimants. One group came out to contest the Manotok holding after fire gutted the Quezon City land registry in 1985. Another emerged, as court battle ensued, to say that land tenure had passed on to them. The Court of Appeals deemed the last-minute claimants’ titles and deeds bogus.

Chaos from the city hall fire had given rise to land-grabbing gangs. The Manotoks filed for reconstitution of property documents dating back to 1919. Something odd happened in court: their papers suddenly came under questioning. Two items supposedly were missing from the files. One, the original Sale Certificate from the US colonial government to the Manotok forebears, of the land confiscated from Spanish friars. Two, the Secretary of Interior’s signature in the original Assignment of Sale Certificate. Yet it was the government’s duty, not the landowners’, to protect the deed registry. (Manila had come under invasion and countless calamities in the past century.) As for the lacking signature, landowners should not be faulted for a bureaucrat’s lapse.

The case reached the SC. Upheld in August 2010 was the finding that the two counterclaims were fakes. But in light of supposed flaws in the Manotok deeds, the government must repossess the entire 1,282-hectare Piedad Estate.

The Manotoks and contestants both moved for reconsideration. On March 6, 2012, the SC promulgated a final decision, penned by Justice Martin Villarama. The counterclaims again were denied. So was the Manotok ownership right.

Concurring with Villarama’s ponencia were: CJ Corona, Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Jose Perez, Jose Mendoza, and Mariano del Castillo.

Justice Antonio Carpio led the dissent, joined by Justices Presbitero Velasco, Arturo Brion, Roberto Abad, Maria Lourdes Sereno, Bienvenido Reyes, and Estela Perlas-Bernabe.

Setting legal circles abuzz was how the majority got eight votes versus the dissenters’ seven. Del Castillo was absent during the March 6 promulgation, having gone on leave starting February 13, for a second heart bypass. He extended the leave on March 21, and returned to work only on March 28, last week. He had not participated in any division or en banc deliberations during his leave, or voted on any case.

Except, curiously, del Castillo voted on this Piedad case; at least, so says Corona. Concurring and dissenting justices all signed above their names. Above del Castillo’s is the handwritten note: “I certify that J. del Castillo sent his vote concurring with Justice Villarama.” Scribbled next is Corona’s signature, same as the one with his name at the top of the list. Del Castillo’s signature does not appear above his name, implying he had not read the ponencia.

In effect, Corona had voted twice in the Piedad case, making his side win by one vote, instead of ending tied. Why he dared do this in the middle of his impeachment trial, only he knows. Some say it has to do with his defense by the Iglesia ni Cristo sect. The lawyers of one of the counterclaimants hold office at the College of Law, New Era University, run by the INC.

Del Castillo’s absentee vote “shows how influential the CJ is over the Supreme Court and the judiciary,” says impeachment prosecution spokesman Rep. Miro Quimbo. “As we’ve been saying, he’s so strong that he played a great part in the issuance of the SC order that almost let former President Gloria Arroyo and husband flee the country.”

Corona reportedly denies signing for del Castillo, or swaying the justices’ votes, or any impropriety in the Piedad ruling. In December 2011 he was impeached by 188 congressmen, almost double the one-third needed from members of the House of Representatives. Del Castillo also is facing impeachment raps for plagiarism in a ponencia against “comfort women” forced into sex slavery by World War II Japanese invaders.

In dissent, Carpio cites scores of other friar land sales in the early 1900s with the Secretary of Interior’s signature also missing. With the majority ruling, he says, all these landholdings would be voided. For, it ignores the fact that the National Archives has copies of the documents. Too, that Congress already had corrected the missing signature via a recent all-encompassing law arising from the Banilad friar estate in Cebu. Lastly, that the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources in 2005 had clarified that the Banilad legislation covered other erstwhile friar lands as well.

Since the SC ruled otherwise, not only the Manotoks’ 34 and Piedad Estate’s 1,282 hectares in Quezon City are affected. All one-time friar lands are too. In Metro Manila alone, Carpio says, these consist of 35,033 hectares. (Makati, one of the 17 cities, has an area of 2,736 hectares; the whole metropolis, 63,600 hectares.) The SC’s 8-7 ruling imperils over half of Metro Manila. Former friar lands exist elsewhere, as industrial, commercial or residential estates.

“If we do not apply the DENR memo … the SC will be disquieting titles held by generations of landowners since the passage in 1904 of the (Friar Lands Act),” says Carpio. “Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of landowners would surely be dispossessed of their lands in these areas. This is a disaster waiting to happen – a blow to the integrity of our Torrens system and the stability of land titles in this country.”

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