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Court of Appeals turns down bid by president's spouse to stop class suit against him

(CMFR/IFEX) - The Court of Appeals (CA) in Manila turned down a reconsideration motion filed by presidential spouse Jose Miguel "Mike" Arroyo to stop the hearing of the class suit filed against him by 36 journalists and three media organizations.

On 24 February 2009, the CA's former Seventh Division affirmed its 22 September 2008 ruling to allow the Makati Regional Trial Court (RTC) to continue hearing the multi-million-dollar class suit filed by journalists and media organizations against Arroyo. The decision was penned by Associate Justice Fernanda Lampas Peralta. Associate Justices Edgardo Cruz and Normandie Pizarro concurred with the decision.

Thirty-six journalists together with the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the newspaper "The Daily Tribune" filed a P12.5 million (approx. US$257,000) class suit against Arroyo on 28 December 2006 in response to the numerous libel suits he filed against journalists. They argued that the 11 libel suits filed by Arroyo against 46 journalists and media practitioners abused his right to litigate and was an attack on press freedom. Libel is a criminal offense in the Philippines.

The appellate court said Arroyo failed to present new arguments against the case and that it "need not discuss all over again the same issues it had previously resolved."

"To be sure, the present motion for reconsideration does not present any new issue which has not been addressed in the Court?s decision. The motion for reconsideration merely invokes rulings in certain cases already cited in the petition and memorandum of petitioner," the CA said.

The appellate court emphasized in its 24 February 2009 ruling that Arroyo "may (still) present evidence to prove his allegation of bad faith in filing the amended complaint" during the preliminary hearing on the affirmative defenses before the Makati RTC.

"The trial court may also order the re-assessment of the docket fees and if there is any deficiency, it shall order private respondents to pay the same within a reasonable period," the CA added.

It also stated that its decision is only on the issue of whether the Makati RTC acted in grave abuse of discretion tantamount to lack of jurisdiction, when it admitted the amended complaint in the class suit. Said CA resolution did not address the merits of the civil action suit. It said the merits of the case would be addressed in the proceedings conducted by the Makati RTC.

Arroyo filed the motion for reconsideration on 16 October 2008 saying that the CA "acted contrary to law when it held that the respondent judge did not commit grave abuse in admitting the amended complaint considering its lack of jurisdiction over the complaint" in its 22 September 2008 decision denying his petition for certiorari.

Arroyo filed a petition for certiorari in 2007 saying that Makati RTC Branch 143 judge Zenaida Galapate Laguilles committed "grave abuse of discretion" for admitting the journalists? amended complaint despite the "non-payment of the proper docket fees".

A certiorari is a writ that could be issued by a superior court to a lower court to annul or modify ongoing proceedings if the latter court acted on a case outside its jurisdiction.

Arroyo argued that a court only acquires jurisdiction after the payment of the proper fees based on the ruling in Manchester Development Corporation v. Court of Appeals. According to Arroyo, petitioners failed to pay the proper docket fee. He said they should have paid a docket fee of P9 million (approx. US$185,000) as he interpreted that each petitioner was asking for P12.5 million in damages in the original complaint. Docket fees are computed based on the damages sought by a party initiating a civil action.

Several media organizations lauded the CA decision. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines in a statement said that "the ruling . . . proves that the judiciary may still be a refuge for those victimized by the powerful and the wealthy".

GMANews.TV reported on 2 March 2009 that Arroyo would question the decision of the CA before the Supreme Court. Ruy Rondain, legal counsel for Arroyo told GMANews.TV that the CA "misunderstood" their petition.

A presidential spokesperson announced on 3 May 2007 that Arroyo would withdraw all the libel cases he filed against the journalists. However, the journalists and media organizations decided to continue with the case to establish the legal precedence for cases where public personalities sue media practitioners for libel.

Updates alerts on the class action suit filed against the president's husband:

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