“I never wanted to be a judge. I never wanted to be a prosecutor, or even a lawyer,” Judge Solidum-Taylor tells me. “And I definitely didn’t want to be in the drugs court.” And yet here we are—after twenty years of being a prosecutor, where almost all of her assignments were in the drugs court, she was appointed to Branch 31, which was notorious for its heavy caseload. She considers it destiny then: what she always wanted to be was a pastor, but her feisty personality kept pushing her toward the courtroom. As the presiding judge over a bunch of drug abusers and repentant criminals, she now in a way has her own captive flock. The irony is not lost on her.
When Solidum-Taylor started the position she was already faced with a huge backlog, with some cases dating back several years. Just prior to President Duterte’s oath-taking in June 2016, there was a sudden spike in drug cases. Even before he was sworn in, Duterte declared that his administration would launch a bloody war against drugs, and he famously vowed to kill 100,000 criminals and dump their bodies in the Manila Bay. Docket congestion got so bad that in July 2016 the Supreme Court ordered that all regional trial courts nationwide, except for family courts, could hear newly-filed drug cases. “Even the commercial courts were given drug cases,” she says. “The judges did not know what hit them.”
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Docket congestion got so bad that in July 2016 the Supreme Court ordered that all regional trial courts nationwide, except for family courts, could hear newly filed drug cases. “Even the commercial courts were given drug cases,” she says. “The judges did not know what hit them.”
The recent allowing of plea bargaining is helping cases get disposed of faster, but Solidum-Taylor considers the decision a blessing because she believes the drug law is unduly harsh. Before RA 9165, or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, was passed—with Sen. Tito Sotto as a principal author—the Drugs Act of 1972 combined the terms “possession and use” of illegal drugs, for which the penalty started at six years of imprisonment.
When Congress convened to pass RA 9165, possession and use of drugs were separated, and while drug use can be dealt with by a rehab stint, possession gets at least 12 years in prison for anything less than 5 grams of shabu, even for as little as .001 grams (think residue). Life imprisonment is meted out for anything more than 10 grams, and the death penalty, which was still active at the time, was reserved for possession of 50 grams or more.
In what is known as the Estipona case, the Supreme Court in November 2017 ruled as unconstitutional the provision in RA 9165 that barred plea bargaining. Salvador Estipona was a suspect charged with possession of 0.084 grams of shabu, which is the equivalent of the amount of sodium found in one pickle slice. His counsel argued that even those accused of heinous crimes like murder are allowed to enter a plea bargain under the law. As a result of the decision, the Department of Justice ordered that the use of plea bargaining be largely restricted to offenders of Section 11 paragraph 3, or possession of less than 5 grams. Since then, hundreds of small-time drug personalities like Estipona were able to have their cases resolved relatively quickly, instead of languishing for months, even years, in overcrowded jails as they await trial.
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In theory, at least. After the morning hearing, the judge and a few of her staff were scheduled to visit the Manila City Jail to see if the plea bargainers have indeed been moving on. She had been receiving complaints that the 10,000-bed rehab facility in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija, was turning away inmates from the city jail because they lacked certain requirements—namely P980 for a medical exam, as well as a pair of slippers and extra T-shirts.
This incensed Solidum-Taylor. Not only did most of the inmates come from the poorest of the poor, they were mandated by law to be accepted into the rehab. In a decision she wrote, the judge included a strongly-worded paragraph calling out the director of the facility, threatening to place them under contempt if the court orders are not complied with. Additionally, she would report the matter to the Office of the President.
She had been receiving complaints that the 10,000-bed rehab facility in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija, was turning away inmates from the city jail because they lacked certain requirements—namely P980 for a medical exam, as well as a pair of slippers and extra T-shirts.