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Caught in the maze of legalese

(Article published in the December 3, 2001 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

Unwittingly perhaps, the Supreme Court in its decision in the case of Joseph Ejercito Estrada v. Sandiganbayan (Third Division) and the People of the Philippines (G.R. No. 148560, promulgated on November 19, 2001) foreclosed a potential challenge to the Antimoney Laundering Act of 2001 (RA 9160) as it involved the question of the constitutionality of the Plunder Law (RA 7080).

By ruling on how the phrase "series or combination" is to be understood, our highest court shielded the anti-money laundering law of the accusation that it is constitutionally vague.

The crimes punished by Plunder Law and the Antimoney Laundering Act are kindred spirits. Both, by definition, involve money: the offender, under the first, "amasses, accumulates, or acquires," under the second, [the offender] disguises "thereby making it appear to have originated from legitimate sources." Both are predicated on the commission of other unlawful acts, which are committed necessarily, in the case of plunder, or, often, in the case of money laundering in a "series or combination" thereof.

Most laymen, like innocent children, are not too concerned on whether two or more acts constitute a "series" on the one hand or a "combination" on the other. But lawyers and lawmakers, having lost their innocence, do get very uptight about the meaning of these words and insist that a line be drawn between the two. To them, the Plunder Law is a matter of life or death.

The Plunder law punishes a public officer who amasses wealth "through a combination or a series" of criminal acts described in the section one of the law. The word "series" was very perplexing to Joseph Ejercito Estrada and his lawyers. They ask: "Does it mean…two or more related enterprises falling under similar schemes listed in the law… or just a joint criminal enterprise? Would it require substantial identity of facts and participants, or merely a common pattern of action? Would it imply close connection between acts or a direct relationship between the charges? Does the term mean a factual relationship between acts or merely a common plan among conspirators?"

If a tiny six-letter word could pack such uncertainty, could you imagine what they will say of "combination" which has almost twice the number of letters?

Of "combination," the best legal minds assisting the president’s lesser mind claimed not to know if (a) it includes two or more acts, whether legal or illegal; (b) it must include tat least two of the means or similar schemes laid down in the law; (c) it requires that the transactions occur in the same place or area or in different places, no matter how far apart in place; (d) that the transactions contemplate two acts "no matter how far apart in time," (e) "combination" refers to the modus operandi or merely evidence used in the trial.

The Supreme Court mercifully saves us all from going crazy by telling us tounderstand, when reading the law on plunder, the words "series" and "combination" in their respectively popular connotation. This was how these terms were understood by the legislators, though not all of them are popular or respected.

"Combination" says the Supreme Court means at least two acts falling under different categories in the enumeration of criminal acts and "series" means at least two acts falling under the same category. This reading presumably also applies to the same words as they appear in the anti-money laundering law.

The bias for the natural, plain and ordinary acceptation and signification of terms in legal documentation, whether in contracts or in laws, is the default mode of construction. After all, legal instruments ought to be understood by those expected to be bound by them. If technical meanings were intended, such intention must be very clear.

As the Supreme Court said, "Verily, had the legislature intended a technical or distinctive meaning for "combination" and "series," it would have taken greater pains in specifically providing for it in the law."