January 2010 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

Here are selected January 2010 rulings of the Supreme Court of the Philippines on legal and judicial ethics:

Bar discipline case;  cases against judge. Pursuant to A.M. No. 02-9-02-SC (Re: Automatic Conversion of Some Administrative Cases Against Justices of the Court of Appeals and the Sandiganbayan, Judges of Regular and Special Courts, and Court Officials Who Are Lawyers as Disciplinary Proceedings Against Them Both as Officials and as Members of the Philippine Bar), this administrative case shall also be considered as a disciplinary proceeding against him as a member of the bar. Office of the Court Administrator vs. Judge Harun B. Ismael, A.M. No. RTJ-07-2045, January 19, 2010.

Delay;  rendering an order. A delay of nearly three years of a Court of Appeals Justice in resolving a Motion for Inhibition directed against her constitutes undue delay in rendering an order.

Article VIII, Section 15(1) of the Constitution directs that “All cases or matters filed after the effectivity of this Constitution must be decided or resolved within twenty-four months from the date of submission for the Supreme Court, and unless reduced by the Supreme Court, twelve months for all lower collegiate courts, and three months for all other lower courts.”

Respondent’s justification for the delay in resolving the motion for inhibition – in deference to the authority of the SC to resolve the issues raised in the petition for certiorari does not impress. Section 7 of Rule 65 of the Rules of Court provides that a petition for certiorari shall not interrupt the course of the principal case unless a temporary restraining order or a writ of preliminary injunction has been issued against the public respondent from further proceeding with the case. This rule must be strictly adhered to by appellate and lower courts notwithstanding the possibility that the proceedings undertaken by them tend to or would render nugatory the pending petition before the SC.

But even gratuitously crediting respondent’s justification for the delay, since the Court resolved the complainant’s petition for certiorari on April 7, 2007, still given the nature and history of the cases, respondent unduly delayed the resolution of a mere motion for inhibition – only on October 8, 2008, after the Court referred the present complaint to the appellate court and after complainant filed a reiterative motion.

Under Section 9(1) of Rule 140 of the Rules of Court, undue delay in rendering a decision or order is a less serious charge. Ramon C. Gonzales vs. Court of Appeals Associate Justice Amelita G. Tolentino, A.M. No. CA-10-49-J, January 28, 2010.

Delay; resolution of cases. Article VIII, Section 15(1) of the Constitution provides that lower courts have a period of 90 days only within which to decide or resolve a case from the time it is submitted for decision. In this case, more than three years beyond the 90-day reglementary period lapsed before the case was decided by Judge Cruz.

The reasons proffered by the said judge failed to persuade the Court. First, he claims that his illness primarily caused the delay in the disposition of the case. However, the case was submitted for decision before he claimed to be indisposed. There was also no showing that respondent judge was continually ill from the time that the case was submitted for decision until the promulgation of the judgment. Removal of cataract from both eyes does not entail prolonged confinement. Besides, granting that his illness hindered the efficient performance of his functions, all respondent judge had to do was request for an extension of time within which to decide the case. Second, he claims that the delay was partly due to heavy pressure of work. Precisely, a judge is mandated to resolve cases with dispatch. Section 5, Canon 6 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct categorically exhorts all judges to “perform all judicial duties, including the delivery of reserved decisions, efficiently, fairly and with reasonable promptness.”

Delay in the disposition of cases not only deprives litigants of their right to speedy disposition of their cases, but also tarnishes the image of the judiciary. Procrastination among members of the judiciary in rendering decisions and taking appropriate actions on the cases before them not only causes great injustice to the parties involved but also invites suspicion of ulterior motives on the part of the judge, in addition to the fact that it erodes the faith and confidence of our people in the judiciary, lowers its standards and brings it into disrepute.  Luminza Delos Reyes vs. Judge Danilo S. Cruz and Clerk of Court vs. Godolfo R. Gundran, Both of Reginal Trial Court, Branch 152, Pasig City, A.M. No. RTJ-08-2152, January 18, 2010.

Delay;  resolution of cases. Failure to decide or resolve cases within the reglementary period constitutes gross inefficiency and is not excusable. It is a less serious charge and is punishable by either suspension from office without salaries and benefits for not less than one month but not more than three months, or a fine of more than Php 10,000 but not exceeding Php 20,000.

The New Code of Judicial Conduct requires that a judge shall perform all judicial duties, including the delivery of reserved decisions, efficiently, fairly, and with reasonable promptness. Rule 3.05, Canon 3 of the Code admonishes all judges to dispose of the court’s business promptly and decide cases within the period specified in Section 15 (1) and (2), Article VIII of the Constitution.  Office of the Court Administrator vs. Judge Harun B. Ismael, A.M. No. RTJ-07-2045, January 19, 2010.

Delay;  transmitting case record to Court of Appeals. As for Clerk of Court Gundran, Section 10, Rule 141 of the Rules of court states that it his duty to verify the correctness and completeness of the records of the case. However, in this case, he relegated the performance of his job to another court employee without any justifiable reason. Difficulty in completing the records of the case is also not a justifiable ground for non-transmittal of the records. Under the rules, when the records cannot be completed, respondent should “indicate in his letter of transmittal the exhibits or transcripts not included in the records being transmitted to the appellate court, the reasons for their non-transmittal, and the steps taken or that could be taken to have them available.”

Clerks of Court are essential judicial officers who perform delicate administrative functions vital to the prompt and proper administration of justice. Their duty is, inter alia, to assist in the management of the calendar of the court and in all matters that do not involve discretion or judgment properly belonging to the judge. They play a key role in the complement of the court, as their office is the hub of adjudicative and administrative orders, processes and concerns. As such, they are required to be persons of competence, honesty, and probity, they cannot be permitted to slacken on their jobs. Luminza Delos Reyes vs. Judge Danilo S. Cruz and Clerk of Court V Godolfo R. GundaranA.M. No. RTJ-08-2152, January 18, 2010.

Grave misconduct and dishonesty; court personnel. Respondent’s act of taking off the shock absorbert of a motorcycle which forms part of the prosecution’s evidence in a criminal case without the knowledge of the evidence custodian or the owner, for personal gain, and thereafter replacing it with a damaged one to prevent detection constitutes dishonesty and grave misconduct.

Misconduct is defined as any unlawful conduct on the part of a person concerned in the administration of justice prejudicial to the rights of the parties or to the right determination of the cause. It generally means wrongful, improper, or unlawful conduct motivated by a premeditated, obstinate, and intentional purpose. The term, however, does not necessarily imply corruption or criminal intent. On the other hand, the term “gross” connotes something “out of all measure; beyond allowance; not to be excused; flagrant; shameful.”

Dishonesty has been defined as intentionally making a false statement in any material fact, or practicing or attempting to practice any deception or fraud in securing his examination, registration, appointment or promotion. It is also understood to imply a disposition to lie, cheat, deceive, or defraud; untrustworthiness; lack of integrity; lack of honesty, probity, or integrity in principle; lack of fairness and straightforwardness; disposition to defraud, deceive or betray.

A public office is a public trust. Public officers and employees are duty-bound to serve with the highest degree of responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency and shall remain accountable to the people. Persons involved in the administration of justice ought to live up to the strictest standard of honesty and integrity in the public service. The conduct of personnel connected with the courts should, at all times, be circumspect to preserve the integrity and dignity of our courts of justice. As forerunners in the administration of justice, they ought to live up to the strictest standards of honesty and integrity, considering that their positions primarily involve service to the public. Gerardo Q. Ferreras vs. Rudy P. Eclipse, A.M. No. P-05-2085, January 20, 2010.

Grave misconduct; court personnel. Respondent sheriffs were found guilty of grave misconduct in demanding and collecting sums for the implementation of a Writ of Demolition without providing corresponding official receipts therefor, and subsequently not implementing the writ.

Under Section 9, Rule 141 of the Rules of Court, the sheriff is required to secure the court’s prior approval of the estimated expenses and fees needed to implement the court process.

Following the abovementioned rule, a sheriff is guilty of violating the Rules if he fails to observe the following: (1) prepare an estimate of expenses to be incurred in executing the writ, for which he must seek the court’s approval; (2) render an accounting; and (3) issue an official receipt for the total amount he received from the judgment debtor. The rule requires that the sheriff execute writs and processes to estimate the expenses to be incurred. Upon approval of the estimated expenses, the interested party has to deposit the amount with the Clerk of Court and Ex-Officio Sheriff. The expenses shall then be disbursed to the executing Sheriff, subject to his liquidation, within the same period for rendering a return on the process or writ. Any unspent amount shall be refunded to the party who made the deposit.

Sheriffs are not allowed to receive any voluntary payments from parties in the course of the performance of their duties. To do so would be inimical to the best interests of the service, because even assuming arguendo that the payments were indeed given and received in good faith, this fact alone would not dispel any suspicion that such payments were made for less than noble purposes. Corollary to this point, a sheriff cannot just unilaterally demand sums of money from a party-litigant without observing the proper procedural steps; otherwise, such act would amount to dishonesty and extortion.

A sheriff is an officer of the court. As such, he performs integral part of the administration of justice, since he is called upon to serve the orders and writs and execute all processes of the court. As such, he is required to live up to the strict standards of honesty and integrity in public service. His conduct must at all times be characterized by honesty and openness and must constantly be above suspicion. Benjamin E. Sanga vs. Sheriffs Florencio SJ. Alcantara and Sales T. Bisnar, A,M. No. P-09-2657. January 25, 2010.

(Mon thanks  Bhong P.A. Macasaet for his help in preparing this post.)