April 2014 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

Here are select April 2014 rulings of the Supreme Court of the Philippines on legal and judicial ethics:

Court personnel; simple misconduct. An administrative case was filed against Melchor Tiongson, a Court of Appeals (CA) employee who was assigned to be the head watcher during the 2011 bar examinations. The complaint alleged that she brought a digital camera inside the bar examination rooms, in violation of the Instructions to Head Watchers. The Court held that in administrative proceedings, substantial evidence is the quantum of proof required for a finding of guilt, and this requirement is satisfied if there is reasonable ground to believe that the employee is responsible for the misconduct. Misconduct means transgression of some established and definite rule of action, more particularly, unlawful behavior or gross negligence by an employee. Any transgression or deviation from the established norm of conduct, work related or not, amounts to a misconduct. In this case, there was substantial evidence to prove that Tiongson committed a misconduct. Tiongson was held liable for simple misconduct only, because the elements of grave misconduct were not proven with substantial evidence, and Tiongson admitted his infraction before the Office of the Bar Confidant. As a CA employee, Tiongson disregarded his duty to uphold the strict standards required of every court employee, that is, to be an example of integrity, uprightness and obedience to the judiciary. Re: Melchor Tiongson, Head Watcher, During the 2011 Bar Examinations, B.M. No. 2482, April 1, 2014.

Judges; bias and partiality must be proven by clear and convincing evidence. The Court held that the truth about Judge Austria’s alleged partiality cannot be determined by simply relying on the verified complaint. Bias and prejudice cannot be presumed, in light especially of a judge’s  sacred  obligation  under  his  oath  of  office  to  administer  justice without respect to the person, and to give equal right to the poor and rich. There should be clear and convincing evidence to prove the charge; mere suspicion of partiality is not enough. In this case, aside from being speculative and judicial in character, the circumstances cited by the complainant were grounded on mere opinion and surmises. The complainant also failed to adduce proof indicating the judge’s predisposition to decide the case in favor of one party. Antonio M. Lorenzana v. Judge Ma. Cecilia I. Austria, RTC, Br. 2, Batangas City, A.M. No. RTJ-09-2200, April 2, 2014.

Judges; decision-making; 90-day requirement. An administrative case was filed against Judge Bustamante when it was found out upon judicial audit that he had a number of cases pending for decision, some of which the reglementary period have already lapsed. The Court held that decision-making, among other duties, is the primordial and most important duty of a member of the bench.  The speedy disposition of cases in the courts is a primary aim of the judiciary so the ends of justice may not be compromised and the judiciary will be true to its commitment to provide litigants their constitutional right to a speedy trial and a speedy disposition of their cases. The Constitution, Code of Judicial Conduct, and jurisprudence consistently mandate that a judge must decide cases within 90 days from submission. A member of the bench cannot pay mere lip service to the 90-day requirement; he/she should instead persevere in its implementation. Heavy caseload and demanding workload are not valid reasons to fall behind the mandatory period for disposition of cases. Having failed to decide a case within the required period, without any order of extension granted by the Court, Judge Bustamante was held liable for undue delay that merits administrative sanction. Office of the Court Administrator v. Judge Borromeo R. Bustamante, Municipal Trial Court in Cities, Alaminos City, Pangasinan, A.M. No. MTJ-12-1806, April 7, 2014.

 Judges; impropriety. An administrative complaint was filed against Judge Austria for impropriety for posting her details as judge in Friendster and posting a picture with an indecent attire for the public’s consumption. The Court held that she was guilty of impropriety. While judges are not prohibited from becoming  members  of  and  from  taking  part  in  social  networking activities, they do not shed off their status as  judges. They carry with them in cyberspace the same ethical responsibilities and duties that every judge is expected to follow in his/her everyday activities.  Judge Austria was guilty of impropriety when she posted her pictures in a manner viewable by the public. Joining Friendster per se does not violate the New Code of Judicial Conduct. However, Judge Austria disregarded the propriety and appearance of propriety required of her when she posted Friendster photos of herself wearing an “off-shouldered” suggestive dress and made this available for public viewing. Antonio M. Lorenzana v. Judge Ma. Cecilia I. Austria, RTC, Br. 2, Batangas City, A.M. No. RTJ-09-2200, April 2, 2014.

 Judges; irregular or erroneous order or decision; appropriate remedy. The Court held that in administrative cases, the complainant bears the onus of proving the averments of his complaint by substantial evidence. In this case, the allegations of grave abuse of authority, irregularity in the performance of duty, grave bias and partiality, and lack of circumspection are devoid of merit because the complainant failed to establish Judge Austria’s bad faith, malice or ill will. The complainant merely pointed to circumstances based on mere conjectures and suppositions. These, by themselves, however, are not sufficient to prove the accusations. Even granting that the judge erred in the exercise of her judicial functions, these are legal errors correctible not by a disciplinary action, but by judicial remedies that are readily available to the complainant. An administrative complaint is not the appropriate remedy for every irregular or erroneous order or decision issued by a judge where a judicial remedy is available, such as a motion for reconsideration or an appeal. Antonio M. Lorenzana v. Judge Ma. Cecilia I. Austria, RTC, Br. 2, Batangas City, A.M. No. RTJ-09-2200, April 2, 2014.

 (Mon thanks Ros Nonato for assisting in the preparaiton of this post.)