Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Concerned Trial Lawyers of Manila vs. Veneracion

Facts: Herein complainants assailed the apparent reluctance of Judge Veneracion to grant petitions for the declaration of nullity of marriage despite their alleged merit. Instead, he would lecture litigants in open court that the declaration of nullity of marriage was not the proper remedy. Lawyers were often embarrassed by his emphasis on legal technicalities allegedly designed to prevent them from presenting evidence in favor of their clients. Complainants were often harassed whenever respondent would force them to read and interpret verses from the Bible. There were occasions when he would castigate them for their failure to give the interpretation he wanted. The fact that a number of cases for declaration of nullity of marriage assigned to respondent judge’s sala were later withdrawn allegedly proved complainants’ claim. Complainants further assailed respondent judge’s habitual tardiness which caused the delay in the disposition of cases assigned to him. Respondent judge did not deny that he read verses from the Bible during hearings of annulment, adoption and criminal cases. This was meant to share the word of God with those who came before his court and who were in a quandary about their purpose in life. He only wished to remind litigants in these cases that God had given them a manual to serve as a guide in conducting their lives. 

Issue: Whether or not the respondent Judge violated Section 6, Canon 4? 

Held: The court ruled in the negative. Section 6, Canon 4 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct provides: Judges, like any other citizen, are entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly, but in exercising such rights, they shall always conduct themselves in such manner as to preserve the dignity of the judicial office and the impartiality and independence of the judiciary. In this canon, judges are given the freedom to express their beliefs as long as it does not interfere with their judicial functions. Respondent judge’s practice of reading verses from the Bible during hearings was an exercise of his religious freedom. The respondent judge’s act of reading verses from the Bible and relating them to petitioner’s lives may well be considered merely as a guide for petitioners in declaration of nullity cases. It could not be said that by reason of the respondent’s act of reading verses from the [Bible], he frowns upon cases of such nature. The letters from a number of litigants, attached to the records of this case, belie the claim that respondent judge inappropriately expressed his beliefs and convictions to the point of harassing or embarrassing litigants and counsels in his court. Aside from that, there was no compulsion involved whenever respondent judge questioned litigants as to whether they read the Bible or not. He did not impose his religious convictions on them but merely suggested the benefits of reading the Bible. Surely, this practice alone was not sufficient to hold respondent judge guilty of misconduct. His judicial functions, duties and responsibilities were not impaired by his religious beliefs and convictions.

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