Thursday, February 23, 2017

Jamsani-Rodriguez vs. Ong, 628 SCRA 626, August 24, 2010, AM No. 08-19-SB-J

FACTS: Respondents Sandiganbayan Associate Justices sought reconsideration of SC Decision finding them guilty for simple misconduct. The charge was based on the complaint of Assistant Prosecutor Rodriguez who alleged that the respondents failed to hear cases as collegial during scheduled sessions by hearing the cases either alone or only two of the three of them, and for falsification of public documents grounded on their issuance of orders signed by the three of them making it appear that they acted as a collegial body. It was also alleged that they have conducted themselves in gross abuse of judicial authority and grave misconduct for intemperate and discriminatory utterances during hearings. Justice Ong and Hernandez admitted randomly asking the counsels appearing before them from which law schools they had graduated, and their engaging during the hearings in casual conversation about their respective law schools.

  1. Was the collegiality of the Fourth Division of the Sandiganbayan preserved despite separately conducting hearings?
  2. Were the respondent justices liable for improprieties during hearings amounting to gross abuse of judicial authority and grave misconduct?

  1. NO. Respondent Justices cannot lightly regard the legal requirement for all of them to sit together as members of the Fourth Division in the trial and determination of a case or cases assigned thereto. The information and evidence upon which the Fourth Division would base any decisions or other judicial actions in the cases tried before it must be made directly available to each and every one of its members during the proceedings. This necessitates the equal and full participation of each member in the trial and adjudication of their cases. It is simply not enough, therefore, that the three members of the Fourth Division were within hearing and communicating distance of one another at the hearings in question, as they explained in hindsight, because even in those circumstances not all of them sat together in session.

Indeed, the ability of the Fourth Division to function as a collegial body became impossible when not all of the members sat together during the trial proceedings. The internal rules of the Sandiganbayan spotlight an instance of such impossibility. Section 2, Rule VII of the Revised Internal Rules of the Sandiganbayan expressly requires that rulings on oral motions made or objections raised in the course of the trial proceedings or hearings are be made by the Chairman of the Division. Obviously, the rule cannot be complied with because Justice Ong, the Chairman, did not sit in the hearing of the cases heard by the other respondents. Neither could the other respondents properly and promptly contribute to the rulings of Justice Ong in the hearings before him.

Moreover, the respondents non-observance of collegiality contravened the very purpose of trying criminal cases cognizable by Sandiganbayan before a Division of all three Justices. Although there are criminal cases involving public officials and employees triable before single-judge courts, PD 1606, as amended, has always required a Division of three Justices (not one or two) to try the criminal cases cognizable by the Sandiganbayan, in view of the accused in such cases holding higher rank or office than those charged in the former cases. The three Justices of a Division, rather than a single judge, are naturally expected to exert keener judiciousness and to apply broader circumspection in trying and deciding such cases. The tighter standard is due in part to the fact that the review of convictions is elevated to the Supreme Court generally via the discretionary mode of petition for review on certiorari under Rule 45, Rules of Court, which eliminates issues of fact, instead of via ordinary appeal set for the former kind of cases (whereby the convictions still undergo intermediate review before ultimately reaching the Supreme Court, if at all)

Judges are not common individuals whose gross errors men forgive and time forgets. They are expected to have more than just a modicum acquaintance with the statutes and procedural rules. For this reason alone, respondent Justices adoption of the irregular procedure cannot be dismissed as a mere deficiency in prudence or as a lapse in judgment on their part, but should be treated as simple misconduct, which is to be distinguished from either gross misconduct or gross ignorance of the law. The respondent Justices were not liable for gross misconduct defined as the transgression of some established or definite rule of action, more particularly, unlawful behavior or gross negligence, or the corrupt or persistent violation of the law or disregard of well-known legal rules considering that the explanations they have offered herein, which the complainant did not refute, revealed that they strove to maintain their collegiality by holding their separate hearings within sight and hearing distance of one another. Neither were they liable for gross ignorance of the law, which must be based on reliable evidence to show that the act complained of was ill-motivated, corrupt, or inspired by an intention to violate the law, or in persistent disregard of well-known legal rules; on the contrary, none of these circumstances was attendant herein, for the respondent Justices have convincingly shown that they had not been ill-motivated or inspired by an intention to violate any law or legal rule in adopting the erroneous procedure, but had been seeking, instead, to thereby expedite their disposition of cases in the provinces. 

  1. NO. The Court approves the Court Administrators finding and recommendation that no evidence supported the complainants charge that Justice Ong and Justice Hernandez had uttered the improper and intemperate statements amounting to gross abuse of judicial authority and grave misconduct. The Court found the respondent justices’ conduct only unbecoming.

By publicizing their professional qualifications, they manifested a lack of the requisite humility demanded of public magistrates. Their doing so reflected a vice of self-conceit. The court found their acts as bespeaking their lack of judicial temperament and decorum, which no judge worthy of the judicial robes should avoid especially during their performance of judicial functions. They should not exchange banter or engage in playful teasing of each other during trial proceedings (no matter how good-natured or even if meant to ease tension, as they want us to believe). Judicial decorum demands that they behave with dignity and act with courtesy towards all who appear before their court. 

Section 6, Canon 6 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary clearly enjoins that: Section 6. Judges shall maintain order and decorum in all proceedings before the court and be patient, dignified and courteous in relation to litigants, witnesses, lawyers and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity. Judges shall require similar conduct of legal representatives, court staff and others subject to their influence, direction or control.

Publicizing professional qualifications or boasting of having studied in and graduated from certain law schools, no matter how prestigious, might have even revealed, on the part of Justice Ong and Justice Hernandez, their bias for or against some lawyers. Their conduct was impermissible, consequently, for Section 3, Canon 4 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary, demands that judges avoid situations that may reasonably give rise to the suspicion or appearance of favoritism or partiality in their personal relations with individual members of the legal profession who practice regularly in their courts. 

Judges should be dignified in demeanor, and refined in speech. In performing their judicial duties, they should not manifest bias or prejudice by word or conduct towards any person or group on irrelevant grounds.[30] It is very essential that they should live up to the high standards their noble position on the Bench demands. Their language must be guarded and measured, lest the best of intentions be misconstrued. In this regard, Section 3, Canon 5 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary, mandates judges to carry out judicial duties with appropriate consideration for all persons, such as the parties, witnesses, lawyers, court staff, and judicial colleagues, without differentiation on any irrelevant ground, immaterial to the proper performance of such duties.

In view of the foregoing, Justice Ong and Justice Hernandez were guilty of unbecoming conduct, which is defined as improper performance. Unbecoming conduct applies to a broader range of transgressions of rules not only of social behavior but of ethical practice or logical procedure or prescribed method.

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