[ A.M. RTJ-20-2600 (Formerly OCA IPI No. 19-4952-RTJ), January 12, 2021 ]
ROBERTO L. OBIEDO, COMPLAINANT, VS. HON. SOLIMAN M. SANTOS, JR., PRESIDING JUDGE, BRANCH 61, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, NAGA CITY, CAMARINES SUR, RESPONDENT.
D E C I S I O N
Before this Court is a Verified Complaint1 accusing respondent Judge Soliman M. Santos, Jr. (respondent Judge), Presiding Judge of Branch 61, Regional Trial Court (RTC), Naga City of gross ignorance of the law and gross violation of the Code of the Judicial Conduct, and seeking his dismissal from the service.
Complainant Roberto L. Obiedo (Obiedo) filed a case for Estafa against the Spouses Nino Rico and Mary Anne Nery (Nery Spouses). The case, docketed as Criminal Case No. 2012-0426, was raffled to respondent Judge's sala.
After trial on the merits, respondent Judge rendered a Judgment dated 17 December 2018,2 acquitting the Nery Spouses, but finding them civilly liable to Obiedo viz:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, judgment is hereby rendered ACQUITTING the accused spouses NINO RICO NERY and MARY ANNE NERY from the offense charged of Estafa under Article 315 of the Revised Penal Code for failure of the prosecution to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt. The said accused spouses NERY are however ordered to PAY private complainant Robert L. Obiedo actual damages in the amount of ONE MILLION TWO HUNDRED NINETY THOUSAND PESOS (P1,290,000.00) and moral damages in the amount of ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND PESOS (P100,000.00), or total civil damages in the amount of ONE MILLION THREE HUNDRED NINETY THOUSAND PESOS (P1,390,000.00). The amount of damages awarded is subject further to interest of six (6%) percent per annum from the date of finality of this judgment until it is fully paid.3
After the promulgation of judgment, respondent Judge sent the parties' respective counsels4 a text message that reads:5
GUD A.M. EDGAR, CC EDWIN, 2 REPEAT, I WAS MORE DEN FAIR WD NERY, ACQUITTING HIM DESPYT WANING HIS EVID PRESENTATN. MY LEGAL RESEARCHER ACTUALLY RECOMMENDED A CONVICTION 4 'OTHER DECEITS' BASED ON NERY'S ASURANS OF HS 'CLEAN TITLE' TO OBIEDO & TURIANO. CONVICTN MYT BCOM A POSIBILITY F U MR & APPEAL KASI D PA FINAL C ACQUITAL. I AM BANKIN ON U 2 GYD NERY TO UNDERSTND & ACEPT MY DISPOSITN. LETS B PRACTICAL ABT D SALE KASI WALA NAMAN TRANSFR OF TITLE & POSESION 2 OBIEDO. 4 OL INTENTS & PURPOSES, IT S USELES 2 OBIEDO. IF NIDED, A DOC 2 REVOKED SALE KAN & SHD B WRKD OUT BY U & EDWIN. BUT NERY SHD PAY D ACTUAL DAMAGES NA REDUCD NA NGA, KASI NO REIMB SA COMISN & ATTY'S FEES, PLUS SOM MORAL DAMAGES NAMAN TO OBIEDO, ACTUALLY CONSUELO DE BOBO. B FAIR ON FD & END IT NA. DS WL B MY LAST WORD ON DIS. KAMO NA NI EDWIN AN MAGULAY AS 2 GUD SPECIMENS OF LEGAZP AND NAGA ATTYS. NEVERMIND D JUDG HU DAS NOT MAKE HOMTOWN DECISNS. TNX & MERI XMAS. [Underscoring in the original]
On 11 June 2019, Obiedo, through another counsel, filed the present Verified Complaint before this Court alleging that respondent Judge committed gross violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct and gross ignorance of the law. He asserted that respondent Judge should not have sent the text message to the parties' counsels. Instead, he should have just allowed his judgment to speak for itself. By sending such a text message, respondent Judge appeared to be justifying his ruling, giving the impression there something erroneous about it, so he had to make the same "better" or more "palatable" for the parties.
Moreover, Obiedo contended that in suggesting the filing of a motion for reconsideration or appeal, respondent Judge was doing any or all of the following: (1) "selling crap" to his counsel; (2) unsure whether his decision is correct; or (3) waiting who between the parties would give him the best offer.
Obiedo further claimed that his case was doomed to fail from the beginning since respondent Judge admitted in the same text message that he does not render "hometown decisions," a clear bias against Naga City residents like himself.6
Respondent Judge's actions, Obiedo argues, violate Rule 1.01,7 Rule 2.01,8 and Rule 2.049 of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Thus, Obiedo prays that these violations, taken with respondent Judge's previous administrative infractions, be taken by the court as grounds for dismissing the erring respondent from the service.
In his Comment,10 respondent Judge defended his action, explaining that his approach to problem solving is "more practical" rather than "overly legalistic,"11 preferring alternative dispute resolution over adversarial litigation.12 He avers that his text message should not be an issue in this day and age where lawyers indicate their cellphone numbers and email addresses in their pleadings for no purpose than to ensure "speedier communications." He countered that he felt that he could candidly communicate with the parties' counsels since he knew them from his previous private practice.
Further, contrary to Obiedo's claim, he did not suggest the filing of a motion for reconsideration; in fact, he was dissuading the parties from doing so. He sent the message not because he was unsure of his judgment, but because he wanted to end the litigation in the best interest of both parties. The statement that he does not make "hometown decisions" did not mean that he was biased against Naga City residents but that he is impartial and that his decisions are still based on the facts, the evidence, and the law, not whether a party or counsel hails from Naga City.13
Lastly, respondent Judge claims that the present complaint is a form of vendetta by Atty. Epifanio Ma. J. Terbio, Jr. (Atty. Terbio), Obiedo's counsel in the present case but not in the Estafa case under question.14 He underscores Atty. Terbio's "disrespectful language" in the complaint and in other communications with the respondent. He also points out that Atty. Terbio misreads the subject decision, which clearly sets out the legal and factual basis of the judgment.
Report and Recommendation of the OCA
In its Report15 dated 04 September 2020 the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) found respondent Judge liable for impropriety.16 The OCA held that respondent Judge's act of sending a text message to the parties' counsel after promulgating his decision to be highly inappropriate because it is not part of the proceedings. Respondent Judge should have allowed the decision to stand on its own merits. After all, the decision itself laid out the factual and legal basis for the verdict. Moreover, respondent judge's act cast doubt over his integrity, impartiality, and competence in rendering the assailed decision.
The OCA likewise noted that respondent Judge had previously been penalized by this Court in two instances.17 In Susan R. Elgar v. Judge Soliman M. Santos, Jr. (Elgar),18 the Court found respondent Judge guilty of violating Supreme Court rules, directives and circulars, simple misconduct, gross inefficiency or undue delay and gross ignorance of the law. He was meted the following fines:
(1) Php12,000.00 for failure to refer the case to the Philippine Mediation Center as prescribed in A.M. No. 01-10-5-SC-PHILJA;
(2) Php20,000.00 for pressing the parties to enter into an amicable settlement through means that exceeded the bounds of propriety;
(3) Php12,000.00 for causing undue delay in terminating the preliminary conference amounting to gross inefficiency;
(4) Php12,000.00 for issuing the Extended Order unduly castigating complainant’s counsel after the withdrawal of the petition, thereby exceeding the bounds of propriety; and
(5) Php22,000.00 for giving the oppositor the option of submitting his pre trial brief in contravention of its mandatory nature as stated in Section 6, Rule 18 of the Rules of Court.
Meanwhile, in Peter U. Borromeo v. Judge Soliman M. Santos, Jr. (Borromeo),19 the Court held respondent Judge liable for gross misconduct for which he was admonished with stern warning.20
Thus, the OCA made the following recommendations: (1) that the administrative complaint be re-docketed as a regular administrative matter; (2) respondent Judge should be found guilty of impropriety and fined Twenty Thousand Pesos (Php20,000.00); and (3) respondent Judge be reminded to be more circumspect in the performance of his duties and warned that a repetition of the same act shall be dealt with more severely.
The lone issue for the Court's resolution is whether or not respondent Judge should be held administratively liable for violation of the Code of the Judicial Conduct.
Ruling of the Court
The Court adopts the recommendation of the OCA, with a modification as to the penalty.
Respondent Judge is guilty of impropriety and violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct
Sections 1 and 3 of Canon 4 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary provide:
Propriety and the appearance of propriety are essential to the performance of all the activities of a judge.
Judges shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of their activities.
Judges shall, in their personal relations with individual members of the legal profession who practice regularly in their court, avoid situations which might reasonably give rise to the suspicion or appearance of favoritism or partiality. (Emphasis supplied)
Judges must adhere at all times to the highest tenets of judicial conduct. They must be the embodiment of competence, integrity, and independence. Like Caesar's wife, a judge must not only be pure but above suspicion.21 Being the visible representation of the law and the embodiment of the people's sense of justice, a judge should constantly keep himself away from any act of impropriety, not only in the performance of his official duties but also in his everyday actuations.22 The ethical principles and sense of propriety of a judge are essential to the preservation of the people's faith in the judicial system.23
The admonition in Canon 4 that "[p]ropriety and the appearance of propriety are essential to the performance of all the activities of a judge" must continuously be emphasized. Thus, it matters not whether a case remains pending, has been decided, or has attained finality.24 A judge remains duty-bound to observe propriety in all his acts, for magistrates remain under constant public scrutiny and the termination of a case will not deter public criticisms for acts which may cast suspicion on the disposition or resolution of a case.25
The Code does not require that judges live in seclusion. However, a judge in pending or prospective litigation before him should be scrupulously careful to steer clear of any act that may reasonably tend to raise the suspicion that his social or business relations or friendship constitute an element in determining his judicial course26 for public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by the irresponsible or improper conduct of judges.27 In Pertierra v. Judge Lerma,28 this Court found it improper for a judge to be having lunch with the counsel of one of the parties whose case was pending before him. On the other hand, the Court, in In re Justice Ong29 dismissed an Associate Justice of the Sandiganbayan from the service for, among other things, visiting the office of the accused subsequent to the latter's acquittal in a case heard by that same magistrate.
In the case at bar, there is sufficient basis to find respondent guilty of impropriety for sending the parties' respective counsels his text message supposedly explaining his judgment. It was certainly unnecessary for respondent Judge to elaborate on the rationale for his disposition because his promulgated judgment should already speak for itself. Respondent Judge's supposed intent to discourage the parties from appealing cannot justify his text message to their lawyers because his judgment itself had already included such a discussion on this matter.30
As correctly noted by the OCA, his message effectively cast doubt over his impartiality, integrity, and competence in rendering his judgment. It is of no moment that he sent his message after the decision was promulgated because the termination of the case will not preclude public criticism for acts which may render the disposition of a case suspect.
Moreover, respondent Judge's violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct constitutes gross misconduct, punishable under Rule 140 of the Rules of Court. In Tan v. Rosete,31 the Court held the judge's acts of meeting litigants and of sending a staff member to talk to complainant outside office premises after office hours "violate[d] the standard of judicial conduct required to be observed by members of the Bench."
Meanwhile, respondent judge in J. King & Sons Company, Inc. v. Hontanosas32 was held liable for meeting with a litigant at his home and in the karaoke bar the latter owned. The Court, in Tuldague v. Pardo,33 likewise found therein respondent Judge guilty of gross misconduct for having a "drinking spree" in his home with litigant with a pending application for probation before his sala.
When the judge himself becomes the transgressor of any law which he is sworn to apply, he places his office in disrepute, encourages disrespect for the law and impairs public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary itself. It is therefore paramount that a judge's personal behavior both in the performance of his duties and his daily life, be free from any appearance of impropriety as to be beyond reproach.34
Canon 2 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct specifically deals with integrity in those holding judicial positions: "Integrity is essential not only to the proper discharge of the judicial office but also to the personal demeanor of judges." Section 1, Canon 2 further exhorts judges to "ensure that not only is their conduct above reproach, but that it is perceived to be so in the view of a reasonable observer."
When measured by the standards set in Canon 2, as well as Canon 4 quoted above, respondent Judge's conduct fall entirely too short of the high bar set for those who don the judicial robes. Herein respondent Judge has placed his judicial office, indeed, the entire Judiciary, into a position of notoriety, and opened the actions of all judges and justices to questions on their integrity. The Court will not countenance such actions, and respondent Judge must be appropriately penalized.
Proper penalty to be imposed
Given the gravity of respondent Judge's transgression, the Court disagrees with the OCA's recommended penalty of a Php20,000.00 fine. The Court notes that this is not the first administrative case where respondent Judge had been found liable. Thus, the recommended penalty is too light considering respondent Judge's previous infractions.
In Elgar, respondent Judge was found to have exceeded the bounds of propriety when he texted complainant's counsel and conducted an ex parte meeting with complainant and her counsel to convince them to enter into an amicable settlement with the opposing party.35 Meanwhile, in Borromeo, respondent Judge was found guilty of violating Section 2, Canon 236 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct for initiating a conference among the parties in a pending case for the purpose of settling the cases pending not only before him but also those pending outside his sala. Both times, respondent Judge was sternly warned by the Court that commission of similar infractions in the future was to be dealt with more severely.
It is significant that in the present case, respondent Judge is also being held accountable for the same type of conduct, i.e., engaging with parties and their counsels outside of official court proceedings to convince them follow a particular course of action or to convince them to settle the case.
The Court cannot but conclude that respondent Judge has a propensity for flouting the rules of propriety in his injudicious quest at finding, in his own words, "more practical" rather than "overly legalistic" resolutions to cases. As good as his intentions may be, We cannot have magistrates running rogue, disregarding the rules and directives of this Court to advance their own agenda.
While A.M. No. 03-1-09 SC mandates judges to persuade the parties to arrive at a settlement of the dispute, the Court has already cautioned that "it does not give the judge an unbridled license to do this outside the confines of the official proceedings at the risk of putting into question the integrity of the judiciary.”37 Any effort to declog the court dockets, promote alternative dispute resolution, or otherwise improve court processes must be done not only with noble purpose, but pursued within the acceptable bounds of judicial conduct.
Under Section 11, Rule 140, as amended, classifies gross misconduct constituting violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct as a serious charge with these corresponding penalties:
1 Dismissal from the service, forfeiture of all or part of the benefits as the Court may determine, and disqualification from reinstatement or appointment to any public office, including government-owned or controlled corporations; Provided, however, That the forfeiture of benefits shall in no case include accrued leave credits;
2 Suspension from office without salary and other benefits for more than three (3) but not exceeding six (6) months; or
3 A fine of more than P20,000.00 but not exceeding P40,000.00.
Considering that this is already respondent Judge's third administrative offense, the penalty of a fine of Php20,000.00 is too lenient. Respondent Judge had already been fined a total of Php100,000.00 for two administrative offenses. It is apparent that being made to pay fines, even with the concomitant stem warning against repeating similar acts, has not dissuaded respondent Judge from engaging in improper conduct.
In Tan v. Rosete,38 therein respondent was meted the penalty of suspension without salary and other benefits for four (4) months, while in Tobias v. Limsiaco, Jr.39 where the respondent, who had been previously penalized for gross misconduct, was meted a Php25,000.00 fine for his second charge of gross misconduct. On the other hand, the respondent in Tuldague v. Pardo,40 who was previously found guilty in one administrative case, while exonerated in another, was meted the maximum fine of Php40,000.00. Further, in Reyes v. Duque,41 the respondent Judge, who was found guilty of impropriety and gross misconduct and would have been dismissed from the service had he not retired, was also meted a fine of Php40,000.00.
In ordinary administrative cases, a third offense, even for light charges, would merit dismissal from the service. Nevertheless, we take note of the lack of ill motive or bad faith on the part of respondent Judge. We truly believe that respondent Judge acted in good faith, and pursuant to his fervent quest for party litigants to amicably settle their disputes, albeit misguided in his methods. Under Section 4842 of the Revised Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service, the disciplining authority has the discretion to consider mitigating circumstances in the imposition of the proper penalty.43 Good faith is considered a mitigating circumstance.44
Accordingly, the Court deems suspension for six (6) months, without pay and other benefits,45 to be sufficient penalty under the circumstances of the present case. It is the Court's hope that respondent Judge will use the time to re-focus his energy on how to better perform his judicial functions and leave the discussions out of court to the parties.
WHEREFORE, the foregoing premises considered, the Court finds respondent Judge Soliman M. Santos, Jr., Presiding Judge of Branch 61, Regional Trial Court, Naga City, Camarines Sur GUILTY of Impropriety. He is SUSPENDED from his duties as presiding judge for SIX (6) MONTHS, without salary and other benefits. He is also STERNLY WARNED that a repetition of the same or similar act shall be dealt with more severely by the Court.
Let copies of this Decision be furnished the Office of the Court Administrator and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines for the information of the Bench and Bar.
Peralta, C.J., (Chairperson), Caguioa, Carandang, and Gaerlan, JJ., concur.
1 Rollo, pp. 1-7.
2 Rollo, p. 08-26.
3 Id. at 26.
4 Private prosecutor Atty. Edwin A. Hidalgo and defense counsel Atty. Edgar M. Abitria.
5 Rollo, p. 3.
6 Id. at 4-5.
7 Rule 1.01 - A judge should be the embodiment of competence, integrity, and independence.
8 Rule 2.01 - A judge should so behave at all times as to promote public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.
9 Rule 2.04 - A judge shall refrain from influencing in any manner the outcome of litigation or dispute pending before another court of administrative agency.
10 Rollo, pp. 39-52.
11 Id. at 39.
12 Id. at 46.
13 Id. at 41, 42, 45.
14 Id. at 39.
15 Id. at 245-251; by Court Administrator Jose Midas P. Marquez and Deputy Court Administrator Raul B. Villanueva.
16 Id. at 250.
17 Id. at 250-251.
18 A.M. No. MTJ-16-1880, 04 February 2020.
19 A.M. No. MTJ-15-1850, 04 February 2020.
20 Rollo, p. 250.
21 Magarang v. Judge Jardin, Sr., A.M. No. RTJ-99-1448, 06 April 2000.
22 Sia Lao v. Abelita III, A.M. No. RTJ-96-1359 (Resolution), 10 September 1998, 356 Phil. 575.
23 Sison-Barias v. Rubia, A.M. No. RTJ-14-2388, 10 June 2014, 736 Phil. 81.
24 In re Justice Ong, A.M. No. SB-14-2)-J, 23 September 2014, 743 Phil. 622.
26 Pertierra v. Judge Lerma, A.M. No. RT -03-1799 (Resolution), 12 September 2003, 457 Phil. 796.
27 Dela Cruz v. Judge Bersamira, A.M. No. RTJ-00-1567 (Resolution), 24 July 2000.
28 Supra at note 27.
29 Supra at note 25.
30 Rollo, p. 25.
31 A.M. No. MTJ-04-1563, 08 September 2004, 481 Phil. 189 [Per J. Puno].
32 A.M. No. RTJ-03-1802, 21 September 2004.
33 A.M. Nos. RTJ-05-1962, 05-2243-P & 05-10-661-RTC, 17 October 2013, 719 Phil. 658 [Per J. Carpio].
34 Supra at note 32.
35 Rollo, p. 250; supra at note 18.
36 Section 2. The behavior and conduct of judges must reaffirm the people's faith in the integrity of the judiciary. Justice must not merely be done but must also be seen to be done.
37 See Elgar v. Santos, A.M. No. MTJ-16-1880, 04 February 2020.
38 A.M. No. MTJ-04-1563, 08 September 2004, 481 Phil. 189 [Per J. Puno].
39 A.M. No. MTJ-09-1734, 19 January 2011, 655 Phil. 1 [Per J. Peralta].
40 A.M. Nos. RTJ-05-1962, 05-2243-P & 05-10-661-RTC, 17 October 2013, 719 Phil. 658 [Per J. Carpio].
41 A.M. No. RTJ-08-2136, 21 September 2010, 645 Phil. 253 [Per J. Carpio].
42 Section 48. Mitigating and Aggravating Circumstances. – In the determination of the penalties to be imposed, mitigating and/ or aggravating circumstances attendant to the commission of the offense shall be considered.
43 See Guerrero v. Ong, A.M. No. P-09-2676, 16 December 2009, 623 Phil. 168.
44 Section 48 (b), Revised Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service.
45 Section 11, Rule 140, as amended.
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