EN BANC

[A.M. No. MTJ-02-1421.  August 18, 2005]

PROSECUTOR ANGELITO V. LUMABAS, complainant, vs. JUDGE EMMANUEL G. BANZON, MUNICIPAL TRIAL COURT OF MARIVELES, BATAAN, respondent.

D E C I S I O N

AZCUNA, J.:

This is an administrative complaint filed by Angelito V. Lumabas against Judge Emmanuel G. Banzon.[1] Lumabas is a prosecutor assigned to the sala of Judge Banzon.  In an Affidavit Complaint,[2] Lumabas alleged the following:

On August 17, 2000, Prosecutor Lumabas was feverish and asked his wife to inform the office and the Clerk of Court of the Municipal Trial Court of Mariveles, Bataan that he would not be able to report for work and to inform Judge Banzon of the same.  On the same date, the court in six orders, acknowledged the advice of absence, but in Criminal Case No. 00-6642/43, entitled People v. Bueno, it required Prosecutor Lumabas to submit a written explanation for his absence and to submit a medical certificate if he was really sick, within five days from receipt of the order.

On August 24, 2000, Lumabas filed his written explanation, dated August 23, 2000, in compliance with the August 17, 2000 order.  Therein, he explained his physical condition on August 17, 2000 and said that he no longer consulted a doctor since his condition improved dramatically the following day.  He further said that there was no intention on his part to delay the administration of justice.

At the hearing of August 24, 2000, Lumabas was about ten minutes late and consequently missed the first case called that day, which was People v. Emerito Niones.  Lumabas claims that upon entering the courtroom he begged the indulgence of the judge and gave the reason for his tardiness.  Subsequently, the trial of the other criminal cases went on smoothly.  Court session on that date adjourned at around 5:10 p.m.  After adjournment, one of the lawyers whispered to the prosecutor that he was cited for contempt of court and required to pay a fine of P500.  Surprised, Lumabas approached Judge Banzon in his chambers to explain and apologize for being late that day.  Judge Banzon replied that the order had already been issued and required him to pay the fine otherwise he would be imprisoned.  Lumabas claims that since he was aware of the rules on indirect contempt, he left the courtroom and expected a formal charge and an opportunity to explain.

On August 26, 2000, Saturday, at about 9:30 a.m., police officers from Mariveles sought Lumabas at his residence to implement a warrant of arrest issued by Judge Banzon.  Since Lumabas was not home at that time, it was his wife who talked to the police officers.  He was informed by his wife of the incident when he arrived later in the afternoon.

On August 29, 2000, Tuesday, Lumabas filed a Motion for Postponement of the hearings before the Municipal Trial Court of Mariveles scheduled for August 31, 2000 and of the succeeding hearings since he was diagnosed with hypertension and was advised to rest.  Subsequently, he submitted himself to the jurisdiction of the Regional Trial Court of Balanga, Bataan, Branch 4, and filed a bail bond in the amount of P500.  As a consequence, the Executive Judge issued an order recalling the warrant of arrest issued by Judge Banzon.  On the same day Lumabas filed a Notice of Appeal before the Municipal Trial Court of Mariveles, Bataan.

On August 31, 2000, Judge Banzon acted on the Motion for Postponement filed on August 29, 2000 through two orders directing the Provincial Prosecutor to assign another prosecuting attorney to attend to the numerous cases pending in his court.

On September 4, 2000, Lumabas made a formal request for his reassignment to another court.  His request was approved by the Provincial Prosecutor through an interoffice memorandum dated September 6, 2000.

On September 5, 2000, Lumabas filed a request for another leave of absence which was approved by the Provincial Prosecutor.

In a letter dated September 8, 2000, in compliance with the two orders dated August 31, 2000, the Provincial Prosecutor informed the court in a letter that in view of the request for the replacement of Prosecutor Lumabas, Prosecutor Oscar M. Lasam was already assigned to take his place.  However, the latter could not appear before the sala of Judge Banzon until October 1, 2000 since he still had to coordinate and adjust his new assignment with his previous assignments in other courts.  This letter was received by Judge Banzon on September 11, 2000.

On September 7, 2000, Judge Banzon issued another order requiring Lumabas to explain within five days from receipt why he should not be held liable for criminal and administrative sanctions for his consistent failure to appear and refusal to abide by the legal orders issued by the court.  The order was served on Lumabas on September 13, 2000.  Lumabas, in compliance with the above order, prepared an extensive explanation, dated September 18, 2000.

However, even before Lumabas was able to file his explanation within the period granted by the court and despite the letter-compliance by the Provincial Prosecutor stating that Prosecutor Lumabas had already been reassigned and the motion for postponement dated August 29, 2000, Judge Banzon issued a second contempt order against Lumabas, dated September 14, 2000, for his absence without justifiable reason despite notice and for failure to submit a reasonable explanation for his absence.

In compliance with the indorsement by the Office of the Court Administrator, Judge Banzon filed his comment dated January 10, 2001, in which he claims that there is no truth to the accusations and to the allegation that he has personal animosity against Prosecutor Lumabas.  The Judge claims that he is merely reacting to the frequent abrupt absences of Lumabas, which has been going on for some time and that the absence of Lumabas on August 17, 2000 was a repetition of his previous practice of abrupt absences.  Because of his absence on August 17, 2000, the court was constrained to reset the trial of all the cases scheduled for that day and the court ordered him to submit a written explanation for his absence and to submit a medical certificate under oath within five days from receipt.  The Judge alleged that Lumabas failed to comply with the show cause order.

On August 24, 2000, Prosecutor Lumabas was allegedly fifteen minutes late and had missed the calling of four to five cases.  The Judge claims that Lumabas made a “dramatic entrance like a strutting peacock announcing his appearance.” The Judge castigated him in open court and informed him of the contempt order he had previously dictated and that a fine was already meted out against him.  The Judge also asked him why he did not submit a written explanation for his absence the previous week and he retorted that it was in his car.  Lumabas apologized and promised to pay the fine at the end of the hearing.  After the session that day, Lumabas entered the chambers to beg leave for the remission of the fine, but the Judge refused and just told him to return the next day to pay the fine.

Lumabas did not return to pay the fine the following day, which brought the Judge to the end of his patience and he issued a bench warrant for his arrest pursuant to the contempt order.  After that, Lumabas refused to appear before the court of Judge Banzon. Instead, he contested the contempt order and appealed the same to the Regional Trial Court of Balanga, Bataan, Branch 4.

In response to the Comment of Judge Banzon, Prosecutor Lumabas filed an undated Reply,[3] in which he reiterated the factual supports for his complaint of gross ignorance of the law and gross misconduct.  Lumabas also asserted that the possible motive for Judge Banzon’s sudden antagonism towards him is that the Judge’s brother-in-law was convicted under the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972 in the Regional Trial Court of Balanga, Bataan, a case which was prosecuted by Lumabas himself, inspite of the judge’s insinuation that he was handling the case of the judge’s brother-in-law.

Prosecutor Lumabas also took exception to some of the matters raised in the Judge’s comment, as follows:

That the absence of Lumabas on August 17, 2000 caused embarrassment to the court in the presence of opposing lawyers.  Lumabas claims that most of the opposing counsels with cases scheduled for that day were informed of the absence of the prosecutor and did not even proceed to the Municipal Trial Court.

That Lumabas missed four to five cases since he arrived late on August 24, 2000.  He points out that he was only 10 minutes late and missed only one case, namely People v. Emerito Niones.

That Lumabas did not submit a written explanation on the hearing of August 24, 2000 for his absence at the hearing of August 17, 2000.  The copy of the order dated August 17, 2000 which required the prosecutor to explain his absence within five days from receipt, was received by him only on August 22, 2000, which, in effect, gave him until August 27, 2000.  It was therefore unjust that the judge required him to submit his explanation on August 24.

That Lumabas arrived late and “made a dramatic entrance like a strutting peacock announcing his appearance” and it was at that point that Judge Banzon castigated him in open court and informed him of the contempt order.  He points out that he hurriedly entered the courtroom, aware that he was already late that day.  Furthermore, Lumabas said that he was never informed by Judge Banzon of the contempt order and he was only informed of the order after the session by an opposing counsel.  And it was only then that he approached the Judge in his chambers to explain and to seek a reconsideration of the contempt order.

That Lumabas admitted and apologized for his fault and promised to pay the fine after the termination of the hearing at 5:00 p.m.  He claims that he appealed for a reconsideration of the contempt order.  Furthermore, he did not promise to pay the fine the next day.

That Lumabas refused to appear before Judge Banzon despite notices sent to him. This prompted Judge Banzon to refer this dereliction of duty to his superiors at the Department of Justice.  Lumabas contends that he informed his superiors of his predicament with Judge Banzon.  He said that the Judge was duly informed of his state of health through a Motion for Postponement.  In addition, the Provincial Prosecutor replied to the Judge’s order for a replacement.  Despite all these notifications, Judge Banzon still cited him again for contempt of court on September 14, 2000, imposing a penalty of imprisonment of one day, and ordered that copies of the contempt order be furnished the Bataan Provincial Prosecutor, the Regional State Prosecutor in San Fernando, Pampanga, the Chief State Prosecutor and the Secretary of Justice.  Lumabas further discloses that the Department of Justice was duly informed of his predicament in the court of Judge Banzon and that his request for a reassignment to another court was favorably acted upon by the Provincial Prosecutor of Bataan via a radio directive of the Regional State Prosecutor in San Fernando, Pampanga.

On June 6, 2001, Prosecutor Lumabas forwarded to the Office of the Court Administrator a certified true copy of a decision, dated March 8, 2001, of the Regional Trial Court of Balanga, Bataan, Branch 4 in a case entitled Angelito Lumabas v. Hon. Emmanuel G. Banzon.[4] The Regional Trial Court found the contempt order of August 24, 2000 and the warrant of arrest issued by Judge Banzon as “harsh, cruel and grossly disproportionate penalties imposed upon accused appellant issued in violation and disregard of the constitutional mandate of due process and the Rules of Court” and declared complainant not guilty of indirect contempt.

The Office of the Court Administrator made the following evaluation and recommendation, dated February 13, 2002:

EVALUATION:  Rule 71, Section 3, 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure specifically outlines the procedural requisites before one may be punished for indirect contempt, namely: (1) the filing of a written charge and (2) opportunity given to the accused to be heard by himself or counsel.  Specifically, Section 4 of the same rule provides how the case for indirect contempt may be commenced.

Section  4. – Proceedings for indirect contempt may be initiated motu proprio by the court against which the contempt was committed by an order or any other formal charge requiring the respondent to show cause why he should not be punished for contempt.

In all other cases, charges for indirect contempt shall be commenced by a verified petition with supporting particulars and certified true copies of documents or papers involved therein, and upon full compliance with the requirements for filing initiatory pleadings for civil actions in the court concerned.  If the contempt charges arose out of, or are related to, a principal action pending in the court, the petition for contempt shall be docketed, heard and decided separately, when the court in its discretion orders the consolidation of the contempt charge and the principal action for joint hearing and decision.

In the instant case, respondent Judge acted not only without or in excess of jurisdiction but with gross ignorance of the law.  In declaring complainant guilty of indirect contempt of court and ordering his immediate arrest without giving him an opportunity to be heard, respondent Judge violated the requirements of due process.  As stated earlier, respondent Judge can not immediately impose a penalty without complying with the due process requirements, namely, the filing of a charge in writing and an opportunity to be heard by himself or by counsel.  It is essential that the contemner be granted an opportunity to meet the charges against him and to be heard in defense, as contempt of court proceedings are commonly treated as criminal in nature.

In the case of Castañes vs. Escaño, 251 SCRA 174, the Supreme Court held that:

While the power to punish in contempt is inherent in all courts so as to preserve order in judicial proceedings and to uphold the due administration of justice, judges, however, should exercise their contempt powers for correction and preservation not for retaliation or vindication.

RECOMMENDATION:  Respectfully submitted for the consideration of the Honorable Court are our recommendations:

1.       that the instant case be REDOCKETED  as a regular administrative  matter; and

2.       that a FINE in the amount of FIVE THOUSAND PESOS (P5,000.00) be imposed against Judge Emmanuel G. Banzon with a WARNING that a repetition of the same or similar acts in the future shall be dealt with more severely.

In a resolution dated April 17, 2002, the Court noted the affidavit-complaint; docketed the case as a regular administrative proceeding; and required the parties to manifest within ten days from notice if they are willing to submit the case for resolution on the basis of the pleadings filed.  In response to the preceding resolution, Prosecutor Lumabas expressed his willingness to have the case submitted for resolution on the basis of the pleadings already submitted in a letter dated May 30, 2002.

Since Judge Banzon failed to manifest his willingness to submit the case for resolution on the basis of the pleadings already filed despite his receipt of the April 17, 2002 resolution, the Court in a resolution dated April 30 2003, required the Judge to “SHOW CAUSE why he should not be disciplinarily dealt with or held in contempt for such failure and to COMPLY with the resolution requiring said manifestation, both within ten (10) days from notice hereof.” In a pleading entitled “Explanation,” the Judge manifested that the resolution was misplaced and because of that he completely lost track of the case.  The Judge also asked that he be allowed to present his rejoinder and additional affidavits.  The Court in a resolution dated August 11, 2003, noted the Judge’s explanation and granted his request for a period of 15 days from notice within which to file a rejoinder and additional documentary evidence.

In a Rejoinder, dated September 17, 2003, Judge Banzon reiterated his arguments in his Comment.  The Judge pointed out that his order of August 24, 2000 is premised on the failure of Prosecutor Lumabas to appear in court during the August 17, 2000 hearing.

Rule 71 of the Rules of Court prescribes the rules and procedure for indirect contempt.  Sections 3 and 4 of the said rule reads as follows:

SEC. 3. Indirect contempt to be punished after charge and hearing.—After a charge in writing has been filed, and an opportunity given to the respondent to comment thereon within such period as may be fixed by the court and to be heard by himself or counsel, a person guilty of any of the following acts may be punished for indirect contempt:

. . .

SEC. 4. How proceedings commenced.—Proceedings for indirect contempt may be initiated motu proprio by the court against which the contempt was committed by an order or any other formal charge requiring the respondent to show cause why he should not be punished for contempt.

The Rules require that before one is punished for indirect contempt of court, first, a charge in writing must be made.  Second, the respondent must be given the opportunity to comment or show cause why he should not be punished for contempt, within a period as may be fixed by the court, and to be heard by himself or counsel.  Prosecutor Lumabas claims that the order of Judge Banzon on August 24, 2000 cited and punished him for contempt without giving him the opportunity to comment and to be heard.  On the other hand, Judge Banzon claims that he gave Lumabas an opportunity to comment through his order of August 17, 2000, which required Lumabas to explain his absence of the same date.

A careful scrutiny of both orders shows that they are unrelated.  First, the August 17 order was made in the case of People v. Bueno,[5] while the August 24 order was made in the case of People v. Niones.[6] Second, the August 17 order required the prosecutor to submit a written explanation for his absence on that day.  There was no indication that this order was for the purpose of giving Lumabas an opportunity to show cause why he should not be cited in contempt for his absence on that day.  On the other hand, the August 24 order merely said that the prosecuting fiscal was cited in contempt for his unjustified absence and fined in the amount of P500 and in case he failed to pay he should be committed to jail for one day, without making any reference to a specific day. No reference was made to the order of August 17, much less to Prosecutor Lumabas’ failure to explain his absence on August 17.  Judge Banzon’s argument in his rejoinder that the August 24 order was due to Lumabas’ failure to submit a written explanation for his absence on August 17 finds no support in the records.  Hence, the order of August 24, which cited Prosecutor Lumabas in contempt and imposed a P500-fine or a one-day imprisonment in case of failure to pay, violated the rules on indirect contempt since Lumabas was not given an opportunity to explain before the penalty for contempt was imposed. The order was therefore issued in gross ignorance of the law.

Prosecutor Lumabas in his complaint questions the legality of another order penalizing him for indirect contempt which was issued on September 14, 2000.   To prove the illegality of the order, Lumabas enumerated the following series of facts:  On September 5, 2000, Lumabas filed an application for leave for the days of September 5 to 8, 2000, which was approved by the Provincial Prosecutor.  Previously, on August 31, 2000, Judge Banzon issued two orders to the Provincial Prosecutor asking that a new prosecutor be assigned to his court to replace Prosecutor Lumabas, so as not to delay the hearing of cases.  On September 8, 2000, in compliance with the two orders, the Provincial Prosecutor informed the court that a another prosecutor, by the name of Prosecutor Oscar M. Lasam, had already been assigned to take the place of Prosecutor Lumabas, however, the former could not appear until October 1, 2000 since he still had to coordinate his new assignment with his existing assignments in other courts.  The letter was received by the court on September 11, 2000 as proven by a certification issued by the Postmaster of Mariveles, Bataan.

On September 7, 2000, Judge Banzon issued an order requiring Prosecutor Lumabas to explain in writing within five days from receipt of the order why he should not be liable for criminal and administrative sanctions for his failure to appear at the hearing of that day.  Lumabas claims to have received the order on September 13, 2000, which should have thus given him until September 18 to submit his explanation.  Lumabas submitted an explanation dated September 18, 2000.  However, in an order dated September 14, 2000 Judge Banzon cited Prosecutor Lumabas in contempt and penalized him with one day of imprisonment for his absence and failure to submit any reasonable explanation.

The order for contempt of court by Judge Banzon which was issued on September 14, 2000 is without ground.

First of all, the judge did not give Prosecutor Lumabas the time provided in his order to explain his absence, which was five days from receipt.  According to Prosecutor Lumabas, he received the September 7 order only on September 13, 2000, thus he still had until September 18 to submit his explanation.  Though Lumabas submits no proof that he received the order on September 13, other than his own personal assertion, such fact is not contested by Judge Banzon.  Thus, the order of the Judge citing and penalizing Lumabas for contempt of court on September 13, 2000 violates the requirement in Rule 71, Section 3 of the Rules of Court which requires that the person being cited in contempt be given the opportunity to comment within such period as may be fixed by the court.  Judge Banzon fixed the period - which was five days from receipt of the order - which he himself violated by citing Lumabas in contempt only one day after receipt of the order to explain.

Second, Judge Banzon completely disregarded the fact that in compliance with two of his orders requesting for a new prosecutor to be assigned to his sala to replace Prosecutor Lumabas, the Provincial Prosecutor informed the court that Prosecutor Lumabas had already been replaced by Prosecutor Oscar M. Lasam.  He was also informed that Prosecutor Lasam could not appear until October 1, 2000 since he still had to coordinate his old assignments with the new assignment to the sala of Judge Banzon.  As stated above, such letter was received on September 11, 2000.  Before finally citing and penalizing Prosecutor Lumabas for contempt on September 14, 2000, Judge Banzon should have taken into consideration the above letter of the Provincial Prosecutor.  This would have informed him that it was Prosecutor Lasam and no longer Prosecutor Lumabas who was assigned to his sala.  Therefore, Prosecutor Lumabas was under no obligation to appear before him. Thus, there was no legal ground, as enumerated in Rule 71 of the Rules of Court, to cite him for indirect contempt of court.

As quoted above, the Office of the Court Administrator found that Judge Banzon acted in gross ignorance of the law by citing Prosecutor Lumabas in contempt and ordering his immediate arrest without giving him a chance to be heard.  The Office of the Court Administrator recommended a Five Thousand Peso (P5,000) fine be imposed on Judge Banzon with a warning that a repetition of the same or similar acts in the future would be dealt with more severely.  This Court agrees with the findings of the Court Administrator, but not with the recommended penalty.

First of all, gross ignorance of the law, under Rule 140, Section 8 of the Rules of Court, is classified as a “Serious Charge.”  Serious charges under Section 11 of the same Rule merit the following sanctions:

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.

Secondly, Judge Banzon illegally cited Prosecutor Lumabas in contempt not once but twice.

WHEREFORE, this Court deems it proper to impose a FINE of TWENTY FIVE THOUSAND PESOS (P25,000) upon Judge Emmanuel G. Banzon, with a warning that a repetition of the same or similar acts in the future will be dealt with more severely.

SO ORDERED.

Davide, Jr., C.J., Puno, Panganiban, Quisumbing, Ynares-Santiago, Sandoval-Gutierrez, Carpio, Austria-Martinez, Corona, Carpio-Morales, Callejo, Sr., Tinga, Chico-Nazario, and Garcia, JJ., concur.



[1] Municipal Trial Court of Mariveles, Bataan.

[2] Dated October 18, 2000.

[3] Received by the Office of the Court Administrator on February 23, 2001.

[4] SPL CIVIL ACTION NO. 038-ML.

[5] CRIM. CASE NO. 00-6642/43.

[6] CRIM. CASE NO. 99-6124.