Republic of the Philippines

Supreme Court

Manila

 

EN BANC

 

 

 

 

OFFICE OF THE COURT ADMINISTRATOR,

Complainant,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

- versus -

 

 

 

 

 

 

JUDGE BENJAMIN P. ESTRADA, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, Branch 9, MALAYBALAY CITY, BUKIDNON, and JUDGE JOSEFINA GENTILES-BACAL, RTC, Branch 10, MALAYBALAY CITY, BUKIDNON,

Respondents. -- -

A.M. No. RTJ-09-2173 (Formerly A.M. OCA IPI No. 09-3084-RTJ)

 

Present:

 

corona, c.j.,

CARPIO,

CARPIO MORALES,

VELASCO,

NACHURA,

LEONARDO-DE CASTRO,

BRION,

PERALTA,

BERSAMIN,

DEL CASTILLO,

ABAD,

VILLARAMA, JR.,

PEREZ,

MENDOZA, and

SERENO, JJ.

 

Promulgated:

January 18, 2011

x----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------x


D E C I S I O N

 

 

BRION, J.:

 

 

We resolve in this Decision the administrative matter involving two judges of the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Malaybalay City, Bukidnon - Judge Benjamin P. Estrada of Branch 9 and Judge Josefina Gentiles-Bacal of Branch 10.

 

The Antecedents

 

The case arose from the Memorandum,[1] dated October 16, 2008, of Atty. Nicandro A. Cruz, officer-in-charge, Court Management Office, Office of the Court Administrator (OCA), addressed to then Deputy Court Administrator (DCA) Reuben P. De la Cruz, regarding [a]nomalies in the disposition of cases in the Municipal Trial Court in Cities (MTCC), Malaybalay City, Bukidnon[.][2]

Atty. Cruz reported that in the course of reviewing the Monthly Report of cases from the MTCC Malaybalay City, Bukidnon, the Statistical Division of the Court Management Office, OCA, noted several orders, attached to the report, that were issued by Executive Judge Josefina Gentiles-Bacal, RTC, Malaybalay City, and Judge Benjamin P. Estrada, RTC, Branch 9, same station, dismissing the cases then pending in the MTCC.

Atty. Cruz pointed out that the MTCC, Malaybalay City had no regular presiding judge at the time the orders were issued, as Judge Estrada, the former presiding judge, had been appointed to preside over the RTC, Branch 9, Malaybalay City, on June 1, 2008. Atty. Cruz commented that Judge Estrada could no longer take cognizance of cases pending in his former sala after he took his oath on July 17, 2008; neither could Judge Bacal do the same even if she had then been the executive judge of the RTC, Malaybalay City.

 

The subject cases are as follows:

 

CRIMINAL CASE NO.

CAPTION

DATE ISSUED

878-08

People v. Bellman E. Durango, et al. for Attempted Homicide

August 15, 2008

848-08

People v. Ferdy C. Domotdot [for] Violation of City Ordinance No. 50

August 26, 2008

766-08

People v. Hilario and John Ril Dao-on for Slight Physical Injuries

August 26, 2008

882-08

People v. Vicky Sotta y Ranes for Violation of City Ordinance No. 50

August 26, 2008

796-08

People v. Neil Rod Lacasao for Attempted Homicide

August 26, 2008

398-06

People v. Olimpio A. Lagubis for Attempted Arson

August 28, 2008

522-07

People v. Alejandro Borbon for Reckless Imprudence Resulting to Serious Physical Injuries

August 19, 2008

872-08

People v. Ajimar Cacay y Tubeo for Theft

August 8, 2008

871-08

People v. Ajimar Cacay y Tubeo for Concealment of Deadly Weapon

August 8, 2008

In a 1st Indorsement dated October 22, 2008[3], DCA De la Cruz referred the matter to Judge Bacal and to Judge Estrada for comment.

Judge Estrada submitted his letter-comment on November 19, 2008,[4] in relation with his dismissal of Criminal Case No. 878-08, People of the Philippines v. Bellman E. Durango, et al., for Attempted Homicide, filed with the MTCC, Malaybalay City, Bukidnon, on August 14, 2008. He apologized for acting on the case. He thought that the case has no more cause when the Office of the City Prosecutor of Malaybalay City filed a Motion to Dismiss on August 15, 2008.[5] He opined that the right of the accused to liberty must not be prejudiced or compromised in the absence of a sitting judge in the court. He claimed that he had no intention to traverse the majesty of the law,[6] even as he considered the incident as an administrative matter which he is allowed to take cognizance of. Judge Estrada promised not to commit the same infraction again.

 

Judge Bacal, on the other hand, filed her comment on December 3, 2008.[7] She specified the actions she took on the cases mentioned in the OCA report, thus:

 

 

CRIMINAL CASE NO.

CAPTION

ACTION/S TAKEN

848-08

People v. Ferdy C.

Domotdot [for]

Violation of City

Ordinance No. 50

Dismissed, upon motion

of the Prosecutor

considering that the

accused has already

paid his administrative

fine.

766-08

People v. Hilario and

John Ril Dao-on for

Slight Physical Injuries

Dismissed, upon motion

of the Prosecutor

considering that Private

complainant Armando

Jaroy has executed an

Affidavit of Desistance.

882-08

People v. Vicky Sotta y

Ranes for Violation of

City Ordinance No. 50

Dismissed, upon motion

of the Prosecutor

considering that the

accused has already

paid his administrative

fine.

796-08

People v. Neil Rod

Lacasao for Attempted

Homicide

Dismissed, upon motion

of the Prosecutor

considering that Private

complainant Rolando

Espatero, Jr. has already

executed an Affidavit of

Desistance.

398-06

People v. Olimpio A.

Lagubis for Attempted

Arson

Dismissed, upon motion

of the Prosecutor

considering that Private

complainant Oliver P.

Salga has executed an

Affidavit of Desistance.

522-07

People v. Alejandro

Borbon for Reckless

Imprudence Resulting

to Serious Physical

Injuries

Dismissed, upon motion

of the Prosecutor

considering that Private

complainant Avanne C.

Macas has already

executed an Affidavit of

Desistance.

872-08

People v. Ajimar Cacay

y Tubeo for Theft

Remanded to the City

Prosecutors Office

considering that

accused is a minor.

871-08

People vs. Ajimar

Cacay y Tubeo for

Concealment of Deadly

Weapon

Remanded to the City

Prosecutors Office

Considering that

Accused is a minor.

 

 

Judge Bacal explained that It was her honest belief that as Executive Judge, she may exercise such other powers and prerogatives as may be necessary or incidental in the performance of her functions in relation to court administration, there being no Presiding Judge, in the Municipal Trial Court, Malaybalay City. She believes that the constitutional right to liberty of the accused shall prevail after undergoing the legal procedure in accordance with the paramount interest of the accused who are detained prisoners and minors.[8] She added that she never intended to defy the law, her purpose in deciding the cases was to uphold the right of the accused to liberty when there was no more basis, in fact and in law, to further prosecute them.

 

Judge Bacal pointed out that it took her two (2) months to designate a judge in the MTCC, Malaybalay City.

 

Upon recommendation of the OCA, the Court resolved to re-docket the case as a regular administrative matter against Judge Estrada and Judge Bacal, and to require them to manifest whether they were willing to have the case resolved on the basis of the pleadings and the records.

 

Judge Estrada and Judge Bacal submitted the matter for resolution, on June 15, 2009[9] and June 22, 2009,[10] respectively.

 

The OCA Report

 

On March 3, 2009, the OCA submitted its report. It found Judge Estrada and Judge Bacal guilty of gross ignorance of the law for taking cognizance of cases pending before another court the MTCC, Malaybalay, Bukidnon. The two judges admitted the acts, although they tried to avoid liability by professing that they did not intend to violate the law and that they acted as they did out of their desire to uphold the right of the accused to liberty in the cases they took cognizance of.

 

The OCA recommended that both judges be fined P40,000.00 for gross ignorance of the law.

 

The Courts Ruling

 

Except for the imposable penalty, we find the OCA recommendation in order. There is no question about the guilt of the two judges. Their shared intention to uphold the right of the accused to liberty cannot justify their action in excess of their authority, in violation of existing regulations. The vacuum in a first level court, such as the MTCC in Malaybalay City, Bukidnon, created by the absence of a presiding judge, is not remedied by a take over of the duties of the still-to-be appointed or designated judge for the court, which exactly was what Judge Estrada and Judge Bacal did. The remedy lies in Chapter V of the Guidelines in the Selection and Appointment of Executive Judges and Defining their Powers, Prerogatives and Duties,[11] which provides:

 

Section 1. Designation of Judges of the First Level Courts to Try Cases. (a) The Executive Judge of the RTC shall have authority to designate a municipal judge within his/her area of administrative supervision to try cases of other courts of the first level within said area of administrative supervision in case of official leave of absence, inhibition, disqualification, or preventive suspension of the municipal judge concerned, or of permanent or temporary vacancy in the position. Such designation shall be effective immediately, unless revoked by the Supreme Court.

 

The Executive Judge shall furnish the Office of the Court Administrator with copies of the orders of designation effected under this Section within five (5) days from the date of such designation.

 

Instead of allowing Judge Estrada and herself to act on cases pending before the MTCC, Judge Bacal, as executive judge of the RTC, Malaybalay City, should have designated a municipal judge within her area of supervision, to act on the pending cases. She took time (two months as she claimed) in making the designation, which delayed action, by itself, is a negative reflection on her performance as an executive judge.

Judge Estrada, who was the former presiding judge of the MTCC, Malaybalay City, acted only on one case, but like Judge Bacal, he had no authority to take over the case as he had already taken his oath as RTC judge on July 17, 2008, almost a month before he issued the order in Criminal Case No. 878-08, People v. Bellman E. Durango, et al., for Attempted Homicide.

 

Either Judge Estrada and Judge Bacal forgot the guidelines or chose to ignore them, but whatever it was, they should suffer the consequences of their actions in violation of the guidelines. In Mupas v. Judge Espaol,[12] the Court found respondent Judge Espaol guilty of gross ignorance of the law when she overrode the MTCCs action in cases pending with it under the guise of administrative supervision. The Court stated in that case:

 

Respondent urges that her conduct was nothing more than the zealous fulfillment of her duties as Executive Judge of the RTC, Dasmarias, Cavite. However, it is elementary that an Executive Judge only has administrative supervision over lower courts. Her function relates only to the management of first and second level courts, within her administrative area with a view to attaining prompt and convenient dispatch of its business. Acting as such, she cannot unilaterally override the MTCs actions in cases pending with it under the guise of administrative supervision, without running afoul of the orderly administration of justice. Only when her courts jurisdiction is appropriately invoked in an appeal or certiorari and other special civil actions can respondent judge, in her judicial capacity, override the lower courts judgment.[13]

 

What Judge Estrada and Judge Bacal did was worse than overriding the action or decision of a lower court. They entirely took over the judicial function of the lower court. While they might have been motivated by noble intentions in taking cognizance of the pending cases with the MTCC because they wanted to uphold the accuseds right to liberty, they still cannot escape liability. However well-intentioned they might have been, they still did not have the authority to act on the cases as these were not pending before their respective salas. Their lack of authority was so patent and so self-evident; to disregard it would itself be ignorance of the law. In Mupas, the Court recognized that not every judicial error bespeaks ignorance of the law and that, if committed in good faith, does not warrant administrative sanction, but only in cases xxx of tolerable misjudgment. Where, however, the procedure is so simple and the facts so evident as to be beyond permissible margins of error, to still err thereon amounts to ignorance of the law.[14]

 

Clearly, Judge Estrada and Judge Bacal are guilty of gross ignorance of the law.

 

Section 8(9), Rule 140 of the Rules of Court classifies ignorance of the law or procedure as a serious charge for which Section 11 imposes the following sanctions: ( a ) 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 forfeiture of benefits shall in no case include accrued leave credits; (b) suspension from office without salary and other benefits for more than three (3) months but not exceeding six (6) months; or (c) a fine of more than P20,000.00 but not exceeding P40,000.00.

 

We note that Judge Estrada and Judge Bacal are being made to answer administratively for the first time for action while in office. In this light and as their actions were motivated by noble intentions to administer justice, we find a fine of P21,000.00 in order, with a stern warning that the commission of the same or similar offense shall be dealt with more severely.[15]

 

WHEREFORE, premises considered, Executive Judge Josefina Gentiles-Bacal, Regional Trial Court, Branch 10, Malaybalay City, and Presiding Judge Benjamin P. Estrada, Regional Trial Court, Branch 9, Malaybalay City, are hereby found GUILTY OF IGNORANCE OF THE LAW. Accordingly, they are FINED P21,000.00, each, with a STERN WARNING that the commission of the same or similar offense shall be dealt with more severely.

 

SO ORDERED.

 

 

 

ARTURO D. BRION

Associate Justice

 

 

WE CONCUR:

 

 

 

RENATO C. CORONA

Chief Justice

 

 

 

ANTONIO T. CARPIO CONCHITA CARPIO MORALES

Associate Justice Associate Justice

 

 

(No part due to relationship with party)

PRESBITERO J. VELASCO, JR. ANTONIO EDUARDO B. NACHURA

Associate Justice Associate Justice

 

 

 

TERESITA J. LEONARDO-DE CASTRO DIOSDADO M. PERALTA

Associate Justice Associate Justice

 

 

 

LUCAS P. BERSAMIN MARIANO C. DEL CASTILLO

Associate Justice Associate Justice

 

 

See my dissenting opinion

ROBERTO A. ABAD MARTIN S. VILLARAMA, JR.

Associate Justice Associate Justice

 

 

No part. Acted on the matter as Court Adminsitrator

JOSE PORTUGAL PEREZ JOSE CATRAL MENDOZA

Associate Justice Associate Justice

 

 

MARIA LOURDES P.A. SERENO

Associate Justice

 

 



[1] Rollo, pp. 11-12.

[2] Id. at 11.

[3] Id at 10.

[4] Id at 1.

[5] Id. par. 2.

[6] Id. par. 2.

[7] Id at 3-4.

[8] Id. at 4, par. 1.

[9] Id. at 31-32.

[10] Id. at 34.

[11] A.M. No. 03-8-02-SC.

[12] A.M. No. RTJ-04-1850, July 14, 2004, 434 SCRA 303.

[13] Id. p. 310, par. 3.

[14] Id. at 313, citing Development Bank of the Philippines v. Llanes, Jr., A.M. No. MTJ-96-1105, January 14, 1997, 206 SCRA 212.

[15] Espaol v. Judge Mupas, A.M. No. MTJ-01-1348, November 11, 2004, 442 SCRA 13.