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PHILIPPINE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

EN BANC

[A.M. No. MTJ-01-1383. March 5, 2003.]

(Formerly AM-OCA-IPI-99-769-MTJ)

PERLITA AVANCENA, Complainant, v. JUDGE RICARDO P. LIWANAG, Municipal Trial Court, San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, Respondent.

D E C I S I O N


PER CURIAM:


In a sworn Complaint dated August 23, 1999, Perlita Avancena charged Judge Ricardo P. Liwanag of the Municipal Trial Court (MTC) of San Jose del Monte, Bulacan with violation of Republic Act No. 3019, otherwise known as the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, 1 in connection with Criminal Cases Nos. 7258-97 and 7259-97 being heard by Respondent.

Complainant alleged that: she is the accused in Criminal Cases Nos. 7258-97 and 7259-97 for violation of Batas Pambansa Blg. 22; on May 5, 1999, her counsel filed a "Motion to Postpone Promulgation and to Re-open Trial to Allow Accused to Present Further Evidence;" following the opposition filed by the prosecution and her reply thereto, respondent denied the motion on the ground that she was ably represented by counsel during the trial of the case; prior to the dismissal of her motion, respondent summoned her to his chamber where he told her that she will be convicted on May 7, 1999 unless she pays him the amount of One Million Pesos (P1,000,000.00); respondent assured her that he will take care of the fiscal and the private complainant; she refused to pay the amount since her unpaid balance was only One Hundred Forty Thousand Pesos (P140,000.00) and so, there is no reason for her to pay the One Million Pesos (P1,000,000.00) demanded; through a court personnel, respondent summoned her again and told her to raise only Five Hundred Thousand Pesos (P500,000.00) if she could not afford the One Million Pesos (P1,000,000.00) and the cases will be archived; prior to the hearing on July 2, 1999, respondent sent Raymunda Flores, a close friend of the judge and offended party in the criminal case, to her (complainant’s) house; Flores told her that she was tasked by the respondent to bring her to his chamber but she refused; a certain Cora Española, Court Interpreter of the MTC, told her through the telephone that respondent would be waiting for her until 4:30 in the afternoon; when she called the respondent, the latter told her that if she did not give the amount of Five Hundred Thousand Pesos (P500,000.00), he would continue with the promulgation on July 12, 1999 and would not allow her to file any motion for bail unless she pays a fine of Four Hundred Thousand Pesos (P400,000.00).chanrob1es virtua1 1aw 1ibrary

In his Comment dated October 7, 1999, respondent claimed that: the presentation of the original copies of the check which was the subject of the earlier "Motion to Postpone Promulgation and to Reopen Trial to Allow Accused to Present Further Evidence" filed after the presentation and formal offer of evidence by the defense, was deemed by the court as a mere dilatory move; it was not necessary because the defense had previous opportunities to compare the originals with the xerox copies which were marked when the prosecution presented its evidence; the claim of the complainant that he demanded One Million Pesos (P1,000,000.00) from her is a lie and a fabrication; he could not offer to take care of the fiscal or public prosecutor because the case had already reached the stage when the evidence of both parties have long been offered and could no longer be altered or recalled, much less withdrawn; it is unthinkable that he would demand such staggering amount of One Million Pesos (P1,000,000.00) through a court personnel because availing of such a conduct would be the height of irresponsibility; his alleged close friendship with Raymunda Flores is not true; he could not have conspired with his court interpreter to call the accused-complainant because that would have generated suspicion as the case had long been set for promulgation; the allegation that he had warned her that after promulgation and in the event of conviction, she would immediately be imprisoned without bail unless she paid a fine of Four Hundred Thousand Pesos (P400,000.00) is false because the accused was assisted by a competent counsel and therefore knows that there is a period of appeal and as long as the decision had not become final and executory, the accused is allowed to temporarily enjoy his or her freedom. 2

In a Resolution dated November 26, 2001, the case was re-docketed as Administrative Matter No. MTJ-01-1383 and referred to Executive Judge Oscar C. Herrera, Jr. of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) Malolos, Bulacan for investigation, report and recommendation. 3

Judge Herrera conducted lengthy hearings on the case. Complainant Perlita Avancena testified in support of her complaint while respondent testified on his defense. Thereafter, the administrative case was deemed submitted for decision.

Upon motion of complainant to re-open trial and to allow complainant to present rebuttal evidence, 4 Judge Herrera re-opened the hearing. 5 Joselito Guillen of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) testified on the entrapment operation conducted on respondent on the basis of a complaint of alleged extortion by herein complainant. Atty. Salvador C. Quimpo, counsel of complainant in the criminal cases before the respondent, corroborated the testimony of complainant on the occasion when respondent told them "ayusin na lang ang kasong ito" and showed to him a draft decision convicting complainant in the two criminal cases.

Respondent testified on sur-rebuttal denouncing the allegations of the complainant’s additional witnesses as fabricated lies. Thereafter, the parties agreed to terminate the presentation of evidence. 6

In his Report, dated June 15, 2002, Judge Herrera gave more weight to the testimonies of complainant and her witnesses and concluded that the charges against respondent are true.

The following are the findings of fact and conclusions of Judge Herrera, quoted verbatim:jgc:chanrobles.com.ph

"The undersigned closely observed the conduct and demeanor of the complainant during the investigation. She was forthright and testified in a spontaneous manner. Her declarations were clear, convincing and consistent with the averments in her verified complaint dated August 23, 1999 (Exh.’A’) filed with the Supreme Court. She claimed that the very first time she was summoned to the chamber of respondent judge prior to the initial date set for promulgation of judgment, she was shown by respondent judge himself with a draft of the decision convicting her in the two (2) criminal cases in question. At one point, complainant nearly shed tears as she narrated that she was practically harassed and coerced by respondent judge into giving in to his demand, and that she was affected emotionally and psychologically by the intimidations of the Respondent. Nothing in her demeanor indicated that she was fabricating a lie against respondent judge.

"The declarations of complainant find support in the testimonies of NBI Agent Joselito Guillen and Atty. Salvador Quimpo.chanrob1es virtua1 1aw 1ibrary

"NBI Agent Guillen testified that he prepared the marked money for an entrapment operation against respondent judge because of the complaint for extortion lodged by complainant. The operation was "actually carried out but it was unsuccessful because the judge had some visitors in his house when the pay-off was to be made by the complainant. The fact that a complaint for extortion was lodged against respondent judge and an actual entrapment operation was laid and carried out, albeit unsuccessful, lends credence to the charge made by complainant against respondent judge. There was no showing whatsoever that he was actuated by any improper motive in testifying against respondent judge.

"Atty. Quimpo, on the other hand, insisted that he was with complainant when summoned at one instance by the respondent in his chamber. He himself was shown by respondent judge with a draft of the decision saying ‘ayusin na lang ang kasong ito’. Although it may be said that he is biased against respondent judge for the partially unfavorable decision rendered by the latter against Ms. Avancena, there is also no showing that he was actuated by any improper motive in testifying against the judge. A member of the bar in good standing, there was similarly nothing in his demeanor indicating that he was fabricating a lie against respondent judge.

"Upon the other hand, the denial of respondent judge and his claim that he is being harassed by complainant do not appear to be credible. His denial cannot prevail over the clear, straightforward and positive assertions of complainant. Respondent judge’s contention that he could not have threatened to convict complainant in the two (2) criminal cases because his decision convicted her only in one case and acquitted her in the other, is specious and unacceptable.

"By respondent judge’s own admission, the decision in Criminal Cases Nos. 7258-97 and 7259-98 was originally set for promulgation on May 7, 1999 but was eventually promulgated only on August 27, 1999, or almost four (4) months after the original schedule. While he attributes this to dilatory motions filed by complainant and counsel all of which he denied, the fact of the matter is that he could have proceeded with the promulgation on the original date set, unless he himself had wanted it to be delayed in anticipation of complainant’s heeding his demand for money. Also, the period of almost four (4) months was enough time to make changes in the text of the decision. In the light of the accusation against him now, it is self-serving for respondent judge to claim that the text of the decision he was supposed to promulgate on May 7, 1999 is exactly the same as that which was actually promulgated on August 27, 1999." 7

However, Judge Herrera did not recommend a specific penalty to be meted out to Respondent.

In its Memorandum dated November 12, 2002, the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) adopted the findings of the Investigating Judge that respondent be found guilty of violation of R.A. 3019 and recommended to the Court that respondent be fined in the amount of Forty Thousand Pesos (P40,000.00).

In administrative proceedings, the quantum of proof required to establish a respondent’s malfeasance is not proof beyond reasonable doubt but substantial evidence, 8 i.e., that amount of relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, is required. 9 Faced with the conflicting versions of complainant and respondent, the Court gives more weight to the allegations and testimony of the complainant and her witnesses who testified clearly and consistently before the Investigating Judge.

Complainant remained steadfast throughout her testimony that respondent demanded from her a number of times prior to the promulgation of the decision the amount of One Million Pesos (P1,000,000.00) which was later reduced to Five Hundred Thousand Pesos (P500,000.00). She was courageous enough to move for respondent’s inhibition in the criminal cases being heard by him because of this, but the same proved futile. 10

NBI Agent Joselito Guillen testified that the NBI conducted an entrapment operation on respondent, albeit the same was unsuccessful. Nonetheless, his testimony bolsters complainant’s allegation of the extortion attempts of the respondent in exchange for a decision of acquittal is not a fabrication or an absurd concoction of complainant or her lawyer in retaliation for a verdict of conviction in the criminal cases.

Furthermore, the fact that respondent acquitted complainant in one of the criminal cases against her is not a valid defense to prove that he did not demand money from complainant.chanrob1es virtua1 1aw 1ibrary

The Court finds noteworthy the period of almost four (4) months which elapsed from May 7, 1999, the date originally set for promulgation of the decision in Criminal Cases Nos. 7258-97 and 7259-97, and August 27, 1999, the date it was actually promulgated. It indicates a deliberate effort on the part of the respondent to delay the promulgation of the decision in order to give complainant more time to raise the money demanded by him. Notably, respondent failed to satisfactorily explain the delay in the promulgation of the decision in complainant’s cases.

The Court agrees with the observation of the Investigating Judge that the period of almost four (4) months was enough time to make changes in the text of the decision, and therefore, "it is self-serving for respondent judge to claim that the text of the decision he was supposed to promulgate on May 7, 1999 is exactly the same as that which was actually promulgated on August 27, 1999."cralaw virtua1aw library

In addition, verification with the OCA discloses that aside from the instant complaint, respondent judge has other pending administrative complaints filed against him. In A.M. No. MTJ-02-1418, respondent judge stands charged with Grave Misconduct, Conduct Unbecoming of a Member of the Judiciary and Grave Abuse of Authority, while in A.M. No. MTJ-02-1460 he stands indicted for Graft and Corruption, Manifest Bias and Partiality. Respondent is presently under preventive suspension per Resolution dated July 17, 2002 in A.M. No. MTJ-02-1440 pending resolution of the judicial audit and physical inventory of the cases of MTC of San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan. Needless to state, these circumstances only further erode the people’s faith and confidence in the judiciary for it is the duty of all members of the bench to avoid any impression of impropriety to protect the image and integrity of the judiciary which in recent times has been the object of criticism and controversy. 11

Taking into account the established facts of this case and the above circumstances, the Court believes that the imposition of fine recommended by the OCA is not commensurate to the gravity of respondent’s malfeasance.

A judge should always be a symbol of rectitude and propriety, comporting himself in a manner that will raise no doubt whatsoever about his honesty. 12 Integrity in a judicial office is more than a virtue; it is a necessity. 13 In this case, it is not only improper for a judge to meet privately with the accused without the presence of the complainant 14 but the conduct of respondent shows that his decisions are influenced by monetary considerations. His act alone of demanding money from a party-litigant in exchange for a favorable verdict constitutes serious misconduct in office. It is this kind of gross and flaunting misconduct in office, which erodes the respect for law and the courts. 15 The fact that the complainant was not able to give him the money demanded does not make the offense of the respondent nor the penalty therefor, any lighter.

Under Section 3 of Rule 140 of the Rules of Court, violations of the Anti-Graft & Corrupt Practices Law (R.A. No. 3019) are considered serious charges. Section 10 of the same Rule provides the following sanctions that may be imposed for a serious charge: (a) dismissal from the service with forfeiture of benefits, except accrued leaves, and disqualification from reinstatement or appointment to any public office including a government-owned or controlled corporation; (b) suspension for three (3) to six (6) months without salary and benefits; or (c) a fine of not less than Twenty Thousand Pesos (P20,000.00) but not more than (P40,000.00).

Respondent tainted the image of the Judiciary to which he owes fealty and the obligation to keep it at all times unsullied and worthy of the people’s trust. 16 Violation of R.A. 3019 affects the moral fiber and personal integrity of Respondent. He becomes an ineffective tool in the administration of justice and the court over which he is called to preside will be a mockery, one devoid of respect. There is no place in the judiciary for those who cannot meet the exacting standards of judicial conduct and integrity. 17 Respondent does not deserve to remain in the Judiciary, where integrity is an indispensable credential, and should accordingly be removed from the service.

The Court once again reminds all those who don judicial robes that no position exacts a greater demand on moral righteousness and uprightness of an individual than a seat in the judiciary. 18 While a judge should possess proficiency in law in order that he can competently construe and enforce the law, it is equally important that he must at all times maintain and preserve the trust and faith of parties litigants in court.chanrob1es virtua1 1aw 1ibrary

WHEREFORE, Judge Ricardo P. Liwanag is DISMISSED from service with prejudice to re-employment in any government agency and government-owned or controlled corporation and with forfeiture of all retirement benefits except accrued leave credits.

Further, pursuant to A.M. No. 02-9-02-SC, which took effect on October 1, 2002, respondent is required to show cause within ten (10) days from notice why he should not also be disbarred from the practice of law for conduct unbecoming of a member of the bar.

This decision shall take effect immediately.

SO ORDERED.

Davide, Jr., C.J., Bellosillo, Puno, Vitug, Mendoza, Panganiban, Quisumbing, Sandoval-Gutierrez, Carpio, Austria-Martinez, Carpio-Morales, Callejo, Sr. and Azcuna, JJ., concur.

Ynares-Santiago and Corona, JJ., are on leave.

Endnotes:



1. Rollo, pp. 1–6.

2. Rollo, pp. 29–34.

3. Rollo, pp. 38–39.

4. Rollo, pp. 74–75.

5. Rollo, p. 78.

6. Rollo, p. 83.

7. Rollo, pp. 248–260.

8. Naval v. Panday, 321 SCRA 290, 301–302 (1999).

9. Cynthia Resngit-Marquez, Et. Al. v. Judge Llamas, A.M. No. RTJ-02-1708, July 23, 2002.

10. Annexes "G" and "H" of the Complaint, Rollo, pp. 18–26.

11. Dela Cruz v. Bersamira, 336 SCRA 353, 365 (2000); Antonio Yu-Asensi v. Judge Francisco D. Villanueva, 322 SCRA 255, 269–270 (2000).

12. Office of the Court Administrator v. Barron, 297 SCRA 376, 392 (1998); Yuson v. Noel, 227 SCRA 1, 7 (1993).

13. Capuno v. Jaramillo, Jr., 234 SCRA 212, 232 (1994).

14. Dacera, Jr. v. Dizon, Jr., 337 SCRA 144, 149 (2000); Dela Cruz v. Bersamira, 336 SCRA 353, 363 (2000); Gallo v. Cordero, 245 SCRA 219, 225 (1995).

15. Office of the Court Administrator v. Gaticales, 208 SCRA 508, 515 (1992); Haw Tay v. Singayao, 154 SCRA 107, 111–112 (1987).

16. Garcia v. De la Peña, 229 SCRA 766, 775 (1994).

17. Supra, Note 14.

18. Cabulisan v. Pagalilauan, 297 SCRA 593, 599–560 (1998).

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