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A.M. No. P-05-1957 - Judge Thelma Canlas Trinidad-Pe Aguirre v. Eduardo T. Baltazar

A.M. No. P-05-1957 - Judge Thelma Canlas Trinidad-Pe Aguirre v. Eduardo T. Baltazar

PHILIPPINE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

SECOND DIVISION

[A.M. NO. P-05-1957 : February 7, 2005]

JUDGE THELMA CANLAS TRINIDAD-PE AGUIRRE, Complainant, v. EDUARDO T. BALTAZAR, Legal Researcher, Regional Trial Court, Branch 129, Caloocan City, Respondent.

D E C I S I O N

CALLEJO, SR., J.:

The instant administrative matter refers to the Letter-Complaint dated April 12, 2004, of Judge Trinidad-Pe Aguirre charging Eduardo T. Baltazar, Legal Researcher, Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Caloocan City, Branch 129, with conduct unbecoming a court employee.

It appears that the complainant Judge first issued a directive requiring several of her staff to file a written explanation regarding repeated absences, and that the respondent was one of them. Upon the latter's failure to submit his written explanation, the complainant Judge issued Administrative Order No. 01-041 dated March 17, 2004, effectively imposing a fine on the respondent for "disobedience of a lawful order" in the amount of P500.00. Thereafter, the complainant Judge issued another Order on April 14, 2004, worded as follows:

TO: MR. EDUARDO T. BALTAZAR

Court Legal Researcher

RTC, Br. 129, Caloocan City

On the ground that you have failed to perform your duties and responsibilities as a Court Legal Researcher, you are hereby ordered detailed in the Office of the Clerk of Court, Regional Trial Court, this City, to beef up the manpower of the Clerk of Court, until such time that you can perform your duties with fidelity and zeal.

This Order takes effect immediately.2

In her letter-complaint, the complainant Judge alleged that she was the former Presiding Judge of RTC, Branch 62, Gumaca, Quezon. She alleged that she was charging the respondent for misbehavior for filing a leave of absence from March 22, 2004 to April 20, 2004, without seeking her written permission. She stressed that at the time he filed his application for leave, she had already assumed her post as Presiding Judge of RTC, Caloocan City, Branch 129. She claimed that such act of the respondent undermined her position as Presiding judge and would create a bad precedent among her subordinates. She pointed out that certain averments in the respondent's application for leave needed to be clarified, since it was mentioned that he was spending his vacation abroad.

The respondent, for his part, expressed surprise at the charge against him in his Comment dated June 21, 2004, considering that he had already been fined and detailed to another office by the complainant Judge. According to the respondent, he sought the approval of his application for leave of absence from Judge Silvestre H. Bello, Jr., then Executive Judge of RTC, Caloocan City, for the period of March 22 to April 20, 2004. Considering that Judge Bello, Jr. was also the pairing judge of Branch 129, he no longer had to submit his application for leave to Judge Aguirre. The respondent also reasoned that Judge Aguirre was at a seminar in Tagaytay City at the time. Since he had to immediately submit his application for leave to the Leave Section as a requirement for his request for a permit to travel, he could no longer wait for her return.

The respondent maintained that he acted in good faith and did not undermine the position of the complainant Judge; on the contrary, it was the complainant Judge who undermined the position of the Executive Judge when she ordered the respondent's detail at the Office of the Clerk of Court. He further averred that the complainant Judge's display of authority was alarming and that he felt harassed.

In her Reply dated August 4, 2004, the complainant Judge maintained that the reason for her actuations was to avoid a bad precedent among her staff. She stressed that as the Presiding Judge of her sala, she is charged with the control and supervision of "all (subordinate) personnel of the court."3 She further claimed that the respondent had no intention to seek her approval since her name was not indicated in the application form as the "Authorized Official," and that in doing so, the respondent intended to disregard and by-pass her authority. She averred that Judge Bello, Jr. approved the respondent's application for leave of absence not as a pairing judge but as an Executive Judge. While she admitted that she was attending a seminar at Tagaytay City, she argued that she was not on leave and could have properly acted on the questioned application.

The complainant Judge further claimed that the respondent lied when he indicated that the reason for his application for leave of absence was to visit his ailing parents in West Covina, California, United States of America. She also pointed out that the respondent very well knew that he would not be allowed to travel abroad since he did not have an approved visa in the first place. In fact, the respondent was seen roaming around the new Judicial Complex from March 22 to April 20, 2004.

Finally, the complainant Judge reiterated that in imposing a fine against the respondent and detailing him to another branch, she had no other intention than to improve public service and preserve the public's faith and confidence in the judiciary.

In its Report dated November 26, 2004, the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) made the following recommendation:

Recommendation: Respectfully submitted for the consideration of the Honorable Court are our recommendations, to wit:

1. That the instant case be RE-DOCKETED as an administrative matter;

2. That the complaint against respondent Eduardo T. Baltazar, Legal Researcher, RTC-Caloocan City, Branch 129, be DISMISSED; andcralawlibrary

3. Complainant Judge Thelma Canlas Pe-Aguirre, RTC, Caloocan City, Branch 129, be ADMONISHED to be more circumspect in the exercise of her supervisory authority over the personnel of her court.4

According to the OCA, Section 52, Rule XVI of the Civil Service Omnibus Rules Implementing Book V of E.O. 292 and Other Pertinent Civil Service Laws provides that leave of absence for any reason other than illness of an officer or employee or any member of his immediate family must be contingent upon the needs of the service. As such, the grant of vacation leave shall be at the discretion of the head of department/agency. On the other hand, Item VI of OCA Circular No. 6-2003 dated January 9, 2003, which provides for the guidelines on applications for leave to be spent abroad by a court personnel, requires that a court personnel, applying for leave to be spent abroad, submit, among others, his application for leave covering the period of his travel abroad duly recommended by the Executive Judge/Presiding Judge. Thus, the recommendation or approval for the application for leave of absence to be spent abroad may be done by either the Executive Judge or the Presiding Judge. However, considering that the respondent applied for leave of absence to visit his ailing parents, which under the said Rules is not subject to the contingency of the service, he was no longer required to seek the approval of the complainant Judge. Moreover, considering that the approval of a visa application was beyond the respondent's control, the fact that the latter's application was not approved did not necessarily mean that false statements were made in his application for leave. Nevertheless, the OCA opined that "if only out of respect and courtesy to his Presiding Judge," it would have been better if the respondent had first sought the latter's approval.

The findings and recommendation of the OCA are well taken.

The authority of judges and/or Executive Judges to discipline erring court personnel under their supervision is limited to light offenses only.5 In case the court employee is charged with a grave or less grave offense, even the Executive Judge cannot directly penalize him, and can only recommend to the Supreme Court the necessary disciplinary action.6 Circular No. 30-91 Re: Guidelines of the Functions of the Office of the Court Administrator dated September 30, 1991 is instructive on this point:

2. Lower Court Personnel

A. Light Offenses

(1) Disciplinary matters involving light offenses as defined under the Civil Service Law (Administrative Code of 1987), and the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees (Rep. Act 6713) where the penalty is reprimand, suspension for not more than thirty days, or a fine not exceeding thirty days' salary, and as classified in Civil Service Resolution No. 30, Series of 1989, shall be acted upon by the appropriate supervisory official of the lower court concerned.

(2) The appropriate supervisory officials are the Presiding Justices/Presiding Judge of the lower collegiate courts and the Executive Judges of the trial courts with respect to the personnel of their respective courts, except those directly under the individual Justices and Judges, in which case, the latter shall be their appropriate supervisory officials.

(3) The complaint for light offenses whether filed directly with the Court, the Office of the Court Administrator, or the lower court shall be heard and decided by the appropriate supervisory official concerned.

b. Grave or Less Grave Offenses

All administrative complaints for grave or less grave offenses as defined in the Codes hereinbefore referred to shall be immediately referred to the Court En Banc for appropriate action within 15 days from receipt by the Court Administrator if filed directly with him, otherwise, within 15 days likewise from receipt by him from the appropriate supervisory officials concerned.

In the instant case, there is no showing that the respondent acted in bad faith in failing to secure Judge Aguirre's written permission before taking a leave of absence; if at all, it was a mere oversight on his part. As pointed out by the OCA, the respondent had already sought permission from Executive Judge Bello, Jr. There was, thus, no need for Judge Aguirre to penalize the respondent as the latter violated no rule.

What is so nettlesome is that Judge Aguirre even had the audacity to order the respondent's detail to another office. As commented by the OCA:

We note with concern that the complainant imposed on the respondent a fine of P500.00 for failing to submit a written explanation regarding the matter, and ordered his detail to the Office of the Clerk of Court. Unless the action or omission to be sanctioned amounts to direct contempt, the power to discipline court personnel is vested in the Supreme Court; and the authority to detail or re-assign the personnel of one branch to another branch or to the Office of the Clerk of Court is lodged in the Executive Judge (SC Administrative Circular No. 6 dated June 30, 1975). Hence, complainant overstepped the bounds of her authority by imposing a disciplinary sanction on the respondent, and detailing him to the Office of the Clerk of Court without seeking the approval of the Executive Judge.7

Under Section IV of Administrative Order No. 6, it is the executive judge who has the power to temporarily re-assign court personnel,8 viz.:

4. To re-assign temporarily the personnel of one branch (sala) to another branch (sala) or to the Office of the Clerk of Court, in case of vacancy in the position of Presiding Judge of a branch (sala), or when the interest of the service requires. In the latter case, the assignment shall be made in consultation with the Presiding Judge of the branch (sala) concerned; and, in cases of disagreement, the assignment of the Executive Judge shall be effective immediately, unless revoked by the Supreme Court.

In fine then, Judge Aguirre had no authority to impose a P500.00 fine on the respondent for failure to submit a written explanation on his successive absences, or detail him to another office. Considering further that Judge Aguirre filed the instant administrative complaint against the respondent, the Court cannot help but conclude that she felt slighted for having been "by-passed" by one who is, according to her, a mere court employee.

While judges are exhorted to organize and supervise the court personnel to ensure the prompt and efficient dispatch of business, and require at all times the observance of high standards of public service and fidelity,9 and are authorized to take or initiate appropriate disciplinary measures against lawyers or court personnel for unprofessional conduct,10 they must do so with caution and circumspection. Judges must bear in mind that their behavior must reaffirm the people's faith and integrity of the judiciary, and that justice must not merely be done but must also seen to be done.11 Hence, the exercise of a judge's disciplinary authority over court personnel must be characterized not by overzealousness but by temperance and propriety.

Noting that she was unnecessarily harsh in treating the respondent in this case, the Court resolves to admonish Judge Aguirre, reminding her to be more circumspect in the exercise of her supervisory authority over the personnel of her court.

CONSIDERING THE FOREGOING, Judge Thelma Canlas Trinidad-Pe Aguirre is ADMONISHED to be more circumspect in the exercise of her supervisory authority over the personnel of her court. She is WARNED that a similar conduct in the future shall be dealt with more severely.

The complaint against respondent Eduardo T. Baltazar is DISMISSED for lack of merit.

SO ORDERED.

Puno, (Chairman), Austria-Martinez, Tinga, and Chico-Nazario, JJ., concur.

Endnotes:


1 Rollo, p. 14.

2 Id. at 13.

3 Id. at 8.

4 Id. at 21.

5 Ulat-Marrero v. Torio, Jr., 416 SCRA 177 (2003).

6 Ibid.

7 Rollo, pp. 20-21.

8 Medina v. De Guia, 219 SCRA 153 (1993).

9 Rule 3.09, Code of Judicial Conduct.

10 Section 3, Canon 2, New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary which took effect on June 1, 2004.

11 Ibid. (Section 2, Canon 2).

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