A.M. No. RTJ-04-1872           October 18, 2004
OFFICE OF THE COURT ADMINISTRATOR, complainant,
Judge DOLORES L. ESPAÑOL, Regional Trial Court, Branch 90, Dasmariñas, Cavite, respondent.
D E C I S I O N
The Constitution requires trial judges to decide cases within 90 days from the time the last pleading is filed.1 Indeed, justice is defined not just by how but, equally important, by when it is dispensed. When circumstances make it impossible for judges to decide a litigation within the reglementary period, they are required to inform this Court of the reasons for the delay and to ask for an extension within which to dispose of the case. This simple requirement is meant to assure litigants that their causes have not been forgotten and buried among the myriad concerns courts have to attend to, and to demonstrate that judges are conscientious of their constitutionally imposed time limits.
Before this Court is a case that originated as Administrative Matter No. 04-6-352-RTC (Re: Judicial Audit Conducted in the Regional Trial Court, Dasmariñas, Branch 90 [Stationed at Imus], Cavite). The Complaint, filed against Judge Dolores L. Español (ret.) of the said Regional Trial Court (RTC), was for gross inefficiency.2 Upon the recommendation of the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA), the matter was re-docketed as a regular administrative case on August 9, 2004.3
The facts, as found by the OCA, are as follows:
"A Judicial Audit and Inventory of Cases was conducted in the Regional Trial Court, Branch 90, Dasmariñas (stationed at Imus), Cavite, prior to the compulsory retirement of Judge Dolores L. Español on January 9, 2004.
"On the basis of the findings of the audit team, a Memorandum dated 27 November 2003 was sent to Judge Español directing her to decide all cases submitted for decision, resolve all motions/incidents submitted for resolution and to take actions on the unacted cases as tabulated in the memorandum.
"On May 25, 2004, Judge Español submitted her compliance with the memorandum dated November 27, 2003. A tabulated list showing the actions taken on the cases was submitted and copies of the decisions rendered were attached to the compliance.
"Judge Español in her compliance pointed out that the directive requiring [her] to take appropriate action in the cases was received by her two (2) days before her compulsory retirement and due to human limitations, all the listed cases for action could not be completely done. All the cases may have been unresolved due to the election protest returned by the Commission on Elections after 17 months and which was given priority."
The OCA’s investigation showed that upon her compulsory retirement on January 9, 2004, Judge Español left a total of 69 cases that had not been acted upon. In particular, these included six criminal and sixteen civil cases already submitted for decision, five criminal and eighteen civil cases on appeal, and sixteen cases with pending incidents for resolution.4
In separate communications addressed to Deputy Court Administrator (DCA) Jose Perez dated May 27, 20045 and September 1, 2004, respondent judge explained that the delay in the disposition of cases in her court was due to the following reasons:
1. Only two days before her compulsory retirement on January 9, 2004 did she receive the Memorandum dated November 27, 2003, directing her to decide all cases submitted for decision, to resolve all motions/incidents, and to take actions on cases tabulated therein that had not yet been acted upon. Pointing to "human limitations," she explained that she could not have disposed of the cases contained in the directive within her remaining two days in office.
2. She gave priority, as was required by law, to Election Protest No. 01-02, Oscar Jaro v. Homer Saquilayan. That case took much of her court time and energy, as it required the revision and review of 52,694 ballots from 453 precincts of Imus, Cavite, and necessitated the creation of two revision committees. The clerk of court and three other court personnel, particularly the researcher and two clerks, had to devote their full time to assist in the revision.
3. In Solar Resources, Inc. v. Rolando Aldunar, 63 counts of unlawful detainer with damages required the implementations of 63 writs of execution and demolition. The negotiations undertaken by both the plaintiff and the defendants, the latter numbering about six hundred families, caused setbacks in the final disposition of the cases. It was only after the negotiations failed that respondent’s court was constrained to exercise its firm hand.
4. Delay in the service of the writs in the aforementioned Solar Resources cases was also partly the fault of Sheriff Tomas C. Azurin, who allegedly frustrated the enforcement of the writs through highly questionable acts. Among those acts were cavorting with the leaders of squatter groups that had opposed the implementation of the Orders and the Writs of the court and contracting the food preparation of the demolition team, part of which he himself had recruited. In an Order dated December 29, 2003, respondent judge ordered the relief of Azurin and the deputization of Sheriffs Danny Lapuz and Rodelio Buenviaje of Cavite City. The Writs were finally completed on March 8, 2004, as evidenced by the sheriff’s return and receipt of possession.
5. The transfer of court records from the maintenance room to the courtroom vacated by Judge Eduardo Israel Tanguanco, as well as the temporary storage of those records in a 20-foot container van, caused the misplacement of some records.
In her letter to DCA Perez dated September 1, 2004, respondent denied the charges of gross inefficiency leveled against her. She alleged that as early as August 2003, in anticipation of her compulsory retirement, she had approached the Court Management Office (CMO). She discussed with the CMO the possibility of requesting another judge to assist her in the ongoing revision of ballots in EPC No. 01-02, as well as in the implementation of writs in sixty-three appealed cases for unlawful detainer involving Solar Resources. On the advice of the CMO, however, she did not submit a formal request.
Respondent also called attention to the fact that, notwithstanding a full calendar and the absence of an assisting judge, she was not remiss in disposing of cases. Even before her receipt of the Memorandum of January 7, 2004, which was two days before her retirement on January 9, 2004, she had already acted on a number of cases not covered by the Audit Report. The latest tabulation showed that the cases listed in the Memorandum dated November 27, 2003, had been disposed of accordingly.
Evaluation and Recommendation of the Office of the Court Administrator
The OCA found respondent guilty of gross inefficiency and recommended a fine of ten thousand pesos (₱10,000) to be deducted from the retirement benefits due her.
The Ruling of the Court
We agree with and adopt the findings of the OCA, but adjust the penalty in accordance with Rule 140.
The 1987 Constitution mandates trial judges to dispose of the court’s business promptly and to decide cases and matters within three (3) months from the filing of the last pleading, brief or memorandum.6 In the disposition of cases, members of the bench have always been exhorted to observe strict adherence to the foregoing rule to prevent delay, a major culprit in the erosion of public faith and confidence in our justice system.
In the evolvement of public perception of the judiciary, there can be no more conclusive empirical influence than the prompt and proper disposition of cases.7 Hence, a clear failure to comply with the reglementary period is regarded as inexcusable gross inefficiency.8 The speedy disposition of cases by judges is unequivocally directed by Canon 6 of the Code of Judicial Ethics:
"He should be prompt in disposing of all matters submitted to him, remembering that justice delayed is often justice denied."
This Court is aware of the predicament that plagues respondent, as well as most other trial judges in the country. The problem of case inputs grossly exceeding case outputs may be traced to several factors, the most prevalent of which are the large number of cases filed, indiscriminate grant of continuances to litigants, inefficient case flow management by judges, and unrealistic management of the calendar of cases.
To solve these problems, this Court has, in several instances, advised judges to follow certain guidelines to facilitate speedy case disposition.9 Among these measures is the discouragement of continuances, except for exceptional reasons. To enforce due diligence in the dispatch of judicial business without arbitrarily or unreasonably forcing cases to trial when counsels are unprepared, judges should endeavor to hold them to a proper appreciation of their duties to the public, as well as to their own clients and to the adverse party.10
In criminal cases, pretrial is mandatory because, at the outset, litigation is abbreviated by the identification of contentious issues. In civil cases, judges are also required to take advantage of the pretrial conference to arrive at settlements and compromises between the parties, to ask the latter to explore the possibility of submitting their cases to any of the alternative modes of dispute resolution, and at least to reduce and limit the issues for trial. Judges are further directed to implement and observe strictly the provisions of Section 2 of Rule 119, providing for a continuous day-to-day trial as far as practicable until termination.11
The work of magistrates is multifarious. They do not only hear cases and write decisions in the seclusion of their chambers; equally important, they act also as administrators. Their administrative efficiency may well define the justice they dispense.
They should be rational and realistic in calendaring cases. Only a sufficient number should be calendared in order to permit them to hear all the cases scheduled.12 Hence, unless the docket of the court requires otherwise, not more than four cases daily should be scheduled for trial.13 A continuous and physical inventory of cases on a monthly basis is also recommended, so that they would be aware of the status of each case.
With the assistance of the clerk of court, a checklist should be prepared, indicating the steps to be taken to keep cases moving.14 While decision-writing is a matter of personal style, judges are well-advised to prepare concise but complete as well as correct and clear decisions, orders or resolutions.15 With a table or calendar indicating the cases submitted for decision, they should note the exact day, month and year when the 90-day period is to expire.
Prompt disposition of the court’s business is attained through proper and efficient court management. Judges would be remiss in their duty and responsibility as court managers if they fail to adopt an efficient system of record management.16
At times, circumstances beyond their control result in the accumulation of ripe cases to a daunting number, making it humanly impossible for them to comply with the constitutionally mandated 90-day period. In such instances, all that they should do is write a request for extension from the Supreme Court, stating therein their reasons for the delay.17 Such administrative requirement finds basis in the 1987 Constitution.18
This Court has further directed members of the bench to call the attention of the OCA "when the situation requires remedies beyond the control or capability of the judges."
"10.3 The reduction of case loads would be an efficacious design to strengthen public confidence in the Courts. All efforts should be exerted so that case disposals should exceed case inputs. Whenever obstacles present themselves which delay case disposition, the Presiding Judge should immediately call the attention of the Supreme Court through the Court Administrator when the situation requires remedies beyond the control or capability of the judges."19
In his recommendation, DCA Perez made the following observation:
"At the very least, Judge Español should have requested for an extension of time once she knew that she could not comply with the prescribed ninety (90) day period to render judgment. In doing so, she would have been able to apprise litigants as to the status of the case and the reason for the delay, if any. It would have shown that she minded the deadlines.
"While Judge Español professes her human limitations coupled with the disposition of the election cases which allegedly demand priority, the same cannot exculpate her for non-compliance with the mandates of the law and the rules."
As we have stated in Maquiran v. Lopez,20 a heavy case load may excuse the failure of judges to decide cases within the reglementary period, but not their failure to request an extension of time within which to decide them on time.
In her letter dated September 1, 2004, respondent aired her frustrations over matters that allegedly "deter the achievement of a super-efficient court"; among these was "the lack of materials, equipment and supplies." In her own words, she had to "use her own funds to provide air conditioning units in the courtroom, computer and cleaning materials and supplies, repairs of the courtroom and providing for an additional storage space for court records."21
Her concern over lack of adequate materials and supplies is not unique to her; presently, the Court is trying to address it. Unfortunately, her initiative in personally acting on the problem, while commendable, cannot completely absolve her from her administrative liability in this case. It can however mitigate the penalty to be imposed.
As amended, Section 9 (1) of Rule 140 of the Revised Rules of Court classifies undue delay in rendering a decision as a less serious charge. As such, under Section 11 (b) of the same Rule, this offense is punishable by suspension from office without salary and other benefits for not less one (1) but not more than three (3) months, or a fine of more than ₱10,000 but not exceeding ₱20,000.
We close this Decision with a final exhortation. The magistracy is a very exacting and demanding vocation. Judges are expected to embody "four character traits: integrity, independence, intelligence and industry." Moreover, in the performance of their tasks, they must exhibit "four work habits; namely, excellence, ethics, effectiveness and expeditiousness."22 Only those who patiently cultivate these four character traits and four work habits can succeed in journeying through the straight and narrow judicial path.
WHEREFORE, the factual findings of the Office of Court Administrator are ADOPTED. Judge Dolores L. Español is found GUILTY of gross inefficiency and is fined in the amount of eleven thousand pesos (₱11,000), to be deducted from the retirement benefits due her.
Sandoval-Gutierrez, Corona, and Carpio Morales*, JJ., concur.
* On leave.
1 §§15 (1) and (2) of Article IIX of the 1987 Constitution respectively provide:
"All cases or matters filed after the effectivity of this Constitution must be decided or resolved within twenty-four months, from the date of submission for the Supreme Court, and, unless reduced by the Supreme Court, twelve months for all lower collegiate courts, and three months for all other lower courts."
"A case or matter shall be deemed submitted for decision or resolution upon the filing of the last pleading, brief, or memorandum required by the Rules of Court or by the court itself."
2 Rollo; see Memorandum for Hon. Hilario G. Davide Jr. in OA-6-352-RTC, dated June 17, 2004.
3 Rollo; Resolution of the Third Division, August 9, 2004.
4 Id. Upon her retirement, respondent judge failed to render a decision in Criminal Case Nos. 8553-01, 8707-01, 9880-02, 9874-02, 10528-02 and 10882-03. Those on appeal that were left undecided beyond the 90-day reglementary period were Criminal Case Nos. 027-98, 028-98, 029-98, 039-01 and 041-01. She also failed to render a decision in Civil Case Nos. 1592-97, 2499-02, 2437-01, 2590-02, 1049-95, 2430-01. Those undecided beyond the 90-day period included SP No. 881-01, 1515-97, 1832-99, 1922-99, 2176-00, 2704-02, 2795-03, SCA-045-00 and LRC-1672-95. Those left undecided beyond the 90-day period included Civil Case Nos. 2227-00, SP-10002-02, SP-911-02, 1506-97, 2145-00, 1160-95 and 1354-96. Those on appeal that were left undecided beyond the 90-day period were Civil Case Nos. 147-00, 148-00, 149-00, 150-00, 243-02, 121-01, 171-01, 172-01, 173-01, 110-99, 282-02, 227-02, 272-02, 111-99, 076-97, 088-97, 157-01 and 184-01. Respondent judge also failed to resolve the pending incident in Criminal Case No. 8934-01; or to take further action in Criminal Case No. 4913-97 and Civil Case Nos. 2339-01, 1600-97, 1581-97, LRC-2078-02, LRC-2092-02, SCA-056-02, SCA-044-00, SCA-041-99, 2786-03, 2649-02, 2236-01, 2863-03, 2706-02, [1732-98,] 1923-99 and 1179-95. (See Memorandum to Hon. Hilario G. Davide and the Status of Cases listed in the Audit Report, attached to the letter of respondent to DCA Jose Perez, dated May 27, 2004.)
5 Rollo; letter of Judge Dolores L. Español dated May 27, 2004.
6 Abarquez v. Rebosura, 349 Phil. 24, 35, January 28, 1998.
7 Cruz Jr. v. Joven, 350 SCRA 70, January 23, 2001.
8 Report on the Judicial Audit in RTC, Branch 27, Lapu-lapu City, 352 Phil. 223, 230, April 22, 1998.
9 See Supreme Court Circular No. 39-98, August 11, 1998; and Administrative Circular No. 3-99, January 15, 1999.
10 Canons of Judicial Ethics, August 1, 1946.
11 See Supreme Court Circular No. 13, July 1, 1987.
§2 of Rule 119 of the Rules of Court provides:
"Continuous trial until terminated; postponements. – Trial once commenced shall continue from day to day as far as practicable until terminated; but for good cause, it may be postponed for a reasonable period of time."
12 Supreme Court Circular No. 13, supra.
13 Supreme Court Administrative Circular No. 3-99, supra.
15 Velarde v. Social Justice Society, GR No. 159357, April 28, 2004 (citing Panganiban, "On Developing My Decision Writing Style," Justice and Faith , pp. 9-29).
16 Office of the Court Administrator v. Quilala, 351 SCRA 597, February 15, 2001.
17 Request for Assistance Relative to Special Proceedings No. 28 Pending at RTC, Br. 55, Negros Occidental Presided by Judge Jose Y. Aguirre Jr., 355 SCRA 62, March 26, 2001.
18 Subparagraphs 3 and 4, §15 of Article VIII, 1987 Constitution.
19 Supreme Court Circular No. 1, January 28, 1988.
20 411 Phil 544, June 20, 2001.
21 Rollo; letter of respondent to DCA Perez dated September 1, 2004.
22 See the Opening Remarks of the ponente during the Awarding Ceremonies for the 2004 Judicial Excellence Awards sponsored by the Supreme Court on September 17, 2004, reprinted as an Appendix in his book, Leveling the Playing Field (2004).
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