[ A.M. No. RTJ-16-2462 [Formerly OCA IPI No. 14-4311-RTJ], October 14, 2019 ]
FREDDIE J. FARRES AND ORWEN L. TRAZO, COMPLAINANTS, VS. JUDGE EDGARDO B. DIAZ DE RIVERA, JR., BRANCH 10, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, LA TRINIDAD, BENGUET, RESPONDENT.
D E C I S I O N
"We must once more impress upon the members of the Judiciary their sworn duty of administering justice without undue delay under the time-honored precept that justice delayed, is justice denied. The present clogged condition of the courts' docket in all levels of our judicial system cannot be cleared unless each and every judge earnestly and painstakingly takes it upon himself to comply faithfully with the mandate of the law. No less important than the speedy termination of hearings and trials of cases is the promptness and dispatch in the making of decisions and judgment, the signing thereof and filing the same with the Clerk of Court."1
Freddie J. Farres and Orwen L. Trazo (complainants) filed a Joint Affidavit Complaint2 dated September 8, 2014 against Judge Edgardo B. Diaz De Rivera, Jr., (respondent Judge) of Branch 10, Regional Trial Court (RTC), La Trinidad, Benguet for violation of Republic Act No. (RA) 3019, also known as the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, Section 1, Canon 3,3 and Canon 54 of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
Complainants alleged that they were the private complainants in Criminal Case No. 11-CR-8444 filed against Priston Paran and Jimboy Alumpit (accused) for the Violation of Presidential Decree (P.D.) No. 705, otherwise known as "The Revised Forestry Code of the Philippines." The criminal case was assigned to the sala of respondent Judge sometime in May 2011, and as of the filing of the complaint, the case has been pending for three years and four months, and the prosecution has not yet finished with the presentation of witnesses. To date, there were only four hearings conducted.5
Both of the accused in the criminal case were allowed by respondent Judge to post a cash bail amounting to one-fourth of the bail recommended by the Benguet Provincial Prosecutors Office. However, in a summary of 50 cases concerning P.D. No. 705 and raffled to respondent Judge's court, it appeared that none of the accused therein were even allowed a 75% reduction of bail.
Further, while complainants were aware that respondent Judge had a stroke sometime in the latter part of 2012, he was already conducting hearings in his sala in 2013. Hence, complainants believed that the delays in conducting trials could not be justified by the medical condition of respondent Judge.
In his Comment6 dated March 10, 2015, respondent Judge averred that based on the records, the following is the chronological summary of the significant incidents of the case:
May 23, 2011 – Information was filed. Accused were under detention.
June 14, 2011 – Both accused were present but the arraignment was postponed and reset to June 21, 2011, because their retained counsel, Atty. Richard Zarate was absent. Accused declined services of counsel-de-oficio from the Public Attorneys Office.
June 21, 2011 – Accused were arraigned and pleaded Not Guilty. Pre-trial was set on July 18, 2011. Accused, through counsel, filed a motion to reduce the recommended bail bond from P40,000.00 to P5,000.00. The court deferred the hearing on the motion and directed the prosecution to file a written comment and/or an opposition to the motion.
June 28, 2011 – Prosecutor Winston Suaking filed a "Comment" for the reduction of bond that ended with the statement: "we submit the incident to the sound discretion of the Honorable Court."
July 18, 2011 – The motion was heard. The court set the bail bond at P10,000 each.
August 24, 2011 – Pretrial was cancelled due to the absence of defense counsel.
September 28, 2011 – Pretrial was cancelled as both accused were absent due to a passing typhoon (Pedring). It was manifested by defense counsel that the accused (who resided in Itogon – some 20 kilometers from La Trinidad) probably could not attend due to the inclement weather that made the roads impassable or too risky to traverse.
October 26, 2011 – Pretrial was cancelled.. Prosecution requested and was given time to conduct a reinvestigation to determine the total amount of lumber allegedly to have been illegally cut and to include the identities and true names of two more accused who were not named in the original information.
December 6, 2011 – Pretrial was cancelled. Atty. Zarate was again absent and fined P500.00
December 6, 2011 – Motion to amend the Information was filed
February 7, 2012 – Amended Information was admitted.
March 13, 2012 – Pretrial was finally conducted and terminated. The prosecution requested and was granted eight (8) trial dates to present its evidence to wit: June 18, 25; July 16, 23, 30; and August 6, 13, 20, 2012 all at 8:30 in the morning.
June 25, 2012 – Initial trial hearing.. Frederick Farres was presented and testified. After his testimony, prosecution prayed for continuance.
July 23, 2012 – Prosecution had no witness to present; the accused and defense counsel were also absent[.]
July 30, 2012 – The court allowed the second prosecution witness, Orwen Trazo, to be presented and testify despite the absence of the accused and their counsel.
August 6, 2012 – Atty. Zarate was again absent and fined P500. He was warned that should he fail to attend the next scheduled hearing, the accused shall be deemed to have waived the right to cross-examine the second prosecution witness.
August 13, 2012 – Atty. Zarate cross examined the witness Orwen Trazo[.]
September 3, 2012 – SPO1 Balaso and PO3 E. Bocalan were presented as additional prosecution witnesses[.]
(October 12, 2012 – Presiding judge suffered severe stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body. He was confined at the Medical City Hospital, Ortigas center, Metro Manila. He was confined there for about a month. When he was discharged, his doctors advised him to adhere to a strict regimen of medication and diet and to undergo a series of prescribed physical therapy to regain the use of his left limbs. Due to his continuous physical therapy sessions, he had to take numerous leaves of absence from work.)
October 17, 2012 – No hearing.. Judge on leave.
November 27, 2013 – Accused and counsel were not in court. Atty. Zarate was fined P500[.]
February 12, 2014 – Judge on leave[.]
June 16, 2014 – Judge on leave[.]
Nov. 26, 2014 – Both accused were in court but Atty. Zarate was not in court. Hearing cancelled.
Feb. 18, 2015 – Hearing was cancelled as Atty. Zarate was not in court7
Further, respondent Judge stressed that on October 12, 2012, he suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body. He was confined at the Medical City Hospital, Ortigas Center, Metro Manila for about a month. When he was discharged, his doctors advised him to adhere to a strict regimen of medication and diet, and to undergo a series of prescribed physical therapy to regain the use of his left limbs. Due to his continuous physical therapy sessions, he had to take numerous leaves of absence from work. Upon his request by midyear of 2014, the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) appointed an assisting judge to Branch 10 to hear pending cases.
As to the allegation that both the accused in Criminal Case No. 11-CR-8444 were allowed to post a cash bail bond amounting to only one-fourth of the recommended bail by the Benguet Provincial Prosecutors Office, respondent Judge explained that the accused in the criminal case requested a reduction of the bail from P40,000.00 to P5,000.00 considering that they could not raise the amount as they were in their early twenties, unemployed, dependent and living with their parents. Prosecutor Winston Suaking (Prosecutor Suaking) of the Benguet Prosecution Office, Atty. Cleo Sabado Andrada (Atty. Andrada) of the DENR, and complainants were present; but none of them raised any objection on the matter and agreed to submit the incident to the discretion of the court.8
With respect to the allegation that the accused in the 50 cases concerning P.D. No. 705 were not even allowed a 75% reduction of bail, respondent Judge explained that assuming without admitting that the data was correct and accurate, it was because none of the accused in those 50 cases mentioned asked for more than 50% reduction of the recommended bail. Respondent Judge further averred that it was best if the prosecuting attorneys and the counsel of the DENR be requested or directed to submit their respective comments to shed light on the matter. He clarified that his bases for the grant of reduction of bail were the financial capacity of the accused and their right to bail.9
Respondent Judge asserted that the public prosecutors assigned to his court and the counsel of the DENR, who have been actively participating in environmental cases for more than 10 years, be directed to submit their respective comments on the matter as they would definitely give a more objective and clearer picture on the manner of how respondent Judge conducted this type of cases. These persons can very well attest to his several admonitions made in open court to determine whether the private individuals involved in these cases had a selfish motive and/or hidden agenda in pursuing their complaints; most especially, when these individuals were the contending claimants of the land where trees were allegedly illegally cut, and the criminal proceedings were used as a threat and a leverage to claim possession and ownership over a disputed parcel of land.10
On July 14, 2015, respondent Judge filed an application for disability retirement before the Employees Welfare and Benefits Division and the OCA, which was made effective on April 30, 2015.11
In a Report and Recommendation12 dated April 1, 2016, the OCA recommended that the administrative complaint against respondent Judge be re-docketed as a regular administrative matter, and he be found liable for violation of Supreme Court rules, directives and circulars, and be fined in the amount of P5,000.00 to be deducted from his disability benefits that may be due him.
The OCA Report and Recommendation is well-taken.
The reduction of the bail bond from
P40,000.00 to P100,000.00 alone does
not make or prove that respondent
was biased or hostile against complainants.
The reduction of the bail bond from P40,000.00 to P10,000.00 maybe said to be excessively lower under the circumstances, but this fact alone does not make or prove that respondent Judge was biased or hostile against complainants. This Court adheres to the explanation proffered by respondent Judge in his comment, which reads:
The recommended bail proposed by the Benguet Provincial Prosecutors Office for violations under PD 705 ((The Revised Forestry Code of the Philippines) has uniformly and consistently been set at P40,000.00 regardless of the volume and the value of the forest products involved. The prosecution manifested that it usually does not object to a fifty percent reduction provided that the bond be in cash. In this particular case, the accused requested that bail be reduced from P40,000.00 to P5,000.00. During the hearing on the motion, Atty. Zarate presented the accused; the accused manifested that [he] could not raise the bail amount of P40,000.00; they were in their early twenties, unemployed, were dependent and still living with their parents who were permanent residents of Itogon.13 (Underscoring supplied.)
Needless to state, Prosecutor Suaking of the Benguet Prosecution Office, Atty. Andrada of the DENR, and complainants were present during the hearing on the motion, but none of them made a counter manifestation to or a refutation of the grounds offered for the reduction of bail.14 After a short discussion on the matter, respondent Judge stated that the bail was set at P10,000.00. Respondent Judge asked the prosecution whether there were objections to the amount, but Prosecutor Suaking stated that he was submitting the incident "to the sound discretion of the court." Consequently, there being no objection, the bail was set at P10,000.00 for each of the accused.15
The respondent Judge is found liable for violation of Supreme Court rules, directives and circulars.
Administrative Circular No. 3-99 dated January 15, 1999 mandates the "Strict Observance of Session Hours of Trial Courts and Effective Management of Cases to Ensure Their Speedy Disposition." Thus:
To insure speedy disposition of cases, the following guidelines must be faithfully observed:
I. The session hours of all Regional Trial Courts, Metropolitan Trial Courts, Municipal Trial Courts in Cities, Municipal Trial Courts, and Municipal Circuit Trial Courts shall be from 8:30 A.M. to noon and from 2:00 P.M. to 4:30 P.M., from Monday to Friday. The hours in the morning shall be devoted to the conduct of trial, while the hours in the afternoon shall be utilized or (1) the conduct of pre-trial Conferences; (2) writing or decisions, resolutions or orders; or (3) the continuation of trial on the merits, whenever rendered necessary, as may be required by the Rules of Court, statutes, or circulars in specified cases.
xxx xxx xxx
II. Judges must be punctual at all times.
xxx xxx xxx
IV. There should be strict adherence to the policy on avoiding postponements and needless delay.
xxx xxx xxx
VI. All trial judges must strictly comply with Circular No. 38-98, entitled "Implementing the Provisions of Republic Act No. 8493" ("An Act to Ensure a Speedy Trial of All Cases Before the Sandiganbayan, Regional Trial Court, Metropolitan Trial Court, Municipal Trial Court in Cities, Municipal Trial Court and Municipal Circuit Trial Court, Appropriating Funds Therefor, and for Other Purposes") issued by the Honorable Chief Justice Andres R. Narvasa on 11 August 1998 and which took effect on 15 September 1998.16
The aforecited circulars enshrine the fundamentals set forth in the Canons of Judicial Ethics which mandate that judges must be punctual in the performance of their judicial functions.17 Likewise, these circulars give emphasis to the importance of the time of litigants, witnesses, and attorneys, so that if the judge is not punctual in the performance of his duties, he already sets a bad example to the bar and accordingly, affects the administration of justice.18
In this case, respondent Judge said that the pendency of the Criminal Case No. 11-CR-8444 for three years from the time it was raffled to him was due to the absence of the accused and Atty. Richard Zarate, the accused's counsel. However, as correctly appreciated by the OCA, judges have a wide latitude of discretion in granting or denying a plea for continuance or postponement.19 Sound practice requires a judge to remain, at all times, in full control of the proceedings in his sala and to adopt a firm policy against improvident postponements.20 In Naguiat v. Capellan,21 this Court stressed that:
The Court has time and again admonished judges to be prompt in the performance of their solemn duty as dispenser of justice, since undue delays erode the people's faith in the judicial system. Delay not only reinforces the belief of the people that the wheels of justice grind ever so slowly, but invites suspicion, however unfair, of ulterior motives on the part of the judge.ℒαwρhi৷ The raison d'ëtre of courts lies not only in properly dispensing justice but also in being able to do so seasonably.22
Further, respondent Judge ascribes the delay in resolving Criminal Case No. 11-CR-8444 to his failing health that he suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body which required him follow a strict regimen of medication and diet, and subjected him to a series of physical therapy. As a necessary consequence, he had to take numerous leaves of absence from work.
However, this excuse deserves scant consideration. While this Court is emphatic on respondent Judge's fate, still it was incumbent upon him to inform this Court, through the OCA, of his inability to seasonably decide the case before him because the demands of public service could not abide by his illness. In this case, this Court notes that respondent Judge failed to make such a request. Similarly in the case of Juson v. Judge Mondragon,23 this Court ruled as follows:
In case of poor health, the Judge concerned needs only to ask this Court for an extension of time to decide/resolve cases/incidents, as soon as it becomes clear to him that there would be delay in his disposition thereof. The Court notes that Judge Mondragon made no such request. Also, if his health problems had indeed severely impaired his ability to decide cases, Judge Mondragon could have retired voluntarily instead of remaining at his post to the detriment of the litigants and the public.24
As to the imposition of the penalty to be imposed upon the erring respondent Judge, this Court adopts the OCA's recommendation that a violation of Supreme Court rules, directives and circulars is a less serious charge punishable by suspension from office without salary and other benefits for not less than one nor more than three months, or a fine of more than P100,000.00 but not exceeding P20,000.00.25
The fines to be imposed have varied in each case, depending chiefly on the number of cases not decided within the reglementary period. Also, this Court has to take into consideration the presence of aggravating or mitigating circumstances such as, but not limited to, the damage suffered by the parties from the delay, the health condition and age of the judge.26
In this case, this Court takes into account the health of respondent Judge and the fact that this is his first administrative infraction. This Court also notes that respondent Judge requested before the OCA for an assisting judge; and that sometime in 2014, the OCA appointed an assisting judge to Branch 10 to hear pending cases in the said court.
However, considering that respondent Judge is undeniably guilty of undue delay or of violation of Supreme Court rules, directives and circulars, this Court finds that the amount of P5,000.00 as recommended by the OCA is too minimal. Hence, the Court deems it proper and just to increase the fine to P10,000.00 to be deducted from his disability retirement benefits.
WHEREFORE, Judge Edgardo B. Diaz De Rivera, Jr. is found GUILTY of undue delay in the disposition of the Criminal Case No. 11-CR-8444. He is ordered to pay a FINE of Ten Thousand Pesos (Php10,000.00) to be deducted from his disability retirement benefits that may be due him.
Peralta, A. Reyes, Jr., and Hernando, JJ., concur.
Leonen, J., on leave.
1 Castro v. Judge Malaza, 187 Phil. 595, 601 (1980).
2 Rollo, pp. 1-4.
3 CANON 3 Impartiality. Impartiality is essential to the proper discharge of the judicial office. It applies not only to the decision itself but also to the process by which the decision is made. Sec. 1. Judges shall perform their judicial duties without favor, bias or prejudice.
4 CANON 5 Equality. Ensuring equality of treatment to all before the courts is essential to the due performance of the judicial office.
5 Rollo, p. 1.
6 Id. at 25-31.
7 Id. at 26-27.
8 Id. at 28.
9 Id. at 28-29.
10 Id. at 29.
11 Id. at 33.
12 Id. at 32-35.
13 Id. at 28.
16 Gadencio v. Pacis, 455 Phil. 778, 787-788 (2003).
17 Id. at 788.
19 Naguiat v. Capellan, 661 Phil. 476, 482 (2011), citing Philippine National Bank v. Donasco, G.R. No. L-18638, February 28, 1963, 7 SCRA 409, 413-419.
20 Id. at 483, citing Sevilla v. Quintin, A.M. No. MTJ-05-1603, October 25, 2005.
21 661 Phil. 476 (2011).
22 Id. at 483-484.
23 Juson v. Judge Mondragon, 558 Phil. 613 (2007).
24 Id. at 623.
25 Rollo, p. 35.
26 Re: Failure of Judge Carbonell to Decide Cases and to Resolve Pending Motions in the RTC Br. 27, San Fernando, La Union, 713 Phil. 594, 600 (2013).
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