Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Ombudsman's jurisdiction

In the case of EDNA S.V. OGKA BENITO vs. RASAD G. BALINDONG, Presiding Judge, Regional Trial Court, Malabang, Lanao del Sur, Branch 12, EN BANC. A.M. No. RTJ-08-2103, February 23, 2009, the respodnent Judge Rasad G. Balindong was found GUILTY of gross ignorance of the law and FINED P30,000. Respondent was further FINED P10,000 for his violation of the Lawyer’s Oath and Canons 1, 5, 6 and 11 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. He was STERNLY WARNED that the commission of the same or similar acts shall be dealt with more severely.

The respondent judge in effect assumed jurisdiction over an Ombudsman case contrary to the Ombudsman Act.

Let me digest the doctrinal pronouncements of the Supreme Court in the said case.

In resolving the administrative case, the Supreme Court stated that a patent disregard of simple, elementary and well-known rules constitutes gross ignorance of the law. Judges are expected to exhibit more than just cursory acquaintance with laws and procedural rules. They must know the law and apply it properly in good faith. They are likewise expected to keep abreast of prevailing jurisprudence. For a judge who is plainly ignorant of the law taints the noble office and great privilege vested in him. Respondent’s gross ignorance of the law constituted inexcusable incompetence which was anathema to the effective dispensation of justice.

In SCA No. 12-181, respondents in OMB-M-A-05-175-E sought to annul and set aside D.O. No. 2006-38 of the DILG-ARMM and prohibit its implementation. Since D.O. No. 2006-38 was issued merely to implement the decision of the Ombudsman, respondents in OMB-M-A-05-175-E were actually questioning this decision and seeking to enjoin its implementation by filing a petition for certiorari and prohibition in the RTC.

This is not allowed under the law, rules and jurisprudence. Under Sections 14 and 27 of RA 6770, no court shall hear any appeal or application for a remedy against the decision or findings of the Ombudsman, except the Supreme Court, on a pure question of law.

Section 14. Restrictions. — No writ of injunction shall be issued by any court to delay an investigation being conducted by the Ombudsman under this Act, unless there is a prima facie evidence that the subject matter of the investigation is outside the jurisd7iction of the Office of the Ombudsman.

No court shall hear any appeal or application for remedy against the decision or findings of the Ombudsman, except the Supreme Court, on [a] pure question of law.

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Section 27. Effectivity and Finality of Decisions. — (1) All provisionary orders of the Office of the Ombudsman are immediately effective and executory. A motion for reconsideration of any order, directive or decision of the Office of the Ombudsman must be filed within five (5) days after receipt of written notice and shall be entertained only on any of the following grounds:

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Findings of fact by the Office of the Ombudsman when supported by substantial evidence are conclusive. Any order, directive or decision imposing the penalty of public censure or reprimand, suspension of not more than one (1) month's salary shall be final and unappealable.

In all administrative disciplinary cases, orders, directives, or decisions of the Office of the Ombudsman may be appealed to the Supreme Court by filing a petition for certiorari within ten (10) days from receipt of the written notice of the order, directive or decision or denial of the motion for reconsideration in accordance with Rule 45 of the Rules of Court.

The above rules may be amended or modified by the Office of the Ombudsman as the interest of justice may require.

However, in Fabian v. Desierto, we enunciated the rule that appeals from the decisions of the Ombudsman in administrative disciplinary cases should be taken to the CA. Following our ruling in Fabian, the Ombudsman issued Administrative Order No. 17 amending Section 7, Rule III of Administrative Order No. 07:

Section 7. Finality and execution of decision. — Where the respondent is absolved of the charge, and in case of conviction where the penalty imposed is public censure or reprimand, suspension of not more than one month, or a fine not equivalent to one month salary, the decision shall be final, executory and unappealable. In all other cases, the decision may be appealed to the Court of Appeals on a verified petition for review under the requirements and conditions set forth in Rule 43 of the Rules of Court, within fifteen (15) days from receipt of the written Notice of the Decision or Order denying the Motion for Reconsideration.

An appeal shall not stop the decision from being executory. In case the penalty is suspension or removal and the respondent wins such appeal, he shall be considered as having been under preventive suspension and shall be paid the salary and such other emoluments that he did not receive by reason of the suspension or removal.

A decision of the Office of the Ombudsman in administrative cases shall be executed as a matter of course. The Office of the Ombudsman shall ensure that the decision shall be strictly enforced and properly implemented. The refusal or failure by any officer without just cause to comply with an order of the Office of the Ombudsman to remove, suspend, demote, fine, or censure shall be a ground for disciplinary action against said officer. (Emphasis supplied)

These provisions clearly show that respondent had no jurisdiction to take cognizance of the petition and to issue his subsequent orders. He proceeded against settled doctrine, an act constituting gross ignorance of the law or procedure.

Respondent’s defense of good faith has no merit, the Court said. Indeed, good faith and absence of malice, corrupt motives or improper considerations, are sufficient defenses in which a judge charged with ignorance of the law can find refuge. However good faith in situations of fallible discretion inheres only within the parameters of tolerable judgment and does not apply where the issues are so simple and the applicable legal principles evident and basic as to be beyond possible margins of error.

If ordinary people are presumed to know the law, judges are duty-bound to actually know and understand it. A contrary rule will not only lessen the faith of the people in the courts but will also defeat the fundamental role of the judiciary to render justice and promote the rule of law.

Gross ignorance of the law or procedure is a serious charge under Section 8, Rule 140 of the Rules of Court, as amended by A.M. No. 01-8-10-SC, punishable by either dismissal from service, suspension or a fine of more than P20,000 but not exceeding P40,000. Since this is respondent’s first offense, we deem it proper to impose upon him a fine of P30,000.

Members of the bench are enjoined to behave at all times in a way that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. Respondent's act of taking cognizance of a case which was plainly not within his court’s jurisdiction failed to meet the high standards of judicial conduct.

Pursuant to A.M. No. 02-9-02-SC, the administrative case against respondent as a judge, based on grounds which were also grounds for disciplinary action against members of the Bar, shall be considered as disciplinary proceedings against such judge as a member of the Bar.

When respondent entertained SCA No. 12-181, issued a TRO and writ of preliminary injunction and subsequently granted the petition, he acted contrary to law, rules and jurisprudence. In doing so, he consented to the filing of an unlawful suit, in violation of the Lawyer’s Oath. A judge who falls short of the ethics of the judicial office tends to diminish the people’s respect for the law and legal processes. He also fails to observe and maintain the esteem due to the courts and to judicial officers. Thus, respondent violated Canons 1 and 11 of the Code of Professional Responsibility (CPR):

Canon 1. A lawyer shall uphold the Constitution, obey the laws of the land and promote respect for law and legal processes.

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Canon 11. A lawyer shall observe and maintain the respect due to the courts and to judicial officers and should insist on similar conduct by others. (Emphasis supplied)

Respondent’s gross ignorance of the law also runs counter to Canons 5 and 6 of the CPR:

Canon 5. A lawyer shall keep abreast of legal developments, participate in continuing legal education programs, support efforts to achieve high standards in law schools as well as in the practical training of law students and assist in disseminating information regarding the law and jurisprudence.

Canon 6. These Canons shall apply to lawyers in government service in the discharge of their official tasks. (Emphasis supplied)

Judges should be well-informed of existing laws, recent amendments and current jurisprudence, in keeping with their sworn duty as members of the bar (and bench) to keep abreast of legal developments.

For such violation of the Lawyer’s Oath and Canons 1, 5, 6 and 11 of the CPR, respondent was fined in the amount of P10,000.