Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Webb case; inhibition (1997)

Webb vs People : 127262 : July 24, 1997 : J. Puno : Second Division

Today the hottest news item was the decision of the Supreme Court acquitting Hubert Webb, et. al. (rape with homicide) after 15 long years of painful and costly litigation. I shall digest the decision in due time once it is published by the Court. Anyway, in 1997, the Court denied the petition of Webb seeking the inhibition of the trial judge, Amelita Tolentino. See the salient parts of the decision below. The judge, after a full-blown and much-publicized trial, convicted all of the accused. Riding on her popularity she thereafter sought and was given a promotion to the Court of the Appeals, where she serves up to now. If I am not mistaken she has attempted to seek an appointment to the Supreme Court but did not make it. The question now is this: In the silence of her conscience, and in the face of the rejection by the Supreme Court of her wrong decision which has deprived the accused of their precious freedom for 15 years now, what does she feel in the innermost recesses of her heart? Any remorse? Resentment? Shame? Guilt?

G.R. No. 127262. July 24, 1997
HUBERT WEBB, et al vs. PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, et. al..

D E C I S I O N
PUNO, J.:


x x x.

On June 21, 1996, the Court of Appeals rendered its Decision on the various petitions and supplemental petitions. It reversed respondent judge's ruling refusing to admit Alfaro's April 28 affidavit but denied all the other reliefs prayed for by petitioners.[16] It also denied petitioners' motion for reconsideration in a resolution dated November 15, 1996.[17]

On December 12, 1996, petitioners filed the present petition contending:

I

The Court of Appeals erred in declaring that no sufficient ground exists for the disqualification of the respondent judge.

A. Respondent judge has consistently and repeatedly shown bias and hostility against petitioners.

B. The rejection of the 132 of 142 exhibits not only paved the way for the denial of bail but also sets irreversibly the eventual conviction of all the accused.

C. The reported trip to the Vizconde residence by the respondent judge exposes her propensity to consort with the complainant on the pending issues.

II

The Court of Appeals erred in not honoring that the right to a fair trial requires that the case be tried by an impartial judge.

On February 5, 1997, petitioners filed a supplemental petition. It alleged, among others, that during the trial on the merits, respondent judge allowed prosecution witness Atty. Pedro Rivera to testify on the character of the accused although the defense had not put his character in issue; that respondent judge disallowed the defense to impeach the credibility of Atty. Rivera by the presentation of an earlier statement executed by him because such statement was immaterial; and that respondent judge struck off from the record the proffer of oral evidence made by defense counsel Atty. Vitaliano Aguirre after ruling that the proffer was improper on cross-examination.[18]

The core issue is whether respondent judge should inhibit herself from hearing Criminal Case No. 95-404 on the ground of bias and prejudice.

We rule in the negative.

The Bill of Rights guarantees that "(n)o person shall be held to answer for a criminal offense without due process of law."[19] A critical component of due process is a hearing before an impartial and disinterested tribunal. We have ingrained the jurisprudence that every litigant is entitled to nothing less than the cold neutrality of an impartial judge for all the other elements of due process, like notice and hearing, would be meaningless if the ultimate decision would come from a partial and biased judge.[20] Hence, the Rules of Court allows a judge to voluntarily inhibit himself from hearing a case for "just or valid reasons" other than those referring to his pecuniary interest, relation, previous connection, or previous rulings or decisions. Section 1 Rule 137 of the Revised Rules of Court states:

SECTION 1. Disqualification of judges. -- No judge or judicial officer shall sit in any case in which he, or his wife or child, is pecuniarily interested as heir, legatee, creditor or otherwise, or in which he is related to either party within the sixth degree of consanguinity or affinity, or to counsel within the fourth degree, computed according to the rules of the civil law, or in which he has been executor, administrator, guardian, trustee or counsel, or in which he has presided in any inferior court when his ruling or decision is the subject of review, without the written consent of all parties in interest, signed by them and entered upon the record.

A judge may, in the exercise of his sound discretion, disqualify himself from sitting in a case, for just or valid reasons other than those mentioned above.

Under the second paragraph, a party has the right to seek the inhibition or disqualification of a judge who does not appear to be wholly free, disinterested, impartial and independent in handling the case. This right must be weighed with the duty of a judge to decide cases without fear of repression. Hence, to disqualify a judge on the ground of bias and prejudice the movant must prove the same by clear and convincing evidence. This is a heavy burden and petitioners failed to discharge their burden of proof.

To prove bias and prejudice on the part of respondent judge, petitioners harp on the alleged adverse and erroneous rulings of respondent judge on their various motions. By themselves, however, they do not sufficiently prove bias and prejudice to disqualify respondent judge. To be disqualifying, the bias and prejudice must be shown to have stemmed from an extrajudicial source and result in an opinion on the merits on some basis other than what the judge learned from his participation in the case. Opinions formed in the course of judicial proceedings, although erroneous, as long as they are based on the evidence presented and conduct observed by the judge, do not prove personal bias or prejudice on the part of the judge.[21] As a general rule, repeated rulings against a litigant, no matter how erroneous and vigorously and consistently expressed, are not a basis for disqualification of a judge on grounds of bias and prejudice.[22] Extrinsic evidence is required to establish bias, bad faith, malice or corrupt purpose, in addition to the palpable error which may be inferred from the decision or order itself. Although the decision may seem so erroneous as to raise doubts concerning a judge's integrity, absent extrinsic evidence, the decision itself would be insufficient to establish a case against the judge.[23] The only exception to the rule is when the error is so gross and patent as to produce an ineluctable inference of bad faith or malice.

A perusal of the records will reveal that petitioners failed to adduce any extrinsic evidence to prove that respondent judge was motivated by malice or bad faith in issuing the assailed rulings. Petitioners simply lean on the alleged series of adverse rulings of the respondent judge which they characterized as palpable errors. This is not enough. We note that respondent judge's rulings resolving the various motions filed by petitioners were all made after considering the arguments raised by all the parties. It is true that the respondent judge erred in some of her rulings such as her rejection of petitioners' one hundred thirty two (132) pieces of evidence. It appears, however, that respondent judge reversed this erroneous ruling and already admitted these 132 pieces of evidence after finding that "the defects in (their) admissibility have been cured through the introduction of additional evidence during the trial on the merits."[24] This correction diminishes the strength of petitioners' charge that respondent judge is hopelessly biased against them. To be sure, the respondent judge did not score a complete cipher in her rulings against the petitioners. Just last June 11, 1997, the Third Division of this Court dismissed an administrative complaint against the respondent judge on the ground that "x x x it is within the respondent judge's right to conduct an ocular inspection since it is an exercise of her judicial prerogative x x x."[25] There is still another reason why we should observe caution in disqualifying respondent judge. The trial of the petitioners is about to end and to assign a new judge to determine the guilt or innocence of petitioners will not be for the best interest of justice. The records of the case at bar run into volumes. These voluminous records cannot capture in print the complete credibility of witnesses when they testified in court. As the respondent judge observed the demeanor of witnesses while in the witness chair, she is in the best position to calibrate their credibility. The task of evaluating the credibility of witnesses includes interpreting their body language and their meaningful nuances are not expressed in the transcripts of their testimonies.

We hasten to stress that a party aggrieved by erroneous interlocutory rulings in the course of a trial is not without remedy. The range of remedy is provided in our Rules of Court and we need not make an elongated discourse on the subject. But certainly, the remedy for erroneous rulings, absent any extrinsic evidence of malice or bad faith, is not the outright disqualification of the judge. For there is yet to come a judge with the omniscience to issue rulings that are always infallible. The courts will close shop if we disqualify judges who err for we all err.

We again remind respondent judge of our counsel in the first Webb case[26] "x x x that our ability to dispense impartial justice is an issue in every trial, and in every criminal prosecution, the judiciary always stands as a silent accused. More than convicting the guilty and acquitting the innocent, the business of the judiciary is to assure fulfillment of the promise that justice shall be done and is done - and that is the only way for the judiciary to get an acquittal from the bar of public opinion."

x x x.

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