A.M. No. MTJ-09-1737
LYDELLE L. CONQUILLA
JUDGE LAURO G. BERNARDO,
Municipal Trial Court,
A.M. No. MTJ-09-1737
February 9, 2011
D E C I S I O N
x x x.
The OCA’s Report and Recommendation
In its Report dated 12 February 2009, the OCA found respondent judge guilty of gross ignorance of the law for his patent and unjustified violation of the provisions of the Resolution in A.M. No. 05-8-26-SC. The OCA stated that the Resolution in A.M. No. 05-8-26-SC, which took effect on 3 October 2005, removed the conduct of investigation from the scope of authority of first level courts judges. Had respondent judge been more prudent in understanding the pertinent provisions of the Resolution in A.M. No. 05-8-26-SC, which are very clear and concise, no administrative complaint would have been filed against him.
The OCA, however, found the charge of usurpation of authority without merit. The OCA agreed with respondent judge that the power to determine the amount of bail is vested in the judge.
The OCA recommended (a) that the administrative complaint against respondent judge be re-docketed as a regular administrative matter; and (b) that respondent judge be fined in the amount of P20,000.00 for gross ignorance of the law, with a stern warning that a repetition of the same or similar offense shall be dealt with more severely.
The Ruling of the Court
In this case, respondent judge makes it appear that he merely conducted a preliminary examination for the purpose of determining whether probable cause exists to justify the issuance of a warrant of arrest. However, the records of the case clearly show that respondent judge indeed conducted a preliminary investigation on 8 July 2008. After finding probable cause to hold complainant for trial for the crime of direct assault, respondent judge then issued a warrant for her arrest. That respondent judge conducted a preliminary investigation and not just a preliminary examination to determine existence of probable cause for the issuance of a warrant of arrest is evident in his Order dated 8 July 2008, x x x.
Furthermore, after complainant posted bail on 10 July 2008, respondent judge then issued an Order dated 10 July 2008, ordering the complainant’s release and setting the case for her arraignment on 3 September 2008.
The conduct of preliminary investigation by respondent judge was in direct contravention of A.M. No. 05-8-26-SC, which took effect on 3 October 2005, amending Rules 112 and 114 of the Revised Rules on Criminal Procedure by removing the conduct of preliminary investigation from judges of the first level courts. Thus, under Section 2 of Rule 112, only the following officers are authorized to conduct preliminary investigations: (a) Provincial or City Prosecutors and their assistants; (b) National and Regional State Prosecutors; and (c) Other officers as may be authorized by law. Furthermore, Section 5 of Rule 112 provides:
SEC. 5. When warrant of arrest may issue. ‒
(a) By the Regional Trial Court. ‒ Within ten (10) days from the filing of the complaint or information, the judge shall personally evaluate the resolution of the prosecutor and its supporting evidence. He may immediately dismiss the case if the evidence on records clearly fails to establish probable cause. If he finds probable cause, he shall issue a warrant of arrest, or a commitment order when the complaint or information was filed pursuant to section 6 of this Rule. In case of doubt on the existence of probable cause, the judge may order the prosecutor to present additional evidence within five (5) days from notice and the issue must be resolved by the court within thirty (30) days from the filing of the complaint or information.
(b) By the Municipal Trial Court. ‒ When required pursuant to the second paragraph of section 1 of this Rule, the preliminary investigation of cases falling under the original jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Trial Court, Municipal Trial Court in Cities, Municipal Trial Court or Municipal Circuit Trial Court SHALL be conducted by the prosecutor. The procedure for the issuance of a warrant of arrest by the judge shall be governed by paragraph (a) of this section. (Emphasis supplied.)
Clearly, MTC judges are no longer authorized to conduct preliminary investigation.
In this case, the crime charged against complainant was direct assault against a public school teacher, who is a person in authority under Article 1523 of the Revised Penal Code.4 Under Article 148 of the Revised Penal Code, when the assault is committed against a person in authority while engaged in the performance of his official duties or on the occasion of such performance, the imposable penalty is prision correccional in its medium and maximum periods. The duration of the penalty of prision correccional in its medium and maximum periods is 2 years, 4 months and 1 day to 6 years. Thus, the offense charged against complainant requires the conduct of preliminary investigation as provided under Section 1 of Rule 112 of the Rules of Court, which reads:
SECTION 1. Preliminary investigation defined; when required. ‒ Preliminary investigation is an inquiry or proceeding to determine whether there is sufficient ground to engender a well-founded belief that a crime has been committed and the respondent is probably guilty thereof, and should be held for trial.
Except as provided in Section 6 of this Rule, a preliminary investigation is required to be conducted before the filing of a complaint or information for an offense where the penalty prescribed by law is at least four (4) years, two (2) months and (1) day without regard to the fine. (Emphasis supplied.)
It was therefore incumbent upon respondent judge to forward the records of the case to the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor for preliminary investigation, instead of conducting the preliminary investigation himself.
Rule 3.01, Canon 3 of the Code of Judicial Conduct mandates that a judge shall be faithful to the law and maintain professional competence. Indeed, competence and diligence are prerequisites to the due performance of judicial office.5 Section 3, Canon 6 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct6 requires judges to maintain and enhance their knowledge and skills to properly perform their judicial functions, thus:
SEC. 3. Judges shall take reasonable steps to maintain and enhance their knowledge, skills and personal qualities for the proper performance of judicial duties, taking advantage for this purpose of the training and other facilities which should be made available, under judicial control, to judges.
When a law or a rule is basic, judges owe it to their office to simply apply the law. Anything less is gross ignorance of the law.7 Judges should exhibit more than just a cursory acquaintance with the statutes and procedural rules,8 and should be diligent in keeping abreast with developments in law and jurisprudence.9
On the alleged promise of respondent judge’s wife that the bail would be reduced provided her P35,000 debt will be cancelled and that complainant grant respondent judge’s wife an additional loan, we find that complainant did not substantiate her allegation. Nevertheless, the Court notes that although respondent judge denies knowledge of such transaction between his wife and complainant, respondent judge did not categorically deny his wife’s debt to complainant. In his Comment, respondent judge states: “Assuming arguendo that there really was a loan made by his wife, he did not know of such transaction between his wife and the complainant and given this, he did not allow such transaction to take place.”10
Canon 4 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct stresses the importance of propriety and the appearance of propriety to the performance of all the activities of a judge. Respondent judge should bear in mind that judges should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of their activities.11 Furthermore, judges and members of their families are prohibited from asking for or accepting any gift, bequest, loan or favor in relation to anything done or to be done or omitted to be done by him in connection with the performance of judicial duties.12
On respondent judge’s issuance of the warrant of arrest and reduction of the amount of bail, we find such acts void for want of jurisdiction. While Rule 114 of the Rules of Court allows a judge to grant bail in bailable offenses and to increase or decrease bail, it assumes that the judge has jurisdiction over the case. In this case, respondent judge conducted the preliminary investigation without authority and issued the warrant of arrest. Thus, these acts are void for want of jurisdiction. The reduction of bail is also void because in the first place, respondent judge had no jurisdiction over the case itself.
The Court notes that this is respondent judge’s third offense. In 2003, the Court found respondent judge administratively liable for undue delay in rendering decisions and fined him P19,000, with a stern warning that a repetition of similar acts would be dealt with more severely.13
More importantly, in the 2008 case of Santos v. Bernardo,14 the Court found respondent judge guilty of gross ignorance of the law and basic rules of procedure and fined him P20,000, with a stern warning that a repetition of the same or similar acts would be dealt with more severely.15 The Court found no merit in respondent judge’s supposition that grave coercion is an offense not subject to preliminary investigation. The Court, however, emphasized that when the complaint was filed on 3 January 2006, respondent judge no longer had authority to conduct preliminary investigation by virtue of A.M. No. 05-8-26-SC. Thus, the Court held that respondent judge should have referred the complaint to the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor instead of issuing the subpoena directing complainants to appear before the Court.
Under Section 8(9), Rule 140 of the Rules of Court, gross ignorance of the law or procedure is classified as a serious charge, for which the imposable penalty is any of the following:
1. Dismissal from the service, forfeiture of all or part of the benefits as the Court may determine, and disqualification from reinstatement or appointment to any public office, including government-owned or controlled corporation: Provided, however, that the forfeiture of benefits shall in no case include accrued leave credits;
2. Suspension from office without salary and other benefits for more than three (3) but not exceeding six (6) months; or
3. A fine of more than P20,000.00 but not exceeding P40,000.00.16
Considering that this is respondent judge’s third offense, the second of which was also for gross ignorance of the law, we hold that the penalty of six (6) months suspension from office without salary and other benefits is in order.17
WHEREFORE, we find respondent Judge Lauro G. Bernardo GUILTY of gross ignorance of the law and SUSPEND him from office for a period of six (6) months without salary and other benefits, with a stern warning that a repetition of the same or similar acts shall be dealt with more severely.