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466 Phil. 569

SECOND DIVISION

[ A. M. No. MTJ-98-1146, February 05, 2004 ]

ATTY. VIRGILIA C. CARMAN, SPS. ELENITA LUSAYA AND DENNIS JARANGUE, AND PAZ ALMACEN, COMPLAINANTS, VS. JUDGE ALEXIS A. ZERRUDO, MUNICIPAL TRIAL COURT IN CITIES (MTCC) ZARRAGA-LEGANES-NEW LUCENA, BRANCH 3, ILOILO CITY, AND MA. THERESA G. ZERRUDO, ASSISTANT CLERK OF COURT, MTCC ILOILO CITY, RESPONDENTS.

D E C I S I O N

PUNO, J.:

The administrative case at bar stems from the complaint filed by Atty. Virgilia C. Carman for herself and on behalf of her clients, spouses Dennis and Elenita Jarangue, and Paz Almacen against respondents Judge Alexis A. Zerrudo, Municipal Trial Court in Cities (MTCC), Iloilo City, Branch 3, and his wife Ma. Theresa G. Zerrudo, Assistant Clerk of Court of MTCC Iloilo City.  Complainants charged respondent judge with falsification of a private document (a deed of sale), falsification through false and untruthful statements in the narration of facts and grave abuse of authority/judicial discretion and of judicial function.  They were likewise charged with conduct unbecoming and unworthy of a judge and court employee, and estafa/malversation of funds.

I

Charge of falsification of private document and

conduct unbecoming and unworthy of a judge

Complainants allege that in 1977, Maria and Mauro Santalisis sold half of their 444 square-meter residential lot (no. 3706-A) in Iloilo City to complainant-spouses Dennis and Elenita Jarangue.  Despite the sale, respondent judge prepared and notarized a Deed of Sale in January 1984 purportedly between his friend Oscar Santalisis and the latter’s foster mother Maria Santalisis covering the same residential lot.  Complainants charge that the signature of Maria on said deed was forged.  They also assert that respondent made it appear on the deed that Oscar was a widower although his marriage to one Erlinda Torre was still subsisting.  They claim that respondent judge prepared the 1984 deed of sale although he personally knew that half of the lot sold already belonged to complainant-spouses Jarangue.  They allege that sometime in 1978-1980, respondent judge assisted the Jarangues in ejecting a man from their half of the land.  Oscar Santalisis was likewise aware of the prior sale to the Jarangue spouses as he was one of the witnesses to the 1977 deed of sale.

On November 5, 1984, Maria died.  Three (3) days later, Oscar filed with the Iloilo Registry of Deeds a Notice of Adverse Claim over the residential lot which was notarized by respondent judge on November 2, 1984.  Complainants point out that although the Deed of Sale was earlier notarized by respondent judge in January 1984, it had a higher page number in his notarial record than Oscar’s November 1984 Notice of Adverse Claim.  Complainants conclude that these entries prove that the Deed of Sale was antedated to make it appear that the subject lot was sold to Oscar before Maria’s death.

As a result of the alleged bogus Deed of Sale, the entire lot was transferred and registered in the name of Oscar.  In October 1985, Oscar sold the lot to respondent-spouses Zerrudo.  Title to said land was transferred to their names and they took possession of the half portion of the lot which legally belonged to complainant-spouses Jarangue.  Complainants allege that respondent Ma. Theresa G. Zerrudo personally followed up the titling of the lot with the Register of Deeds, taking advantage of her husband’s position as a judge and her position as MTCC Assistant Clerk of Court.

Consequently, two (2) counts of falsification of private documents and a civil case for annulment of sale were filed by complainants in court against respondents and Oscar Santalisis.

II

Charge of falsification through false and

untruthful statements in the narration of facts

Complainants assert that in a petition for reconstitution of owner’s duplicate copy of TCT No. T-39863 (covering residential lot no. 3706-A) in the name of Maria and Mauro Santalisis filed before the Iloilo City RTC, Branch 35, respondent judge falsely alleged under oath that:  (1) the owner’s duplicate copy of title was lost or destroyed and could no longer be located among the things the Santalisis spouses left after their death, and (2) that said title has not been encumbered or mortgaged and if at all it has been encumbered, the same has already been released and discharged.  Complainants claim that respondent judge knowingly made these false statements although he knew that title to said property was in the possession of the Rural Bank of Zarraga as it was mortgaged by Maria for five thousand pesos (P5,000.00). Complainants charge that through this misrepresentation, respondent judge was able to acquire a new owner’s duplicate copy of title covering said lot in his name and that of his wife.

III

Charge of grave abuse of authority/judicial discretion and

judicial functions, and estafa /malversation of funds

On December 31, 1993, one Eduardo Almacen (husband of complainant Paz Almacen) was shot by Antonio and Armando Andrada, allegedly on orders of Oscar Santalisis.  Consequently, Oscar and the Andradas were detained.  Respondent judge[1] allegedly asked P/Chief Inspector Salvador Thornton to release Oscar to his custody but his request was denied.  Respondent judge then personally wrote a petition for bail.[2] On January 1, 1994, without furnishing the Office of the City Prosecutor a copy of the petition for bail, respondent judge himself hastily granted the petition.  He fixed the bail himself in the amount of two thousand pesos (P2,000.00), without taking into consideration the gravity of the offense.  Respondent judge immediately issued an Order directing the release of Oscar from detention although Oscar has not yet posted bail.  It was only on January 3, 1994 that the P2,000.00 bail was personally paid for and deposited with the Clerk of Court of MTCC Iloilo City by respondent Ma. Theresa Zerrudo, assistant clerk of court in said office and wife of respondent judge.[3]

Almacen, the shooting victim, died on January 5, 1994 and a murder case was filed against Oscar and the Andradas before the Office of the City Prosecutor.  No bail was recommended.  Respondent judge allegedly secured the services of Atty. Rey Padilla to represent Oscar.  Upon the instruction of respondent judge, Atty. Padilla filed a petition for bail in the amount of thirty thousand pesos (P30,000.00) for the release of Oscar.  Allegedly due to the influence of respondent judge, Judge Jose D. Azarraga, RTC Iloilo City, Branch 37, granted the petition for bail without conducting any hearing.  The complaint charged that after the trial of said case, only the Andradas were convicted.  Oscar was acquitted because respondent judge allegedly acted as his padrino.

The complaint also alleges that Oscar’s P2,000.00 cash bond was subsequently withdrawn by respondent Ma. Theresa Zerrudo who used the amount for her personal needs by applying it to pay her loan with the Monte de Piedad Savings Bank. The disbursement voucher supporting the withdrawal of the cash bond was allegedly kept by respondent assistant clerk of court Zerrudo without giving the Clerk of Court a copy of the same.[4]

IV

COMMENT OF RESPONDENTS

As to the charge of falsification of a 1984 deed of sale, respondent judge explained in his Comment:[5] that he prepared and notarized the deed as a lawyer, not as MTCC judge, as he was appointed judge only in 1986; that the deed was not falsified and Maria’s signature thereon as vendor is genuine, as attested to by Maria’s sisters Salvacion and Remedios, her only surviving heirs; that the discrepancies and errors in the page numbers of the deed of sale and the notice of adverse claim in his notarial records were purely clerical errors, attributable to the clerk in the law office who typed the entries, and could not disprove that Maria really signed the deed;  that he stated in the deed that Oscar’s status was single as that was the representation made to him by Maria;  that the subsequent sale to him of the lot by Oscar, nine (9) months after he was appointed judge, was made for valuable consideration as Maria’s sisters, her intestate compulsory heirs, attested to the sale; that Maria sold the entire lot to Oscar despite her previous sale of the half portion of the lot to complainant-spouses Jarangue because the latter did not fully pay for said lot;  as Maria did not recognize her first sale of the lot to the Jarangues and considering herself to be still the owner thereof, she mortgaged the lot in 1980;  that it was only in 1989 that the Jarangues finally vacated their house on said lot and turned over its possession to respondent judge as the new owner; and, that henceforth, respondents recognized the Jarangues’ rights to half of the land.  Respondent judge also informed the Court that the two (2) counts of falsification of deed of sale filed against them had been dismissed by the city prosecutor for lack of basis.  Moreover, in complainants’ civil case for annulment of sale and title, the trial court found that respondents did not dispute the ownership of complainant-spouses Jarangue over half of the lot and that respondents had already executed a Deed of Reconveyance to the Jarangues covering the 222 sq. m. lot which was part of lot no. 3706-A the latter purchased from Maria.[6] Hence, the trial court rendered a partial summary judgment[7] on said case.

Anent the charge of falsification through false and untruthful statements in the narration of facts, respondent judge explained that he truthfully alleged in his petition for reconstitution of title that the certificate of title covering the subject lot was not found among the things left behind by the deceased Maria Santalisis and can thus be considered lost for all intents and purposes.   He added that while it was annotated in the land title that the property was mortgaged with the Rural Bank of Zarraga, the mortgage had been released and discharged as shown by the Cancellation and Discharge of Mortgage,[8] dated March 17, 1986, issued by the rural bank in favor of Maria and her son, Oscar.

On the charge of grave abuse of authority/judicial discretion and judicial function, respondent judge admitted that he wrote a draft of the petition for bail for Oscar.  However, he denied that he did not furnish the Prosecutor’s Office with a copy of the petition for bail for when he forwarded copies of the petition, official receipt and supporting documents to the City Prosecutor, the latter conformed with the P2,000.00 bail.  Respondent judge also admitted that he issued the Order for the release of the accused on January 1, 1994.  He explained that the P2,000.00 cash bond which was borrowed from his wife, respondent Asst. Clerk of Court Theresa Zerrudo, was deposited with the Clerk of Court only two (2) days later, on January 3, 1994 (a Monday), as it was the first working day after the accused Oscar’s detention. When Oscar was able to withdraw the bail, he immediately gave the check to respondent Ma. Theresa Zerrudo who advanced his cash bond.

Further, respondent judge denied that he committed estafa or malversation of funds in connection with the withdrawal of the P2,000.00 bail as it was the accused Oscar who withdrew the amount from the Office of the Clerk of Court and endorsed the check to respondent Theresa Zerrudo for the reason stated above.  The same explanation was reiterated by respondent Theresa Zerrudo in a separate Comment[9] she filed before the Court.  She added that she never kept the voucher supporting the withdrawal of the cash bond and denied that she took advantage of respondent judge’s position to promote her own interest.  Finally, respondent judge denied that he influenced the defense lawyer and the judge who tried and decided the murder case against Oscar.

As to the charge of conduct unbecoming and unworthy of a judge, respondent judge denied that he defrauded complainant-spouses Jarangue with respect to their half portion of the contested land.  He claims that he purchased only half of the land, as can be gleaned from his 1986 letter to the spouses Jarangue; and, that he and complainant Dennis Jarangue had discussed the division of the property to secure title for each part.

V

INVESTIGATION OF THE CHARGES

After receiving the Comments of the respondents, this Court referred the case to Executive Judge Severino C. Aguilar, RTC Iloilo City, Branch 35, for investigation, report and recommendation.

During the investigation, complainants, assisted by their counsel Atty. Carman, manifested before the investigating judge that:  (1)  supervening events developed and the parties have amicably settled their dispute in the civil case pending between them;  (2)  complainants were satisfied with the explanations of respondents in their Comment; and,  (3)  they may not be able to substantiate their charges against respondents.  Complainants Jarangue spouses and Almacen requested for the dismissal of the administrative case against respondents. Judge Aguilar gave a favorable recommendation.

Atty. Carman filed before this Court a petition for review of the Resolution of Judge Aguilar. She claimed that as she was also one of the complainants, she did not desist from pursuing the case against respondents.  The Court referred the case to the new Executive Judge Tito Gustilo of RTC Iloilo City for reinvestigation.  He reported that on August 12, 1989, complainants Almacen and the spouses Jarangue filed a manifestation seeking to withdraw the administrative case against respondents, thus leaving Atty. Carman as the lone complainant in the case at bar.  On the merit of the charges, Judge Gustilo found that respondent judge committed a procedural short-cut by ordering the release of accused Oscar before he posted bail and without awaiting the recommendation of the public prosecutor as to the amount of bail.  Thus, he recommended that respondent judge be censured for the infraction.  A penalty of censure was likewise recommended for respondent Ma. Theresa Zerrudo for lending the amount of P2,000.00 to Oscar for his bail, thus displaying special interest in the release of the accused from confinement, which act undermined the integrity and independence of the court.

The recommendation of Executive Judge Gustilo was referred to the Office of the Court Administration (OCA) for further evaluation. In his Report, Court Administrator Presbitero J. Velasco, Jr. also found the respondents liable and recommended that the penalty of fine and censure be imposed on respondents judge and assistant clerk of court, respectively.

VI

DISPOSITION

The Court agrees with the findings of Executive Judge Gustilo and the Office of the Court Administrator as to the culpability of respondent-spouses Zerrudo.

Prefatorily, we reiterate the rule that the withdrawal of an administrative complaint or subsequent desistance by the complainants does not free the respondents from liability as the purpose of an administrative proceeding is to protect the public service, based on the time-honored principle that a public office is a public trust.[10] The need to maintain the public’s confidence in the judiciary cannot be made to depend solely on the whim and caprices of complainants who are, in a real sense, only witnesses therein.[11] Hence, the withdrawal of the complaint against the respondents by Almacen and the spouses Jarangue will not prevent this Court from resolving its merit.  We shall proceed to do so.

The charges against respondent judge for falsification of private document and falsification by making false statements in his narration of facts in the petition for reconstitution will not hold water.  The records reveal that the criminal cases against respondents for falsification under Articles 171 and 172 of the Revised Penal Code were dismissed by the Iloilo City Prosecutor for insufficiency of evidence.

However, we find the respondent-spouses liable with regard to their involvement in the murder case against their friend Oscar Santalisis.  It was established that on New Year’s Day of 1994, respondent judge personally prepared accused Santalisis’ petition for bail, hastily fixed the bail at two thousand pesos (P2,000.00) and granted it without waiting for the recommendation of the fiscal as to its amount.  On the same day, respondent judge issued an Order for the release of said accused although the latter has not posted bail.  It was only two (2) days later, or on January 3, 1994, that respondent-judge’s wife, respondent Ma. Theresa Zerrudo, an assistant clerk of court at the Iloilo MTCC, personally paid for and posted the accused’s P2,000.00 cash bail.  Although respondent judge denied that he fixed the accused’s bail without prior conformity of the fiscal, the records disclose otherwise as said conformity was not noted in the Order of Release issued by respondent judge, nor was the amount of bail stated therein.

By these acts, respondent judge disregarded the procedural rules in the grant of bail to an accused and committed gross misconduct and conduct prejudicial to the proper administration of justice.  We stress that a judge must comport himself at all times in such manner that his conduct, official or otherwise, can bear the most searching scrutiny of the public that looks up to him as the epitome of integrity and justice.  Judges are enjoined to behave at all times to promote public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary.[12] They are also mandated not to allow family, social or other relationships to influence their judicial conduct or judgment.[13] The same strict standard of conduct is expected not only of judges but of every employee connected with the dispensation of justice.[14] Thus, the act of respondent assistant clerk of court Ma. Theresa Zerrudo in lending to accused Oscar her own money and personally posting the bail for said accused two (2) days after the latter’s release from detention is improper and censurable as it falls short of the exacting standards of impartial service in the judiciary required of all court employees.

IN VIEW WHEREOF, respondent judge Alexis A. Zerrudo is found guilty of gross misconduct, conduct unbecoming of a judge and grave abuse of authority and judicial discretion.  He is ordered to pay a FINE in the amount of ten thousand pesos (P10,000.00).  Respondent Ma. Theresa A. Zerrudo, Assistant Clerk of Court at the MTCC Iloilo City, is found guilty of conduct unbecoming a court employee and is meted the penalty of CENSURE.  Both respondents are warned that a repetition of the same or similar infractions would be dealt with more severely.

SO ORDERED.

Quisumbing, Austria-Martinez, Callejo, Sr., and Tinga, JJ., concur.



[1] Then presiding judge of Branch 3, Municipal Trial Court in Cities.

[2] Annex “J”, Complaint; Rollo at 25-26.

[3] Copy of Original Receipt, dated January 3, 1994;  Annex “M”, Complaint; id. at 29.

[4] Complaint, id. at 1-10.

[5] Id. at 33-38.

[6] See October 8, 1997 letter of complainant Atty. Carman, Rollo at 65-66.  As per said letter, the pending litigation over the lot involves the remaining claim of complainant Paz Almacen who verbally purchased 111 sq. m. of the subject lot from Maria, which claim remains to be contested by respondents.

[7] Annex “E”, Comment; Rollo at 51-52.

[8] The cancellation document was signed by then President/Manager of the rural bank, Dra. Luisa Limaco De Leon, as attested to by her son, Angel de Leon, who succeeded her as President of the rural bank.

[9] Dated November 25, 1997; Rollo at 83-84.

[10] Young vs. Mapayo, 332 SCRA 289 (2000); Bulado vs. Tiu, Jr., 329 SCRA 308 (2000).

[11] Cacayoren vs. Suller, 344 SCRA 159 (2000); Mosquera vs. Legaspi, 335 SCRA 326 (2000).

[12] Rule 2.01, Code of Judicial Ethics.

[13] Rule 2.03, id.

[14] Layao, Jr. vs. Armecin, 337 SCRA 47 (2000).

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