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564 Phil. 495


[ G.R. Nos. 154150-51, December 10, 2007 ]




For our resolution is a petition for certiorari, prohibition, and mandamus seeking to nullify and set aside the Order[1] of the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 40, Palayan City, Nueva Ecija dated June 26, 2002 in Criminal Cases Nos. 1316-P and 1317-P for having been issued with grave abuse of discretion tantamount to lack or excess of jurisdiction.

The facts, as culled from the record, are as follows:

In an Information dated March 6, 2002, docketed as Criminal Case No. 1316-P, State Prosecutor Phillip I. Kimpo of the Department of Justice charged Arthur Serna, Jong Linsangan, Ricardo Peralta alias "Ric," Crisanto dela Cruz, Joey Cena, Jonny Diozon alias "Johnny," one alias "Boy" and twenty (20) John Does with kidnapping for ransom defined and penalized under Article 267 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended. The Information reads:
That on or about October 7, 2001, at Bongabon, Nueva Ecija, and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, conspiring, confederating and mutually helping one another, with ARTHUR SERNA acting as the mastermind in contracting, thru JONG LINSANGAN, his personal driver and long-time friend, a criminal gang from Bongabon called the "Red Vigilante Group (RVG) composed of the herein accused and headed by RICARDO PERALTA, alias "RIC," did then and there, by force and intimidation, and with the use of firearms, willfully, unlawfully, and feloniously take, carry away and detain up to the present JULIO ALEJO and his son JULIUS against their will and consent thereby depriving them of their liberty for the purpose of extorting ransom for their release in the original amount of P5 million and later reduced to P3 million, which amount, however, could not be paid by the victims' family, all to the damage and prejudice of the two victims and their family in such amount as may be awarded to them under the provisions of the Civil Code.

In another Information, also dated March 6, 2002, docketed as Criminal Case No. 1317-P, the same accused in Criminal Case No. 1316-P were charged with robbery committed as follows:
That on or about October 7, 2001, at Bongabon, Nueva Ecija and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, conspiring, confederating and mutually helping one another, and armed with different kinds of firearms and caliber, with intent of gain and by means of violence or intimidation on the person, did, then and there, willfully, unlawfully, and feloniously take and carry away from the kidnapped JULIO ALEJO the following personal propert(ies): (a) grocery items worth P100,000.00; (b) BPI ATM card with more or less P250,000.00 account; (c) cash money of P350,000.00, (d) licensed pistol Cal. 45, (e) Dia Star Rado wristwatch, (f) Polo sunglasses, (g) a college ring with markings "BSF," (h) Equitable and PCIB checks worth P1.6M, and from complainant FRANCISCA ALEJO the following personal propert(ies): (a) P3,000.00 cash money, and (b) Saudi gold necklace with pendant, to the damage and prejudice of the aforesaid JULIO ALEJO and FRANCISCA ALEJO in the total sum of approximately Two Million and Five Hundred Thousand Pesos (P2,500,000.00), Philippine currency.

On March 14, 2002, the above Informations were filed with the RTC of Palayan City which issued warrants of arrest against the accused.  On March 21, 2002, Arthur Serna and Jong Linsangan, private respondents, were arrested.

On April 22, 2002, petitioners Nida Alejo and Francisca Alejo filed with the Office of the Court Administrator a request for transfer of venue in both criminal cases due to "threats to their personal safety" and that of their witnesses and the possibility that the criminal gang from Bongabon, Nueva Ecija, known as the Red Vigilante Group (RVG), might pressure then Presiding Judge Erlinda Pestaño-Buted,[2] public respondent, in deciding the cases in favor of the accused.

When arraigned on April 23, 2002, private respondents pleaded not guilty to the charges.  Thereupon, petitioners moved for suspension of the proceedings pending resolution of their request for transfer of venue.  However, respondent judge did not act on the motion. The following day, private respondents filed a motion for bail in Criminal Case No. 1316-P.

Meanwhile, the police arrested one Miguel De la Cruz, a suspected RVG member, for illegal possession of firearms. During the custodial investigation, he disclosed to the law enforcers that he was present at the RVG "safehouse" in Jaen, Nueva Ecija where the abductors detained Julio Alejo and Julius Alejo; that the duo were killed two days later; and that he even helped in digging their common grave.  De la Cruz also informed the police of the real names of the 17 John Does impleaded in Criminal Cases Nos. 1316-P and 1317-P.  He agreed to testify against the accused and applied for protection under the Witness Protection Program pursuant to Republic Act No. 6981.            Nonetheless, he was still charged with illegal possession of firearms in an Information docketed as Criminal Case No. 1338-P.  He was taken into protective custody by the Philippine National Police (PNP) at Camp Olivas, San Fernando City.

Upon motion of the State Prosecutor, respondent judge ordered that the Information in Criminal Case No. 1317-P be amended in the sense that the charge of robbery be changed to robbery with double homicide.

On June 11, 2002, respondent judge issued a verbal order directing the immediate release of De la Cruz from the PNP's custody on the following grounds: (a) no warrant of arrest had been issued against him in Criminal Cases Nos. 1316-P and 1317-P; (b) he is not a witness for the prosecution; and (c) he posted bail in Criminal Case No. 1338-P.  The private prosecutor vehemently objected to the release of De la Cruz considering that he is a potential witness for the prosecution.  But respondent judge ignored the objection.

On July 2, 2002, petitioners, with the conformity of the State Prosecutor, filed a Motion to Inhibit respondent judge from further hearing Criminal Cases Nos. 1316-P and 1317-P on the following grounds:
  1. During the hearing of the above-captioned cases, the Honorable Court motu proprio brought out the matter of the bail bond posted by or for Miguel dela Cruz in a case for illegal possession of firearms, docketed as Criminal Case No. 1338-P, pending before this Honorable Court, directing that Miguel de la Cruz be released from custody, despite the fact that the Honorable Court has not yet acquired jurisdiction over the said Miguel de la Cruz since no warrant for his arrest has been issued in the above-captioned cases, nor has he voluntarily surrendered.

  2. The Honorable Court made it appear that the said order concerning Miguel de la Cruz was issued in Criminal Case No. 1338-P. when the truth of the matter is that it was issued in open court during the hearing of the above-captioned cases.

  3. The Honorable Court ordered the immediate release of Miguel de la Cruz "if indeed he is detained" without granting the bonding company concerned and/or the PNP Regional Command at Camp Olivas the opportunity to be heard.

  4. The Honorable Court has, time and again, even during the hearing in the above-captioned cases on 11 June 2002, expressed dismay, if not anger, at the PNP officers from Camp Olivas who are handling the investigation of the above-captioned cases as well as the illegal possession case against Miguel de la Cruz.

  5. The Honorable Court has continued to conduct proceedings in the above-captioned cases despite the pending petition for transfer of venue filed by private complainants with the Supreme Court.

  6. The Honorable Court ordered the immediate release of ELIAS MINGOY, one of the accused in the above-captioned cases, in a habeas corpus case in violation of Section 15, Rule 102 of the Revised Rules of Court.
On July 11, 2002, the prosecution filed its Reply to the said Comment/Opposition.

On the same day, the State Prosecutor reiterated his motion for the suspension of the proceedings pending resolution of his motion to inhibit respondent judge.  However, she did not act on the motion and instead, she directed the prosecution to present evidence in support of its opposition to accused's motion to be admitted to bail.

Petitioners are now before this Court contending that respondent judge committed grave abuse of discretion tantamount to lack or excess of jurisdiction in refusing to act on their Motion to Inhibit.

Eventually, after the present petition was filed with this Court, respondent judge issued an Order[3] dated August 9, 2002 denying the petitioners' Motion to Inhibit for lack of "just and valid reason."

Section 1, Rule 137 of the Revised Rules of Court, provides:
SEC. 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.
In People v. Kho,[4] this Court held that the foregoing Rule contemplates two kinds of inhibitions – compulsory and voluntary. The first paragraph provides that compulsory disqualification conclusively presumes that the judge cannot actively or impartially sit on a case. The second paragraph, in turn, leaves to the judge's discretion whether he should desist from sitting in a case for other just and valid reasons. A judge, however, does not enjoy a wide latitude in the exercise of his discretion to inhibit himself from hearing a case, as the inhibition must be for just and valid causes.[5]

In 1964, this Court, in People v. Gomez[6] and Mateo, Jr. v. Villaluz,[7] held that a judge may voluntarily inhibit himself on grounds other than those mentioned in paragraph 1, Section 1, Rule 137 and these grounds include bias and partiality. In Pimentel v. Salonga,[8] the Court laid the following guideposts for voluntary inhibition of judges:
A judge may not be legally prohibited from sitting in a litigation. But when suggestion is made of record that he might be induced to act in favor of one party or with bias or prejudice against a litigant arising out of circumstance reasonably capable of inciting such a state of mind, he should conduct a careful self-examination. He should exercise his discretion in a way that the people's faith in the courts of justice is not impaired. A salutary norm is that he reflects on the probability that a losing party might nurture at the back of his mind the thought that the judge had unmeritoriously tilted the scales of justice against him.
In a long line of cases,[9] this Court has unceasingly re-affirmed the standards laid down in Pimentel.

It may be recalled that at the onset of the proceedings, petitioners sought a change of venue in Criminal Cases Nos. 1316-P and 1317-P from Palayan City to Metro Manila, due to fear for their lives and those of their witnesses.  The prosecution also pointed out that the RVG has the capability of pressuring respondent judge.  Despite its pending request for change of venue, respondent judge opted to continue with the proceedings.  Significantly, the grounds specified by movants in their Motion to Inhibit are obviously meritorious.

Under the foregoing circumstances, the Salonga doctrine that judicial "discretion should be exercised in a way that the people's faith in courts of justice should not be impaired" becomes relevant.  Given the prosecution's apparent lack of faith in respondent judge, she was placed in a difficult position.  Should she acquit the accused, her decision will appear to be tainted with bias.  Such a situation is highly detrimental, not only to the image of the trial court, but to the integrity of the judicial system. Like Caesar's wife, a judge must be beyond suspicion and that he should maintain nothing less than cold neutrality and impartiality. Otherwise, the wisest course for a judge would be to disqualify himself.   Thus, respondent judge should have inhibited herself from further hearing Criminal Cases Nos. 1316-P and 1317-P.  At any rate, this issue has become moot considering that she had retired from the service on  January 7, 2006.

WHEREFORE, for being moot, the petition is DISMISSED.


Puno, C.J., (Chairperson), [*] Ynares-Santiago, Corona, and Azcuna, JJ., concur.

[*]  Designated to sit as additional Member of the First Division under Special Order No. 474 dated October 19, 2007 issued pursuant to Administrative Circular No. 84-2007.

[1] Rollo, pp. 71-74.

[2] She retired on January 7, 2006.

[3] Rollo, pp. 258-265.

[4] G.R. No. 139381, April 20, 2001, 357 SCRA 290.

[5] Gochan v. Gochan, G.R. No. 143089, February 27, 2003, 398 SCRA 323, 333.

[6] G.R. No. 223456, May 29, 1967, 20 SCRA 293.

[7] G.R. Nos. 34756-59, March 31, 1973, 50 SCRA 18.

[8] G.R. No. 27934, September 18, 1967, 21 SCRA 160.

[9] See for instance,  Zaldivar v. Estenzo, G.R. No. 26055, May 3, 1968, 23 SCRA 533; Luque v. Kayanan, G.R. No. 28826, August 29, 1969, 29 SCRA 165; Paredes v. Gopengco, G.R. No. 23710, September 30, 1969, 29 SCRA 688; Beltran v. Garcia, G.R. No. 30868, September 30, 1971, 41 SCRA 158; Mateo v. Villaluz, G.R. Nos. 34756-59, March 31, 1973, 50 SCRA 18; Umale v. Villaluz, G.R. No. 33508, May 25, 1973, 51 SCRA 84; Paredes v. Abad, G.R. Nos. 36927-28, April 15, 1974, 56 SCRA 522; Castillo v. Juan, G.R. Nos. 39516-17, January 28, 1975, 62 SCRA 124; Martinez v. Gironella, G.R. No. 37635, July 22, 1975, 65 SCRA 245; Villapando v. Quitain, G.R. Nos. 41740-71, January 20, 1977, 75 SCRA 25; Baustista v. Rebueno, G.R. No. 46117, February 22, 1978, 81 SCRA 535; Ignacio v. Villaluz, G.R. Nos. 37527-52, May 5, 1979, 90 SCRA 16; Dimacuha v. Concepcion, G.R. No. 60842, September 30, 1982, 117 SCRA 630; People v. Serrano, G.R. No. 44712, October 28, 1991, 203 SCRA 171; Gutang v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 124760, July 8, 1998, 292 SCRA 76; Pagoda Philippines, Inc. v. Universal Canning, Inc., G.R. No. 160966, October 11, 2005, 472 SCRA 355.

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