535 Phil. 573

SECOND DIVISION

[ A.M. NO. RTJ-03-1809 (FORMERLY A.M. OCA IPI NO. 03-1643-RTJ), October 17, 2006 ]

BUSILAC BUILDERS, INC. AND ROMEO M. CAMARILLO, COMPLAINANTS, VS. JUDGE CHARLES A. AGUILAR, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, LAOAG CITY, BRANCH 12, RESPONDENT.

R E S O L U T I O N

GARCIA, J.:

This is an administrative case[1] filed by Busilac Builders, Inc. and its president Romeo M. Camarillo against Judge Charles A. Aguilar of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Laoag City, Branch 12, charging the latter with serious misconduct, gross ignorance of the law, oppression, grave abuse of judicial authority and  violation of the Canons of Judicial Ethics and Republic Act No. ( R.A.) 6713.[2]

The background facts:

Sometime in 1993, complainant Romeo Camarillo, president of co-complainant Busilac Builders, Inc., entered into an agreement with the spouses Anatalio Ramos and Pacita Ramos for the sale to the former of three (3) parcels of land, denominated as Lot 1, Lot 2 and Lot 3, all situated at Laoag City. Titles to Lot 2  and Lot 3 were immediately transferred in the name of Camarillo. With respect to Lot 1, however, only its physical possession was transferred because the spouses Ramos failed to execute the necessary deed of conveyance therefor despite Camarillo's repeated demands.

On July 16, 2001, Camarillo instituted an action for "Specific Performance" against the spouses Ramos before the RTC of Laoag City. The case, docketed as Civil Case No. 12310, was raffled to Branch 12 of the court, then presided by its pairing judge,  the Honorable Perla Querubin.

Later, Camarillo discovered that out of the total area of 426 square meters comprising the entirety of Lot 1, the spouses Ramos,  under a Deed of Sale dated February 14, 2001, sold 300 square meters thereof to the following: Esperanza Tumaneng, 100 square meters; Victoria Balcanao, 100 square meters; and to the herein respondent Judge who was then a prosecutor, another 100 square meters.

Meanwhile, on August 21, 2001, then prosecutor Charles A. Aguilar was appointed presiding judge of RTC, Branch 12, Laoag City where Civil Case No. 12310 was then pending.

Following his appointment to the Judiciary, Judge Aguilar as presiding judge of RTC, Branch 12, proceeded to hear the case and on April 26, 2002, issued an Order[3] dismissing the same, to wit:
In today's hearing, Atty. Daniel Rubio appeared for the plaintiff while Atty. Marlon Manuel Wayne appeared for the defendants.

Considering the ground stated in the instant Motion to Dismiss to which counsel for the plaintiff could not as yet controvert and considering further the joint motion of counsels for the parties that the instant case shall be dismissed without prejudice to give the parties better opportunities of threshing out their differences out of Court, which joint motion is not contrary to law, morals, public order or public policy and the same being meritorious, this instant case is hereby ordered immediately dismissed without prejudice.

SO ORDERED.
On July 1, 2002, the Register of Deeds of Laoag City issued Transfer Certificate of Title T-32810 in the name of the respondent judge covering the 100-square meter portion of Lot 1 earlier sold to him by the spouses Ramos.

On October 12, 2002, the respondent judge, together with the other co-owners of Lot 1, removed the concrete posts and barbed wires installed thereat by Camarillo. The respondent also caused the leveling of the hilly portion of Lot 1 with the use of a payloader which he rented from the Municipality of Bacarra, Ilocos Norte.

On October 30, 2002, Camarillo filed a complaint for "Specific Performance, Quieting of Title/Ownership, Declaration of Nullity of Title/s, transactions and dealings, including derivative ones, if any and Damages" against Judge Aguilar and the other co-owners of Lot 1. The complaint was docketed as Civil Case No. 12635 in the RTC of Laoag City and raffled to Branch 16 thereof.

As among the defendants in that case, Judge Aguilar appeared in at least two (2) hearings thereof[4] and therein manifested that "for purposes of pleadings he is represented by counsel but for purposes of appearing in court, he appears for himself."[5]

In a related development, Judge Aguilar issued a search warrant on November 10, 2002 against Camarillo. The warrant was issued upon application of PO2 Rolando Amangao of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG), Laoag City, based on a deposition of a certain Boy Ravena, a civilian agent of CIDG.  Pursuant to the same search warrant, several firearms and ammunitions were seized by police operatives from the custody and possession of Camarillo.

It was against the foregoing backdrop of events when, on December 10, 2002, Busilac Builders, Inc. and its president Romeo Camarillo filed the instant administrative complaint against the respondent judge, charging the latter with the following:
  1. Failure to disqualify and/or inhibit himself from hearing Civil Case No. 12310 and ordering its dismissal;

  2. Causing the leveling of Lot 1 in gross disregard of the rule of law and with grave abuse of power and authority;

  3. Acting as his own counsel in Civil Case No. 12635 before the RTC, Branch 16, Laoag City; and

  4. Maliciously issuing a search warrant against complainant Romeo Camarillo for illegal possession of firearms and ammunitions.
In his Comment of March 4, 2003, the respondent judge admitted that while still a prosecutor of Laoag City, he bought a portion of 100 square meters of Lot 1. According to him, he bought the area from a certain Diosdado Vergara who allegedly purchased said portion from the spouses Anatalio Ramos and Pacita Ramos.  He claimed to be  a buyer in good faith, having verified the title covering Lot 1 and found the same to be free from any flaw or defect.  He explained that he acquired that portion of Lot 1 in February 2001 or six (6) months before he took his oath as presiding judge of RTC, Laoag City, Branch 12. He maintained that at the time of his appointment as presiding judge, he was unaware that the subject matter of Civil Case No. 12310 was Lot 1. He added that it was only before the scheduled hearing of that case on April 26, 2002 when Camarillo's counsel therein, a certain Atty. Daniel Rubio, informed him that he was a co-owner of the lot subject of that case. Continuing, the respondent judge averred that he immediately informed the parties to that case of his co-ownership of Lot 1 and inquired from the two (2) opposing counsels, Attys. Rubio and Manuel, whether he should inhibit himself from hearing Civil Case No. 12310 but both counsels told him that there was no need for him to inhibit and disqualify himself from hearing the case inasmuch as the parties therein were trying to settle the suit amicably.[6]

Anent his dismissal order of April 26, 2002 in that case, the respondent judge claimed that he issued the same at the instance of both counsels who moved for the dismissal of Civil Case No. 12310 to give them opportunities to thresh out the differences of their respective clients out of court.

While admitting to having caused the leveling of Lot 1 with the use of a payloader, the respondent judge insisted that he, along with his co-owners of the same lot, were merely exercising their respective rights of ownership. He stressed that the leveling of that lot was even made in the presence and with the assistance of the chairman and officials of Barangay 54-B of Camangaan, Laoag City, adding that the payloader used in the leveling work was paid for by all the co-owners of Lot 1 and not by himself alone.

While not denying having appeared twice as counsel for himself during the hearing of Civil Case No. 12635 where he was one of the defendants, he explained that the only reason for his appearance thereat was to make manifestation before the court hearing that case (RTC, Branch 16), that he had retained a counsel for purposes of signing the necessary pleadings therein.

On complainants' allegations that he arbitrarily issued a search warrant against Camarillo, the respondent judge averred that before the warrant was issued, he conducted the required searching inquiry on CIDG civilian agent Boy Ravena who claimed to have seen Camarillo carrying several firearms on the latter's way to a farmhouse and likewise upon the person of PO2 Rolando Amangao who verified that Camarillo did not secure the necessary license for the firearms.  The respondent judge made it clear that it was only after having been convinced of the existence of probable cause against Camarillo and the urgent necessity for the issuance of the search warrant applied for, that he issued the same against Camarillo for violation of Presidential Decree 1866 (Illegal Possession of Firearms and Ammunitions).

Seeking exculpation from the charges filed against him, the respondent judge asserted  that he did not, in any, way abuse his authority nor  did  he  commit  any  misconduct, much less violate the Canons of Judicial Ethics, the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees. He summed up the accusations against him as false and a mere fabrication of the herein complainants.

On October 8, 2003, the Court resolved to re-docket the case as a regular administrative matter and referred the same to the Court of Appeals (CA) for investigation, report and recommendation.[7] Eventually, the case was raffled to CA Associate Justice Regalado E. Maambong.

In his Report[8] dated May 31, 2004, the Investigating Justice made the following findings and recommendations:

(1)
respondent's failure to inhibit himself from hearing Civil Case No. 12310 and his issuance of the Order of Dismissal dated April 26, 2002 constitute a violation of Paragraph 28 of the Canons of Judicial Ethics[9] and Canon 3, Rule 3.12 of the Code of Judicial Conduct;[10]


(2)
respondent's  participation  in  the  leveling  of Lot 1 constitutes a violation of   Paragraph 3 of the Canons of Judicial Ethics[11] and Canon 2, Rule 2.01 of the Code of Judicial Conduct;[12]


(3)
the  charge  that  respondent  engaged  in  the  private  practice of  law  by  appearing  as  counsel  for himself in Civil Case No. 12635 should be dismissed for lack of factual and legal basis; and


(4)
the charge of grave abuse of authority for having issued a search warrant should also be dismissed for lack of merit.

On the basis of the above, the Investigating Justice recommended that the respondent judge be fined in the amount of Four Thousand Pesos (P4,000.00) and warned that a repetition of the same acts will be dealt with more severely.

For its part, the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA), to which the report of the CA Investigating Justice was referred for review in its Memorandum of  September 7, 2005, recommended that the respondent judge be: (1) suspended for one month without pay for failing to inhibit himself in Civil Case No. 12310, for ordering its dismissal, and for participating in the leveling of Lot 1; (2) reprimanded for appearing as his own counsel in Civil Case No. 12635; and (3) exonerated for grave abuse of authority in issuing a search warrant but warned that similar infractions in the future will be dealt with more severely.

After reviewing the separate Report of the CA Investigating Justice and the OCA's aforementioned Memorandum, the Court finds the actions therein recommended to be well-taken.

On the first charge:

There is no dispute that Judge Aguilar is a registered owner of 100 square meters of Lot 1 which was the subject matter of Civil Case No. 12310 then pending before his court.  Rule 3.12 of Canon 3 of the Code of Judicial Conduct specifically provides that "a judge should take no part in any proceeding where the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned."  On the other hand, the Canons of Judicial Ethics mandates that a judge "should abstain from participating in any judicial act in which his personal interests are involved. If he has personal litigation in the court of which he is a judge, he need not resign his judgeship on that account, but should of course refrain from any judicial act in such controversy."

There was a definite violation by the respondent judge of the above canons when he continued to hear Civil Case No. 12310 and ordered its dismissal. Undeniably, he  had a personal and direct interest in the subject matter thereof. Worth reiterating herein is the observation of the Investigating Justice:
It is a well-established principle, applicable in criminal and civil cases, that no judge or member of a tribunal should sit in any case in which he is directly or indirectly interested. A case wherein a judge is interested is one wherein, to an extent and in effect, the case becomes his own. xxx

It [is] well-settled also that a judge is disqualified to sit in an action where he has any pecuniary interest in its result. Or owns property that will be affected by its outcome. A disqualifying pecuniary interest or property interest is an interest in the event or subject matter of the action or in the judgment to be rendered therein such that by the judgment the judge will be directly affected by a pecuniary gain or loss.[13]
By not immediately inhibiting himself from Civil Case No. 12310 and, worse, eventually dismissing the same, the respondent judge thereby created the impression that he intended to advance his own personal interest and ensure that the outcome of the litigation would be favorable to him. A judge should strive to be at all times wholly free, disinterested, impartial and independent. He has both the duty of rendering a just decision and the duty of doing it in a manner completely free from suspicion as to its fairness and as to its integrity.[14] A critical component of due process is a hearing before an impartial and disinterested tribunal, 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.[15] 

Judge Aguilar's excuse that he immediately informed the parties and their respective counsels of his co-ownership of Lot 1 and even asked them whether he should inhibit or disqualify himself cannot justify his continuous trial of the case.  What he should have done the moment he became aware that Lot 1 was the crux of the controversy in Civil Case No. 12310 was to forthwith disqualify himself therefrom and have the case re-raffled to another branch of the court. His reluctance to let go of the case all the more induced doubts and suspicions as to his honest actuations, probity and objectivity. Evidently, the respondent violated the clear injunction embodied in the Code and the Canons.

Further, Section 1 of Rule 137 of the Rules of Court explicitly provides:
SECTION 1. Disqualification of judges.  No judge or judicial officer shall 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 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. (Emphasis ours)
The prohibition under the aforequoted provision of the Rules  is clear. The disqualification is mandatory,[16] and gives the judicial officer concerned no discretion but to inhibit himself from trying or sitting in a case.[17] The rationale therefor is to preserve the people's faith and confidence in the judiciary's fairness and objectivity.[18] We have time and again reminded judges of their obligation to keep the image of the judiciary unsullied and worthy of the people's trust.[19] Judge Aguilar thus had no option but to inhibit himself from Civil Case No. 12310. In failing to inhibit himself from that case, the respondent judge clearly failed to live up to the exacting standards required of him as a member of the judiciary.

On  the second charge:

Complainants alleged that they were in possession of Lot 1 as in fact they fenced the entire lot area with concrete posts and barbed wires. Hence, when the respondent judge entered the premises of Lot 1 and willfully removed the wires and posts installed thereat, he committed an unlawful act. Worse, he also spearheaded the leveling of the lot in a sheer display of abuse of authority and oppression.

Canon 2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct decrees that a judge should avoid impropriety and appearance of impropriety in all his activities. Specifically, Rule 2.01 mandates that a judge should so behave at all times as to promote public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary. This includes a judge's behavior not only in the performance of his judicial duties but also in his private capacity.

Here, the respondent judge's leveling of Lot 1 by himself is improper for the extolled office of a magistrate of the law. Doubtless, his behavior was a conduct unbecoming of a judicial officer that erodes public confidence in the judiciary considering that Lot 1 was the very subject matter of a case which he previously tried and ordered dismissed.

The judicial office circumscribes the personal conduct of a magistrate and imposes a number of restrictions. This is a price that judges have to pay for accepting and occupying their exalted position in the administration of justice. Irresponsible or improper conduct on their part erodes public confidence in the judiciary. Thus, it is their duty to avoid any impression of impropriety in order to protect the image and integrity of the judiciary.[20]

As it were, the respondent judge practically took the law into his own hands when he entered and caused the leveling of Lot 1. As a judge and a former practitioner and prosecutor, he ought to know that there are laws which provide for appropriate judicial remedies by which a registered lot owner can take possession of the lot that is being claimed by another person. Articles 433 and 539 of the Civil Code pertinently provide:
Art. 433. Actual possession under claim of ownership raises a disputable presumption of ownership. The true owner must resort to judicial process for the recovery of the property.

Art. 539. Every possessor has a right to be respected in his possession; and should he be disturbed therein he shall be protected in or restored to said possession by the means established by the laws and the Rules of Court.
Again, the respondent judge's excuse that he was merely asserting his right over the subject lot cannot justify his actuations. He ought to have known that such demeanor from one occupying the position of judge will not be treated as a mere ordinary action but will be regarded with much circumspection. The respondent should have realized that under the circumstances, the public would expect him to behave with patience, sound judgment and in a manner befitting the dignity of such exalted and delicate office. That Judge Aguilar opted to remove the fences and level the lot himself indicates improper use of his judgeship for which he should be held administratively liable.

On the third charge:

Complainants averred that the respondent's act of appearing as his own counsel in Civil Case No. 12635 is a form of private practice of law which is expressly prohibited by the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Rules of Court.

The Court agrees with the observation of the CA Investigating Justice that the respondent judge did not engage in the practice of law when he twice appeared as his own counsel in Civil Case No. 12635. As correctly ratiocinated by the Investigating Justice:
However, it should be clarified that prohibited private practice of a profession is more than an isolated court appearance, for it consists in frequent or customary action, a succession of acts of the same nature habitually or customarily holding one's self to the public as a lawyer.

In the instant case, Respondent Judge Aguilar's appearances as counsel for himself in the previous hearings or in the two (2) hearings in Civil Case No. 12635 as stated by Complainants per their Manifestation dated 06 October 2003, constitutes an isolated court appearance. It must be noted that Respondent Judge also appeared in that case as one of the defendants therein, and that another counsel prepared and represented him in the pleadings. Respondent Judge's act of asking permission from the Supreme Court to appear as counsel for himself, although made after his appearances in court shows no trace of malice and bad faith on his part.[21] (Emphasis ours)
The respondent judge's appearance on two occasions in Civil Case No. 12635 is not conclusive and determinative of engagement in the private practice of law. Essentially, the term "private practice of law" implies that one must have presented himself to be in the active and continued practice of the legal profession and that his professional services are available to the public for a compensation, as a source of his livelihood or in consideration of said services.[22] Clearly, then, the isolated instances when the respondent judge appeared as counsel for himself in Civil Case No. 12635 do not constitute the "private practice" of the legal profession as contemplated by law.

Nonetheless, while the respondent's isolated court appearances did not amount to private practice of law, he failed to obtain a written permission from this Court prior to his court appearances, in violation of Section 12, Rule XVIII of the Revised Civil Service Rules, which states:
Sec. 12. No officer or employee shall engage directly in any private business, vocation, or profession or be connected with any commercial, credit, agricultural, or industrial undertaking without a written permission from the head of the Department: Provided, That this prohibition will be absolute in the case of those officers and employees whose duties and responsibilities require that their entire time be at the disposal of the Government; Provided, further, That if an employee is granted permission to engage in outside activities, time so devoted outside of office hours should be fixed by the agency to the end that it will not impair in any way the efficiency of the officer or employee: And provided, finally, that no permission is necessary in the case of investments, made by an officer or employee, which do not involve real or apparent conflict between his private interests and public duties, or in any way influence him in the discharge of his duties, and he shall not take part in the management of the enterprise or become an officer of the board of directors. (Emphasis ours)
Judge Aguilar entered his appearance and attended court proceedings  in Civil Case No. 12635 on September 23 and 29, 2003 as borne out by his own admission, without securing a prior written permission from this Court. It was only after such appearances when he sought permission which this Court denied. Further, the public expects him to devote full time to his judicial work. Well-taken, therefore, is the OCA recommendation that the respondent judge merits reprimand.

On  the fourth charge:

Complainant Camarillo assailed the respondent judge's issuance of a search warrant against him as arbitrary and with evident bad faith because the warrant was issued on a Sunday and the existence of probable cause was not duly established. To him, the warrant was obviously issued to harass and oppress him.

We are not persuaded. Applications for search warrants may be entertained even during Sundays so long as there exists an urgent necessity to do so. This is allowed under Administrative Circular No. 19[23] which provides:
  1. Applications filed after office hours, during Saturdays, Sundays and holidays shall likewise be taken cognizance of and acted upon by any judge of the court having jurisdiction of the place to be searched, but in such cases the applicant shall certify and state the facts under oath, to the satisfaction of the judge, and its issuance is urgent.
The respondent judge explained that he was the only judge available on that Sunday of  November 10, 2002.  We cannot, therefore, fault him for issuing the warrant on that day, let alone his explanation that he had satisfied himself as to the urgency for its issuance based on his personal examination of the deponent, PO2 Amangao, and the witness, Boy Ravena.

The determination of whether probable cause exists as to justify the issuance of a search warrant is best left to the sound discretion of a judge. Generally, this Court is loath to interfere in the judge's discretion in determining probable cause unless such discretion is shown to have been abused.[24] Here, no solid evidence was presented to show that the respondent judge gravely abused his discretion in issuing the search warrant in question. He conducted a thorough and extensive inquiry upon the deponent and his witness as required by the Rules on Criminal Procedure in order to establish probable cause and the justification for the application.

Nor can we accept Camarillo's allegation that the respondent judge issued the warrant in bad faith and as a form of harassment and oppression. The pleadings before us are simply bereft of any indication supportive of the allegation. Quite the contrary, we find the respondent judge to have faithfully observed the procedure prescribed by law and the Rules in the issuance of the search warrant.

IN VIEW OF THE FOREGOING, the Court finds the respondent judge:

(1)  GUILTY of violating Section 1 of Rule 137 of the Rules of  Court and Rule 3.12 of Canon 3 of the Code of Judicial Conduct for his failure to disqualify and inhibit himself in Civil Case No. 12310 and for ordering its dismissal, for which he is suspended for three (3) months without pay in accordance with Section 11 of Rule 140 of the Rules of Court;

(2)  GUILTY of impropriety for spearheading the leveling of Lot 1, for which he is meted a fine of P11,000.00; and

(3)  GUILTY of violating the Civil Service Rules for appearing as counsel in two hearings of Civil Case No. 12635 without prior permission from this Court, for which he is reprimanded with a warning that a repetition of the same shall be dealt with more severely;

For lack of merit, the charge of oppression and evident bad faith in connection with the issuance of a search warrant  against complainant Camarillo is DISMISSED.

SO ORDERED.

Puno, (Chairperson), Sandoval-Gutierrez, Corona, and Azcuna, JJ., concur.



[1] Rollo, pp. 1-16.

[2] Otherwise known as the Code Of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, effective February 20, 1989.

[3] Rollo, p. 342.

[4] Dated September 23 and 29, 2003.

[5] Rollo, pp. 191-192.

[6] Joint Affidavit, Rollo, pp. 327-328.

[7] Rollo, pp. 183-184.

[8] Report, pp. 1-72.

[9] 28. Self-interest.

He should abstain from participating in any judicial act in which his personal interests are involved. If he has personal litigation in the court of which he is a judge, he need not resign his judgeship on that account, but should of course refrain from any judicial act in such controversy. (Emphasis ours)

[10] Canon 3.

Rule 3.12 - A judge should take no part in a proceeding where the judge's impartiality might reasonably be  questioned. (Emphasis ours)

[11] 3. Avoidance of appearance of impropriety.

A judge's official conduct should be free from the appearance of impropriety, and his personal behavior, not only upon the bench and in the performance of judicial duties, but also in his everyday life, should be beyond reproach.

[12] Canon 2.

Rule 2.01 - A judge should behave at all times as to promote public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.

[13] Report, pp. 24-25.

[14] Sales v. Calvan, A.M. No. MTJ-001331, February 27, 2002, 378 SCRA 1.

[15] Webb v. People, G.R. No. 127262, July 24, 1997,

[16] Ortiz v. Jaculbe, Jr., A.M. No. RTJ-04-1833, June 28, 2005, 461 SCRA 361.

[17] Pimentel v. Salanga, G.R. No. L-27934, September 18, 1967, 21 SCRA 160.

[18] Hacienda Benito, Inc. v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 75297, August 12, 1987,  153 SCRA 46.

[19] Garcia v. Dela Peña, A.M. No. MTJ-92-687,  February 9, 1994, 229 SCRA 766.

[20] Jacinto v. Vallarta, A.M. No. MTJ-04-1541, March 10, 2005,  453 SCRA 83.

[21] Report, pp. 66-67.

[22] People v. Villanueva, No. L-19450,  May 27, 1965, 14 SCRA 109.

[23] Amended Guidelines and Procedures on Applications for Search Warrants for Illegal Possession of Firearms and other Serious Crimes Filed in Metro Manila Courts and Other Courts with Multiple Salas, dated August 4, 1987.

[24] NBI-Microsoft v. Hwang, G.R. No. 147043, June 21, 2005, 460 SCRA 428.



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