Canon 1: Independence
Judicial independence is a pre-requisite to the rule of law and a fundamental guarantee of a fair trial. A judge shall therefore uphold and exemplify judicial independence in both its individual and institutional aspects.
1) Judicial independence
Under the Judiciary’s unique circumstances, independence encompasses the idea that individual judges can freely exercise their mandate to resolve justiciable disputes, while the judicial branch, as a whole, should work in the discharge of its constitutional functions free of restraints and influence from the other branches, save only for those imposed by the Constitution itself. (Re: COA Opinion on the Computation of the Appraised Value of the Properties Purchased by the Retired Chief / Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, A.M. No. 11-7-10-SC, 31 July 2012.)
2) The 2 kinds of judicial independence
Thus, judicial independence can be “broken down into two distinct concepts: decisional independence and institutional independence.” (Ibid.)
A truly independent judiciary is possible only when both concepts of independence are preserved – wherein public confidence in the competence and integrity of the judiciary is maintained, and the public accepts the legitimacy of judicial authority. An erosion of this confidence threatens the maintenance of an independent Third Estate. italics and emphases ours Recognizing the vital role that the Judiciary plays in our system of government as the sole repository of judicial power, with the power to determine whether any act of any branch or instrumentality of the government is attended with grave abuse of discretion, no less than the Constitution provides a number of safeguards to ensure that judicial independence is protected and maintained. (Ibid.)
a) Decisional independence
Decisional independence “refers to a judge’s ability to render decisions free from political or popular influence based solely on the individual facts and applicable law.” (Ibid.)
b) Institutional independence
Institutional independence “describes the separation of the judicial branch from the executive and legislative branches of government.” (Ibid.)
Simply put, institutional independence refers to the “collective independence of the judiciary as a body.” (Ibid.)
The Constitution expressly prohibits Congress from depriving the Supreme Court of its jurisdiction, as enumerated in Section 5, Article VII of the Constitution, or from passing a law that undermines the security of tenure of the members of the judiciary. The Constitution also mandates that the judiciary shall enjoy fiscal autonomy, and grants the Supreme Court administrative supervision over all courts and judicial personnel. Jurisprudence has characterized administrative supervision as exclusive, noting that only the Supreme Court can oversee the judges and court personnel’s compliance with all laws, rules and regulations. (Ibid.)
The Constitution protects as well the salaries of the Justices and judges by prohibiting any decrease in their salary during their continuance in office, and ensures their security of tenure by providing that “Members of the Supreme Court and judges of lower courts shall hold office during good behavior until they reach the age of seventy years or become incapacitated to discharge the duties of their office.” With these guarantees, justices and judges can administer justice undeterred by any fear of reprisals brought on by their judicial action. They can act inspired solely by their knowledge of the law and by the dictates of their conscience, free from the corrupting influence of base or unworthy motives. (Ibid.)
One of the most important aspects of judicial independence is the constitutional grant of fiscal autonomy. Just as the Executive may not prevent a judge from discharging his or her judicial duty (for example, by physically preventing a court from holding its hearings) and just as the Legislature may not enact laws removing all jurisdiction from courts, the courts may not be obstructed from their freedom to use or dispose of their funds for purposes germane to judicial functions. While, as a general proposition, the authority of legislatures to control the purse in the first instance is unquestioned, any form of interference by the Legislative or the Executive on the Judiciary’s fiscal autonomy amounts to an improper check on a co-equal branch of government. If the judicial branch is to perform its primary function of adjudication, it must be able to command adequate resources for that purpose. This authority to exercise (or to compel the exercise of) legislative power over the national purse (which at first blush appears to be a violation of concepts of separateness and an invasion of legislative autonomy) is necessary to maintain judicial independence and is expressly provided for by the Constitution through the grant of fiscal autonomy under Section 3, Article VIII. (Ibid.)
Section 1: Judges shall exercise the judicial function independently on the basis of their assessment of the facts and in accordance with a conscientious understanding of the law, free of any extraneous influence, inducement, pressure, threat or interference, direct or indirect, from any quarter or for any reason.
1) To know the law, rules, and procedures
A judge owes it to the public and the administration of justice to know the law he is supposed to apply to a given controversy. He is called upon to exhibit more than just a cursory acquaintance with the statutes and procedural rules. There will be faith in the administration of justice only if there be a belief on the part of litigants that the occupants of the bench cannot justly be accused of a deficiency in their grasp of legal principles. (Libarios v. Dabalos, A.M. No. RTJ-89-286, 11 July 1991)
As a lawyer and a municipal judge for a number of years, respondent should know that it is not incumbent upon the investigating judge to call up respondent’s counsel to inquire into the reason for their non-appearance in the scheduled hearings. Nor is it for the investigating judge to prove that he gave respondent “an opportunity to be present.” It is the duty of the respondent’s counsel to be present during the hearings and to inform the court of the reason for their absence. (Impao v. Makilala, A.M. No. MTJ-88-184, 13 October 1989)
2) Free from personal interests, public opinion or fear of criticism
In every case, a judge should endeavor diligently to ascertain the facts and the applicable law unswayed by partisan or personal interests, public opinion or fear of criticism. (Libarios v. Dabalos, supra.)
Respondent judge should not have allowed himself to be swayed into issuing an order fixing bail for the temporary release of the accused charged with murder, without a hearing, which is contrary to established principles of law. (Ibid.)
Section 2: In performing judicial duties, judges shall be independent from judicial colleagues in respect of decisions which the judge is obliged to make independently.
1) No to requests
Respondent-judge’s request to the judge of a lower court to issue warrants of arrest against the complainant is no less censurable. (Marces v. Arcangel, A.M. No. RTJ-91-712, 09 July 1996)
Section 3: Judges shall refrain from influencing in any manner the outcome of litigation or dispute pending before another court or administrative agency.
1) Visible representation of the law
The judge is the visible representation of the law and, more importantly of justice. From him, the people draw their will and awareness to obey the law. They see in him an intermediary of justice between two conflicting interests, specially in the station of municipal judges, like respondent Judge, who have that close and direct contact with the people before nobody else in the judiciary. Thus, for the judge to return that regard, he must be the first to abide by the law and weave an example for the others to follow. (Impao v. Makilala, supra.)
2) Interference, prohibited
Interference by members of the bench in pending suits with the end in view of influencing the course or the result of litigation does not only subvert the independence of the judiciary but also undermines the people’s faith in its integrity and impartiality.
(Sabitsana v. Villamor, A.M. No. 90-474, 04 October 1991)
a) Even for family members
Regarding the respondent-judge’s writing the university’s administrative officials inquiring as to what actions have been taken or would be taken against the complainant (the judge’s wife who filed criminal cases against four professors), he ought to have known that such a letter from one occupying the position of judge will not be treated as a mere ordinary inquiry. Respondent should have realized that his letter can be regarded as tending to influence the outcome of the investigation being conducted by the university about the matter. (Perez v. Costales, A.N. No. RTJ-04-186, 23 February 2005)
b) Regardless if accused deserved acquittal
Whether or not the accused deserved the acquittal, in point of fact, is of no moment as Respondent’s mere act of interference in a criminal case seals his fate. (Sabitsana v. Villamor, supra.)
3) Not applicable if witness and in private capacity
Respondent-judge’s participation in the criminal cases filed by his wife was limited to being a witness. A member of the judiciary is not prohibited from being a witness to a case. Note should be taken that respondent did not give an opinion nor participated (sic) in any proceeding that could slant the evaluation and resolution of the case in favor of the party he identifies himself with. There is no clear act of impropriety or appearance of impropriety that can be imputed to the respondent. Respondent’s act of assisting his wife in his private capacity, being privy to the transactions, does not necessarily signify that he is using his authority in influencing the outcome of any proceeding or investigation. (Perez v. Costales, supra.)
Section 4: Judges shall not allow family, social, or other relationships to influence judicial conduct or judgment. The prestige of judicial office shall not be used or lent to advance the private interests of others, nor convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge.
1) Family, defined
“Judge’s family” includes a judge’s spouse, son, daughter, son-in-law, daughter in law, and any other relative by consanguinity or affinity within the sixth civil degree, or person who is a companion or employee of the judge and who lives in the judge’s household. (Ibid.)
2) No influence from family
While it is true that Justice Sabio could not have possibly known prior to his brother’s call that his brother intended to speak to him about the Meralco-GSIS case, the fact remains that Justice Sabio continued to entertain a call from his brother, who also happens to be an officer of the executive branch, despite realizing that the conversation was going to involve a pending case. In his Motion, Justice Sabio asks the Court if he should have immediately slammed the phone on his brother. Certainly, such boorish behavior is not required. However, as soon as Justice Sabio realized that his brother intended to discuss a case pending before him or in his division, Justice Sabio should have respectfully but firmly ended the discussion. Justice Sabio in his own affidavit narrated that Chairman Sabio told him of matters in the Meralco-GSIS case that Justice Sabio himself had not been formally informed. He further alleged that his brother tried to convince him of rightness of the stand of GSIS and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The improper substance of the conversation was confirmed in Chairman Sabio’s own statement before the Panel. Justice Sabio had no business discussing with his brother court matters (such as his assignment to a particular case, the possibility of issuance of a TRO, etc.) which by his own account are not yet “official” and more importantly, he should not have allowed the conversation to progress to a point that his brother was already discussing the merits of the case and persuading him (Justice Sabio) to rule in favor of one of the parties. (Re: Letter of Presiding Justice Condrado M. Vasquez, Jr. on CA-G.R. No. 103692 [Rosete v. SEC], A.M. No. 08-8-11-CA, 15 October 2008)
a) Allowing appearance of influence, deemed a violation
That Justice Sabio did not do as his brother asked is of no moment. Section 5, Canon 1 of the Code of Judicial Conduct maintains such a high bar of ethical conduct that actual influence is not a prerequisite before a violation is deemed committed. If a magistrate’s actions allow even just the appearance of being influenced, it is deemed a violation. (Ibid.)
Section 5: Judges shall not only be free from inappropriate connections with, and influence by, the executive and legislative branches of government, but must also appear to be free therefrom to a reasonable observer.
1) No influence from other branches of government
For judicial independence to be a reality, the least interference by or influence from other governmental departments is of the essence. (Alfonso v. Alonzo-Legasto, A.M. No. MTJ-94-995, 05 September 2002)
By allowing his brother, who is an officer of the executive branch, to discuss with him the merits of one party’s position, Justice Sabio gave his brother the opportunity to influence him. Any reasonable person would tend to doubt Justice Sabio’s independence and objectivity after such a conversation with a close family member who also happens to hold a high government position. As a magistrate, Justice Sabio has the duty to prevent any circumstance that would cast doubt on his ability to decide a case without interference or pressure from litigants, counsels or their surrogates. (Re: Letter of Presiding Justice Condrado M. Vasquez, Jr. on CA-G.R. No. 103692 [Rosete v. SEC], supra.)
a) Includes local government units
Respondent-judge cannot hide behind the authorization issued by Mayor Mathay for the transfer of forty-one (41) court employees to give an impression of legality to her action. While it was proper for her to consult the responsible officials of the Quezon City Government, without of course transgressing the authority of the Office of the Court Administrator, she undoubtedly had the correlative duty to promote the proper discharge of the Court’s mandate to improve judicial services and facilitate the dispensation of justice by keeping this Court duly informed of the plan to considerably reduce court personnel. The courtesy of prior notice, at least, could have afforded the Supreme Court the opportunity to assess the propriety of such action prior to its implementation. Needless to stress, it is absolutely essential to the proper administration of justice that courts have full control over the official actions of those through whom the administration of the affairs of the court proceeds. (Alfonso v. Alonzo-Legasto, supra.)
Lest it be again ignored, only the Supreme Court has the authority to order a personnel accounting of locally-funded employees assigned in the lower courts to determine the necessity of their detail and that, accordingly, all requests for detail of locally-funded employees, including complainants herein, must pass the Office of the Court Administrator for review and appropriate action. (Ibid.)
b) Congenial relationship, use of public vehicles
The congenial relationship of the Governor and Judge Maceda does not in itself tarnish the image of an independent judiciary. Neither does the support extended by the former to the latter impinge on such judicial independence. In the absence of any showing that their close relationship formed basis for the achievement of corrupt ends and/or anomalous undertakings, the charge of conduct unbecoming of a judge should be dismissed for lack of merit. (Re: Suspension of Clerk of Court Rogelio R. Joboco, RTC, Branch 16 Naval, Biliran, A.M. No. 93-10-1296, 12 August 1998)
Section 6: Judges shall be independent in relation to society in general and in relation to the particular parties to a dispute which he or she has to adjudicate.
1) Conduct themselves beyond reproach and suspicion
Members of the bench are to so conduct themselves as to be beyond reproach and suspicion, and be free from any appearance of impropriety in their personal behavior not only in the discharge of their official duties but also in their everyday life, for as we have earlier stressed, ‘no position exacts greater demand on moral righteousness and uprightness of an individual than a seat in the Judiciary’ so that (a) magistrate of the law must comport himself at all times in such a 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. (Padilla v. Zantua, A.M. No. MTJ-93-888, 24 October 1994)
Section 7: Judges shall encourage and uphold safeguards for the discharge of judicial duties in order to maintain and enhance the institutional and operational independence of the judiciary.
1) Hearings in courtrooms only, even if with illness
The Supreme Court is not unmindful of the fact that respondent respondent-judge is suffering from a lingering illness. Respondent himself alleges in his Comment on the Resolution of the Hearing Officer that he cannot travel long distances nor do any job requiring physical exertion because the nature of his illness, known as polycythemia vera, requires that his blood be drained periodically. However, the seriousness of respondent’s illness cannot justify his failure to perform his duties nor does it excuse him from the consequences of his misconduct and abuse of authority. If indeed respondent found it difficult to discharge the functions of a municipal judge, then he should have retired voluntarily instead of clinging to his office at the expense of the litigants, his staff and the general public. Considering the number and the serious nature of offenses committed by respondent judge, the Court believes that the penalty of dismissal with forfeiture of retirement benefits should be imposed upon him. (Impao v. Makilala, supra)
2) Irregularities, gross misconduct
Respondent’s act of sending a member of his staff to talk with complainant and show copies of his draft decisions, and his act of meeting with litigants outside the office premises beyond office hours violate the standard of judicial conduct required to be observed by members of the Bench. They constitute gross misconduct. (Tan v. Rosete, A.M. No. MTJ-04-1563, 08 September 2004)
Section 8: Judges shall exhibit and promote high standards of judicial conduct in order to reinforce public confidence in the judiciary, which is fundamental to the maintenance of judicial independence.
2) Accepting bribe, hearings at residence, falsification of daily time record, etc.
The behavior of respondent judge complained of and proven in this case, i.e., his acceptance of a bribe, his holding office and conducting hearings at his residence, his falsification of his daily time record, his failure to observe proper decorum in conducting court proceedings, his intemperate language and threats against the personnel of his courts, and his use of physical violence against Daniel Esperat, among others, shows beyond doubt his unfitness to occupy the position of a municipal judge. Respondent judge violated the established norms for judicial behavior, and the best interest of the judiciary demands that respondent be dismissed from the service. (Impao v. Makilala, supra.)
Lawyer, Author, Mentor