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chanrobles.com - PHILIPPINE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS - ON-LINE

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EN BANC



 
 

ALEJANDRO ESTRADA,
            Complainant,

A.M. No. P-02-1651
(formerly OCA I.P.I. No. 00-1021-P)
August 4, 2003
       

-versus-


SOLEDAD S. ESCRITOR,
             Respondent.
 
 

DISSENTING OPINION


YNARES-SANTIAGO, J.:


While I commend the thoroughly researched and well-written ponencia of our esteemed colleague, Justice Reynato Puno, I am unable to agree with the decision of the majority to remand this case to the Office of the Court Administrator for reception of further evidence. Indeed, my reading of the records of the case at bar revealed that there are no more factual issues to be resolved here. Respondent Soledad S. Escritor has admitted on more than one occasion her cohabitation with Luciano D. Quilapio, Jr., a married man. However, the distinguished ponente has put forth the need to allow respondent to buttress the sincerity of her claimed religious belief and practice, and to require the Solicitor General to meet the test of compelling state interest to override respondent's religious belief and practice. These, to my mind, are unnecessary. Respondent's conduct need not only be measured against her religious beliefs. The same may even constitute offenses under our criminal statutes. Moreover, the definition of disgraceful and immoral conduct under our civil service law is simple. Therefore, I submit, that there is extant in the records of this case sufficient bases to hold respondent administratively liable.

The issue in this case is simple. What is the meaning or standard of "disgraceful and immoral conduct" to be applied by the Supreme Court in disciplinary cases involving court personnel?

The degree of morality required of every employee or official in the public service has been consistently high. The rules are particularly strict when the respondent is a Judge or a court employee. [1] Even where the Court has viewed certain cases with human understanding and compassion, it has insisted that no untoward conduct involving public officers should be left without proper and commensurate sanction. [2] The compassion is shown through relatively light penalties. Never, however, has this Court justified, condoned, or blessed the continuation of an adulterous or illicit relationship such as the one in this case, after the same has been brought to its attention. chanrobles virtual law library

Is it time to adopt a more liberal approach, a more "modern" view and a more permissive pragmatism which allow adulterous or illicit relations to continue provided the job performance of the court employee concerned is not affected and the place and order in the workplace are not compromised? When does private morality involving a court employee become a matter of public concern? chanrobles virtual law library

The Civil Service Law punishes public officers and employees for disgraceful and immoral conduct. [3] Whether an act is immoral within the meaning of the statute is not to be determined by respondent's concept of morality. The law provides the standard; the offense is complete if respondent intended to perform, and did in fact perform, the act which it condemns. [4]

The ascertainment of what is moral or immoral calls for the discovery of contemporary community standards. For those in the service of the Government, provisions of law wind court precedents also have to be considered. The task is elusive.cralaw

The layman's definition of what is "moral" pertains to excellence of character or disposition. It relates to the distinction between right and wrong; virtue and vice; ethical praise or blame. Moral law refers to the body of requirements in conformity to which virtuous action consists. Applied to persons, it is conformity to the rules of morality, being virtuous with regards to moral conduct. [5]

That which is not consistent with or not conforming to moral law, opposed to or violating morality, and now, more often, morally evil or impure, is immoral. Immoral is the state of not being virtuous with regard to sexual conduct. [6]

The term begs the definition. Hence, anything contrary to the standards of moral conduct is immoral. A grossly immoral act must be so corrupt and false as to constitute a criminal act or so unprincipled as to be reprehensible to a high degree. [7]

Anything plainly evil or dissolute is, of course, unchangingly immoral. However, at the fringes or boundary limits of what is morally acceptable and what is unacceptably wrong, the concept of immorality tends to shift according to circumstances of time, person, and place. When a case involving the concept of immorality comes to court, the applicable provisions of law and jurisprudence take center stage. chanrobles virtual law library

Those who choose to tolerate the situation where a man and a woman separated from their legitimate spouses decide to live together in an "ideal" and yet unlawful union state — or more specifically, those who argue that respondent's cohabiting with a man married to another woman is not something which is willful, flagrant, or shameless — show a moral indifference to the opinion of the good and respectable members of the community in a manner prejudicial to the public service.cralaw

Insofar as concepts of morality are concerned, various individuals or cultures may indeed differ. In certain countries, a woman who does not cover herself with a burka from head to foot may be arrested for immoral behavior. In other countries, near nudity in beaches passes by unnoticed. In the present case, the perceived fixation of our society over sex is criticized. The lesser degree of condemnation on the sins of laziness, gluttony, vanity, selfishness, avarice and cowardice is decried as discriminatory.cralaw

The issue in this case is legal and not philosophical. It is a limited one. Is respondent Soledad S. Escritor guilty of "disgraceful and immoral" conduct in the context of the Civil Service Law? Are there any sanctions that must be imposed?

We cannot overlook the fact that respondent Escritor would have been convicted for a criminal offense if the offended party had been inclined and justified to prosecute her prior to his death in 1998. Even now, she is a co-principal in the crime of concubinage. A married woman who has sexual intercourse with a man not her husband, and the man who has carnal knowledge of her knowing her to be married commit the crime of adultery. [8] Abandonment by the legal husband without justification does not exculpate the offender; it merely mitigates the penalty.cralaw

The concubine with whom a married man cohabits suffers the penalty of destierro. [9] It is true that criminal proceedings cannot be instituted against persons charged with adultery or concubinage except upon complaint of the offended party. [10] This does not mean that no actionable offense has been committed if the offended party does not press charges. It simply cannot be prosecuted. The conduct is not thereby approved, endorsed or commended. It is merely tolerated.cralaw

The inescapable fact in this case is that acts defined as criminal under penal law have been committed.cralaw

There are experts in Criminal Law who believe that the codal provisions on adultery and concubinage are terribly outmoded and should be drastically revised. However, the task of amendment or revision belongs to Congress, and not to the Supreme Court. chanrobles virtual law library

Our existing rule is that an act so corrupt or false as to constitute a criminal act is "grossly immoral." [11] It is not merely "immoral." Respondent now asks the Court to go all the way to the opposite extreme and condone her illicit relations with not even an admonition or a slight tap on the wrist.cralaw

I do not think the Court is ready to render a precedent-setting decision to the effect that, under exceptional circumstances, employees of the judiciary may live in a relationship of adultery or concubinage with no fear of any penalty or sanction and that after being discovered and charged, they may continue the adulterous relationship until death ends it. Indeed, the decision in this case is not limited to court interpreter Soledad Escritor. It is not a pro hac vice ruling. It applies to court employees all over the country and to everybody in the civil service. It is not a private ruling but one which is public and far-reaching in its consequences.cralaw

In the 1975 case of De Dios v. Alejo, [12] the Court applied compassion and empathy but nonetheless recognized as most important a mending of ways through a total breaking of relationships. The facts in that case are strikingly similar to those in this case. Yet, the Court required a high degree of morality even in the presence of apparently exculpating circumstances. It was stated:

While it is permissible to view with human understanding and compassion a situation like that in which respondents find themselves, the good of the service and the degree of morality which every official and employee in the public service must observe, if respect and confidence are to be maintained by the government in the enforcement of the law, demand that no untoward conduct on his part, affecting morality, integrity and efficiency, while holding office should be left without proper and commensurate sanction, all attendant circumstances taken into account. In the instant case, We cannot close our eyes to the important considerations that respondents have rendered government service for more than thirty-three and twenty-five years, respectively, and that there is no showing that they have ever been found guilty of any administrative misconduct during all those periods. In the case of respondent Alejo, it seems rather sadistic to make her suffer the extreme penalty of dismissal from the service after she had taken care of her co-respondent's four children, giving them the needed love and attention of a foster mother after they were completely abandoned by their errant and unfaithful natural mother. Even respondent Marfil, if to a lesser degree, is deserving of compassion. Most importantly, respondents have amply demonstrated that they recognize their mistake and have, therefore, actually mended their ways by totally breaking their relationship complained of, in order to conform with the imperatives of public interest. (Emphasis supplied.) chanrobles virtual law library

The standards for those in the judicial service are quite exacting.cralaw

The Court has ruled that in the case of public servants who are in the judiciary, their conduct and behavior, from the presiding judge to the lowliest clerk, must not only be characterized by propriety and decorum, but above all else, must be above suspicion. [13]

In Burgos v. Aquino, [14] it was ruled:

The Code of Judicial Ethics mandates that the conduct of court personnel must be free from any whiff of impropriety, not only with respect to his duties in the judicial branch but also to his behavior outside the court as a private individual. There is no dichotomy of morality; a court employee is also judged by his private morals. These exacting standards of morality and decency have been strictly adhered to and laid down by the Court to those in the service of the judiciary. Respondent, as a court stenographer, did not live up to her commitment to lead a moral life. Her act of maintaining relations with Atty. Burgos speaks for itself.
    
Respondent Aquino was a court stenographer who was suspended for six months for maintaining illicit relations with the husband of complainant Virginia E. Burgos. The Court therein stated that a second offense shall result in dismissal. chanrobles virtual law library

We should not lose sight of the fact that the judicial system over which it presides is essentially composed of human beings who, as such, are naturally prey to weakness and prone to errors. Nonetheless, in Ecube-Badel v. Badel, [15] we imposed on respondent a suspension for six months and one day to one year with warning of dismissal should the illicit relations be repeated or continued.

In Nalupta v. Tapec, [16] a deputy sheriff was suspended, also for six months, for having illicit relations with a certain Cristian Dalida who begot a son by him. His wife complained and neighbors confirmed that Tapec was frequently seen leaving the house of Consolacion Inocencio in the morning and returning to it in the afternoon. Tapec and Inocencio begot two children. Consistently with the other cases, we imposed the penalty of suspension for the first offense with the graver penalty of dismissal for a second offense.cralaw

The earlier case of Aquino v. Navarro [17] involved an officer in the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports who was abandoned by her husband a year after their marriage and who lived alone for eighteen years with their child. Pretending that she sincerely believed her husband to have died, she entered into a marital relationship with Gonzalo Aquino and had children by him in 1968 and 1969. Eighteen days before their third child was born on May 25, 1975, the two decided to get married. Notwithstanding the illicit relationship which blossomed into a bigamous marriage, the full force of the law was not applied on her, "considering the exceptional circumstances that befell her in her quest for a better life." Still, a penalty of six months suspension was imposed with a warning that "any moral relapse on her part will be severely dealt with."

Times are changing. Illicit sex is now looked upon more kindly. However, we should not completely disregard or overlook a relationship of adultery or concubinage involving a court employee and not order it to be terminated. It should not ignore what people will say about our moral standards and how a permissive approach will be used by other court employees to freely engage in similarly illicit relationship with no fear of disciplinary punishment.cralaw

As earlier mentioned, respondent Escritor and Luciano Quilapio, Jr. had existing marriages with their respective legitimate spouses when they decided to live together. To give an aura of regularity and respectability to what was undeniably an adulterous and, therefore, immoral relationship, the two decided to acquire through a religious ceremony what they could not accomplish legally. They executed on July 28, 1991 the "Declaration of Pledging Faithfulness" to make their relationship what they alleged it would be — a binding tie before Jehovah God. chanrobles virtual law library

In this case, respondent is charged not as a Jehovah's Witness but in her capacity as a court employee. It is contended that respected elders of the Jehovah's Witnesses sanction "an informal conjugal relationship" between respondent and her marital partner for more than two decades, provided it is characterized by faithfulness and devotion to one another. However, the "informal conjugal relationship"' is not between two single and otherwise eligible persons where all that is missing is a valid wedding ceremony. The two persons who started to live together in an ostensible marital relationship are married to other persons.cralaw

We must be concerned not with the dogmas or rules of any church or religious sect but with the legal effects under the Civil Service Law of an illicit or adulterous relationship characterized by the facts of this case.cralaw

There is no conflict in this case between the dogmas or doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church and those of the Jehovah's Witnesses or any other church or denomination. The perceived conflict is non-existing and irrelevant.cralaw

The issue is legal and not religious. The terms "disgraceful" and "immoral" may be religious concepts, but we are concerned with conduct which under the law and jurisprudence is proscribed and, if perpetrated, how it should be punished.cralaw

Respondent cannot legally justify her conduct by showing that it was morally right by the standards of the congregation to which she belongs. Her defense of freedom of religion is unavailing. Her relationship with Mr. Quilapio is illicit and immoral, both under the Revised Administrative Code [18] and the Revised Penal Code, [19] notwithstanding the supposed imprimatur given to them by their religion.cralaw

The peculiar religious standards alleged to be those of the sect to which respondent belongs can not shield her from the effects of the law. Neither can her illicit relationship be condoned on the basis of a written agreement approved by their religious community. To condone what is inherently wrong in the face of the standards set by law is to render nugatory the safeguards set to protect the civil service and, in this case, the judiciary. chanrobles virtual law library

The Court cannot be the instrument by which one group of people is exempted from the effects of these laws just because they belong to a particular religion. Moreover, it is the sworn mandate of the Court to supervise the conduct of an employee of the judiciary, and it must do so with an even hand regardless of her religious affiliation.cralaw

I find that respondent's "Declaration of Pledging Faithfulness" does nothing for her insofar as this administrative matter is concerned, for written therein are admissions regarding the legal impediments to her marrying Quilapio. In the said document, she even pledged to seek all avenues to obtain legal recognition by civil authorities of her union with Quilapio. [20] However, the record is silent as to any effort on respondent's part to effect this covenant.cralaw

The evidence shows that respondent repeatedly admitted the existence of the legal infirmities that plague her relationship with Quilapio [21] As a court interpreter, she is an integral member of the judiciary and her service as such is crucial to the administration of justice. Her acts and omissions constitute a possible violation of the law — the very same law that she is sworn to uphold as an employee of the judiciary. How can she work under the pretense of being a contributing force to the judicial system if she herself is committing acts that may constitute breaking the law?

Respondent involves her constitutional right to religious freedom. The separation of church and state has been inviolable in this jurisdiction for a century. However, the doctrine is not involved in this case. [22] Furthermore, the legislature made cohabitation with a woman who is not one's wife a crime through the enactment of the Revised Penal Code. [23] The legislative power has also seen fit to enact the Civil Service Law and has given said law general application. chanrobles virtual law library

The argument that a marital relationship is the concern of religious authorities and not the State has no basis.cralaw

In Reynolds v. United States, [24] the U.S. Supreme Court stated:

It is impossible to believe that the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom was intended to prohibit legislation in respect to this most important feature of social life. Marriage, while from its very nature a sacred obligation, is, nevertheless, in most civilized nations, a civil contract, and usually regulated by law. Upon it society may be said to be built, and out of its fruits spring social relations and social obligations and duties, with which government is necessarily required to deal.

The strengthening of marriage ties and the concomitant hostility to adulterous or illicit marital relations is a primary governmental concern. It has nothing to do with the particular religious affiliations of those affected by legislation in this field.

The relations, duties, obligations and consequences of marriage are important to the morals and civilization of a people and to the peace and welfare of society. [25] Any attempt to inject freedom of religion in an effort to exempt oneself from the Civil Service rules relating to the sanctity of the marriage tie must fail.

The U.S. Supreme Court in the above-cited case of Reynolds v. United States [26] upheld federal legislation prohibiting bigamy and polygamy in territories of the United States, more specifically Utah. Members of the Mormon Church asserted that the duty to practice polygamy was an accepted doctrine of their church. In fact, Mormons had trekked from the regular States of the Union to what was then a mere Territory in order to practice their religious beliefs, among them polygamy. The Court declared that while it protected religious belief and opinion, it did not deprive Congress of the power to reach actions violative of social duties or subversive of good order. Polygamy was outlawed even for Mormons who considered it a religious obligation. chanrobles virtual law library

We must not exempt illegal conduct or adulterous relations from governmental regulation simply because their practitioners claim it is part of their free exercise of religious profession and worship.cralaw

Indeed, the Court distinguishes between religious practices, including the seemingly bizarre, which may not be regulated, and unacceptable religious conduct which should be prevented despite claims that it forms part of religious freedom.cralaw

In Ebralinag v. Division Superintendent of Schools, [27] we validated the exemption of Jehovah's Witnesses from coerced participation in flag ceremonies of public schools. Following the ruling in West Virginia v. Barnette, [28] we declared that unity and loyalty; the avowed objectives of flag ceremonies, cannot be attained through coercion. Enforced unity and loyalty is not a good that is constitutionally obtainable at the expense of religious liberty. A desirable end cannot be promoted by prohibited means.cralaw

The exemption from participation in flag ceremonies cannot be applied to the tolerance of adulterous relationships by court personnel in the name of religious freedom.cralaw

A clear and present danger of a substantive evil, destructive to public morals, is a ground for the reasonable regulation of the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession. [29] In addition to the destruction of public morals, the substantive evil in this case is the tearing down of morality, good order, and discipline in the judiciary.cralaw

Jurisprudence on immoral conduct of employees in the civil service has been consistent. There is nothing in this case that warrants a departure from precedents. We must not sanction or encourage illicit or adulterous relations among government employees. chanrobles virtual law library

Soledad S. Escritor and Luciano D. Quilapio are devoted members of Jehovah's Witness. Exemptions granted under our Muslim Laws to legitimate followers of Islam do not apply to them. [30] The Court has no legislative power to place Jehovah's Witness in the same legal category as Muslims.cralaw

In Bucatcat v. Bucatcat, [31] it was held that conduct such as that demonstrated by the respondent is immoral and deserving of punishment. For such conduct, the respondent, another court interpreter, was dismissed from the service. It was held: chanrobles virtual law library

Every employee of the judiciary should be an example of integrity, uprightness and honesty. Like any public servant, he must exhibit the highest sense of honesty and integrity not only in the performance of his official duties but in his personal and private dealings with other people, to preserve the court's good name and standing. It cannot be overstressed that the image of a court of justice is mirrored in the conduct, official and otherwise, of the personnel who work thereat, from the judge to the lowest of its personnel. Court employees have been enjoined to adhere to the exacting standards of morality and decency in their professional and private conduct in order to preserve the good name and integrity of courts of justice.

All those who work in the judiciary are bound by the most exacting standards of ethics and morality to maintain the people's faith in the courts as dispensers of justice. In Liguid v. Camano, [32] it was ruled:

Surely, respondent's behavior of living openly and scandalously for over two (2) decades with a woman not his wife and siring a child by her is representative of the gross and serious misconduct penalized by the ultimate penalty of dismissal under Section 22 (c), Rule XIV of the Omnibus Rules Implementing Book IV of Executive Order No. 292 otherwise known as the Revised Administrative Code of 1987. As defined, misconduct is a transgression of some established or definite rule of action, more particularly, unlawful behavior or gross negligence by the public officer. Respondent's conduct is an example of the kind of gross and flaunting misconduct that so quickly and surely corrodes the respect for the courts without which government cannot continue and that tears apart the bonds of our polity.

Earlier, in Navarro v. Navarro, [33] the penalty of suspension was imposed on a court employee for maintaining illicit relations with a woman not his wife, thus:

Time and again we have stressed adherence to the principle that public office is a public trust. All government officials and employees must at all times be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty and efficiency, act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives. This constitutional mandate should always be in the minds of all public servants to guide them in their actions during their entire tenure in the government service. The good of the service and the degree of morality which every official and employee in the public service must observe, if respect and confidence are to be maintained by the Government in the enforcement of the law, demand that no untoward conduct on his part, affecting morality, integrity and efficiency while holding office should be left without proper and commensurate sanction, all attendant circumstances taken into account. chanrobles virtual law library

The exacting standards of ethics and morality imposed upon court judges and court employees are required to maintain the people's faith in the courts as dispensers of justice, and whose image is mirrored by their actuations. As the Court eloquently stated through Madame Justice Cecilia Muñoz-Palma:

[T]he image of the court of justice is necessarily mirrored in the conduct, official or otherwise, of the men and woman who work thereat, from the judge to the least and lowest of its personnel — hence, it becomes the imperative sacred duty of each and everyone in the court to maintain its good name and standing as a true ample of justice. [34]

The high degree of moral uprightness that is demanded of employees of the government entails many sacrifices that are peculiar to the civil service. By aspiring to these positions, government employees are deemed to have submitted themselves to greater scrutiny of their conduct, all in the pursuit of a professional civil service. The Court has repeatedly applied these principles in analogous cases. [35] chanrobles virtual law library

Immorality is punishable by suspension of six (6) months and one day to one (1) year for the first offense and dismissal for the second offense. [36] Considering that respondent's misconduct is in the nature of a continuing offense, it must be treated as a first offense, and her continued cohabitation with Luciano E. Quilapio, Jr. must be deemed a second offense, which will warrant the penalty of dismissal.cralaw

ACCORDINGLY, I vote that respondent Soledad S. Escritor be found GUILTY of immorality and disgraceful conduct and that she be SUSPENDED for a period of Six (6) months and One day without pay, with a warning that the continuance of her illicit cohabitation with Luciano D. Quilapio, Jr. shall be deemed a second offense which shall warrant the imposition of the appropriate penalty.
 


____________________________

Endnotes:
 

YNARES-SANTIAGO, J., dissenting opinion:

[1] Lacuata v. Bautista, A.M. No. P-94-1005, 12 August 1994, 235 SCRA 290.
[2] De Dios v. Alejo, A.M. No. P-137, 15 December 1975, 68 SCRA 354.
[3] Revised Administrative Code, Book V, Title I, Subtitle A, Section 46 (b) (5).
[4] Cleveland v. United States, 329 U.S. 14, 67 Sup. Ct. 13 (1946).
[5] Oxford Universal Dictionary, Vol. 2, p. 1280.
[6] Id., p. 961. chanrobles virtual law library
[7] Sibal, Philippine Legal Encyclopedia, p. 406; Soberano v. Villanueva, 116 Phil. 1208 (1962); Reyes v. Wong, A.M. No. 547, 29 January 1975, 63 SCRA 668.
[8] Revised Penal Code, Art. 333. chanrobles virtual law library
[9] Revised Penal Code, Art. 334. chanrobles virtual law library
[10] Quilatan v. Caruncho, 21 Phil. 399, 403 (1912), Rules of Court, Rule 110, Section 5.
[11] Reyes v. Wong, supra. chanrobles virtual law library
[12] Supra. chanrobles virtual law library
[13] Lacuata v. Bautista, supra.
[14] Supra. chanrobles virtual law library
[15] 339 Phil. 510 (1997).
[16] A.M. No. P-88-263, 30 March 1993, 220 SCRA 505.
[17] 220 Phil. 49 (1985). chanrobles virtual law library
[18] E.O. 292, Sec, 46 (5).
[19] Art. 334. chanrobles virtual law library
[20] Rollo, Exhibits "1" and "2", pp. 14-15.
[21] TSN, October 12, 2000, pp. 11-15.
[22] Constitution, Art. II, Sec. 6; 1973 Constitution, Art. XV, Sec. 15.
[23] Art. 334. chanrobles virtual law library
[24] 98 U.S. 145; 25 L. Ed. 244 (1879).
[25] Maynard v. Hill, 125 U.S. 190; 31 L. Ed. 654.
[26] Supra. chanrobles virtual law library
[27] G.R. No. 95770, 1 March 1993, 219 SCRA 256.
[28] 319 U.S. 624 (1943). chanrobles virtual law library
[29] American Bible Society v. City of Manila, 101 Phil. 386 (1957).
[30] Sulu Islamic Association of Masjid Lambayong v. Malik, A.M. No. MTJ-92-691, 10 September 1993, 226 SCRA 193.
[31] 380 Phil. 555 (2000). chanrobles virtual law library
[32] A.M. No. RTJ-99-1509, 8 August 2002.
[33] A.M. No. OCA-00-61, 6 September 2000, 339 SCRA 709. chanrobles virtual law library
[34] Id., at 716-717; citing Lim-Arce v. Arce, A.M. No. P-89-312, 9 January 1992, 205 SCRA 21 and Sy v. Cruz, 321 Phil. 231 [1995].
[35] Benavidez v. Vega, A.M. No. P-01-1530, 13 December 2001; Alday v. Cruz, A.M. No. RTJ-00-1530, 14 March 2001, 354 SCRA 322
[36]  Civil Service Rules, Rule XIV, Section 23 (o).