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SECOND DIVISION

A.M. No. RTJ-03-1790. July 31, 2003

PABLO B. FRANCISCO, Presiding Judge, RTC-Br. 26, Sta. Cruz, Laguna, complainant, v. HILARIO F. CORCUERA, Presiding Judge, RTC-Br. 25, Bian, Laguna, Respondent.

D E C I S I O N

BELLOSILLO, J.:

This is judging the judges. Judge Pablo B. Francisco, Presiding Judge, RTC-Br. 26, Sta. Cruz, Laguna, filed an administrative complaint against respondent Judge Hilario F. Corcuera, Presiding Judge, RTC-Br.25, Bian, Laguna. The complaint arose from the order of Judge Corcuera granting new trial to the applicant in Land Registration Case No. B-568. Complainant averred that sometime in 1996, while he was the Acting Presiding Judge of RTC-Br. 25, Bian, Laguna, SCIENCE PARK of the Philippines, Inc., filed an application for registration of five (5) parcels of land located in Cabuyao, Laguna. Applicant SCIENCE PARK claimed that these parcels constituted accretions to its 93.15-hectare property. After hearing, the application was denied by complainant Judge ratiocinating that the subject property could not have arisen from the gradual accumulation of soil brought about by the current of Diezmo River. SCIENCE PARK timely moved for reconsideration but was denied by complainant. Hence, SCIENCE PARK forthwith moved for new trial so it could adduce additional evidence to augment its application.

While SCIENCE PARKs motion for new trial was pending consideration, respondent Judge was returned to his permanent station at RTC-Br. 25 and complainant Judge was relieved of his detail thereat as Acting Presiding Judge and transferred to the adjoining RTC-Br. 24. Sometime thereafter, complainant Francisco alleged that respondent Corcuera informed him of the formers desire to reopen SCIENCE PARKs land registration case. On 14 April 1998 respondent granted the motion for new trial and reopened the case.

On 14 May 1998 complainant wrote respondent advising the latter that under Sec. 2 of Supreme Court Adm. Circ. No. 5-98[1 motions for reconsideration and new trial filed after a decision had been rendered shall be resolved by the Acting Presiding Judge who penned the original decision.

On 10 June 1998, despite the Order of 14 April 1998 reopening the case, complainant issued a contrary order denying SCIENCE PARKs prayer for new trial.

On 6 August 1999, after respondent received the evidence of the parties where the government was represented by the Solicitor Generals Office, respondent Judge rendered a decision granting the application of SCIENCE PARK and confirming its title over the subject property applied for registration.

Complainant, in attempting to clinch his complaint, expressed suspicion that respondent played a major part in the conspiracy to harass (him) while he was on detail in RTC-Br. 25, Bian, Laguna, so (he) would return to (his) permanent post in Santa Cruz, Laguna, and thus be eliminated as the most potent obstacle to the registration of said parcels of land in the name of SCIENCE PARK. Complainant cited Adm. Matter No. OCA-IPI-98-511-P filed by several court employees as proof of respondents alleged pattern of harassment perpetrated against him.[2cräläwvirtualibräry

When asked to comment, respondent Judge Corcuera explained that he was originally appointed as Presiding Judge of RTC-Br. 25, Bian, Laguna. However, by virtue of Adm. Order No. 178-94 dated 19 October 1994 he was detailed to RTC-Br. 27, Sta. Cruz, Laguna, as its Acting Presiding Judge. Three and a-half years later, or on 23 January 1998, he was directed by then Court Administrator Alfredo Benipayo to return to his official station. Accordingly, on 2 February 1998 he assumed his regular duties as Presiding Judge of RTC-Br. 25. Corcuera contended that complainant Judge, after having been removed from RTC-Br. 25 and detailed to RTC-Br. 24, was already bereft of authority to entertain and hear the motion for new trial filed by SCIENCE PARK. Corcuera insisted that in Cases Left Undecided by Judge Sergio D. Mabunay, RTC-Br. 24, Manila,[3 the Supreme Court emphatically held that when a presiding judge is transferred to another station he leaves behind all cases he tried with the branch to which they belong and it is the judge who takes over this branch who inherits all these cases and assumes full responsibility for them.

Lastly, Corcuera averred that he acted without malice or evil intention in granting SCIENCE PARKs motion for new trial. He surmised that complainant vented his ire on him after being refused issuance of certified true copies of certain court documents filed before Br. 25.[4cräläwvirtualibräry

Complainant denied filing the complaint out of ill will and spite against respondent. He tried to strengthen his position by quoting an excerpt of the answer to him of then Court Administrator Benipayo in reply to his query regarding cases decided by him before he left Br. 25, viz:

However, cases submitted for decision before you as Acting Presiding Judge thereof shall be decided by you within the reglementary period.[5cräläwvirtualibräry

Interestingly, the full text of the letter of Court Administrator Alfredo L. Benipayo dated 17 April 1998 referred to by complainant explaining par. 3 (apparently referring to par. 2) of Adm. Circ. No. 5-98, states:

Please be informed that par. 3 (sic) of Administrative Circular No. 5-98 refers to regular appointments and not to designations of judges as Acting/Assisting Judges. In your case, you were not appointed as regular judge of Branch 24 but merely designated as Acting Presiding Judge. Pursuant to said circular, Judge Corcuera should continue trying the cases you already tried in Branch 25. However, cases submitted for decision before you as Acting Presiding Judge thereof shall be decided by you within the reglementary period.[6cräläwvirtualibräry

Respondent Judge insisted that complainant could not feign ignorance of the 14 April 1998 Order granting SCIENCE PARKs motion for new trial inasmuch as he had been sufficiently informed by the former of its issuance. Besides, on 9 June 1998 complainant borrowed the records of the land registration case and could not deny seeing the Order granting new trial. Respondent also protested that complainant had taken upon himself the liberty to ask the Clerk of Court of RTC-Br. 25 for the records of the land registration case without extending the least courtesy of informing (him). Corcuera also claimed that his authority as Presiding Judge of RTC-Br. 25 was again undermined when complainant directed the same Clerk of Court to serve upon the parties his (Francisco) 10 June 1998 Order denying SCIENCE PARKs motion for new trial.[7cräläwvirtualibräry

After an evaluation of the records of the case, Court Administrator Justice Presbiterio J. Velasco, Jr. found respondent Judge Hilario Corcuera guilty of violating Sec. 2 of Adm. Circ. 5-98. The finding was grounded on the ratiocination that Mabunay[8 could not be applied to the present controversy since it was promulgated by the Court en banc much later. Thus, Justice Velasco recommended that respondent Judge be fined P10,000.00 with a warning that a repetition of the same or similar act would be dealt with more severely. He also urged that complainant Judge Pablo B. Francisco be advised to be more assiduous and circumspect in the performance of his regular duties.[9cräläwvirtualibräry

The observation that a judge is not fortunes child has led us once to caution ourselves against being too hasty in condemning our judges, much less in imposing on them unreasonable, if not unwarranted, sanctions.[10 While we scrutinize every complaint filed against judges, we do not hesitate to clear a judges name from any undeserved imputation if the accusation is inherently flawed. That is the least we can do to ease the demands of judicial toil. So it must be in this proceeding against respondent Judge Hilario F. Corcuera.

For the present charge of gross misconduct to prosper it must be shown that the judicial act complained of was corrupt, or inspired by an intention to violate the law, or at least, in persistent and intentional disregard of well-known legal rules.[11 It becomes imperative for us to determine whether respondent Judges issuance of the Order granting new trial was done whimsically, capriciously, maliciously and without jurisdiction, and we see none of this to condemn respondent Judge.

It need not be stressed that a permanent presiding judge has full authority over all cases pending over his official station. Thus, par. 2 of SC Adm. Circ. 5-98 should not be construed as to deprive a permanent presiding judge of his authority to rule on motions for new trial and reconsideration of decisions rendered by the former acting/assisting judge. Rather, the aforesaid circular should be interpreted only as a grant of authority to acting/assisting judges to decide motions for reconsideration and new trial in the event that the permanent presiding judge who returns to his branch, or who is permanently appointed thereat as the case may be, decides not to act on such motions for some reason or other, e.g., his unfamiliarity with the factual antecedents of the decision, order or resolution sought to be reopened or reconsidered. Even then, the authority may apply only with the prior conformity of the permanent presiding judge who feels that the acting/assisting judge who earlier heard the case may have better knowledge of the facts.

However, once the permanent presiding judge has acted on a case or has ruled on an incident which pertains to the case, the acting/assisting judge loses such authority; worse, the latter cannot issue an order contrary to that already issued by the former. The decision on who between them (the permanent presiding judge or the acting/assisting judge) would rule on a pending motion for reconsideration or new trial is lodged in the hands of the permanent presiding judge to whom it properly belongs.

As it is, nothing derogatory to respondent has been proved by the evidence of complainant. We perceive not the slightest iota of bias and partiality that has been laid against him. Nor could it be said that respondent was wanting of power and authority to rule on the motion for new trial, as he rightfully did. Respondent ascertained the facts and issues pertinent to the motion for new trial and applied what to him was the controlling legal principle. It is not for us at this instance to inquire upon the correctness of his decision. For a judges exercise of discretion, provided it be done within the limits of his jurisdiction, operates in a field over which he, and he alone, has general and exclusive control. Certainly, respondent Judge cannot be held guilty of any misconduct, much less serious.

Although, as correctly observed by Court Administrator Velasco, Jr., Mabunay was promulgated only after the present controversy erupted and hence could not be applied retroactively, we nevertheless reiterate our reminder in Mabunay, viz:

We take this opportunity to remind trial judges that once they act as presiding judges or otherwise designated as acting/assisting judges in branches other than their own, cases substantially heard by them and submitted to them for decision, unless they are promoted to higher positions in the judicial ladder, may be decided by them wherever they may be if so requested by any of the parties and endorsed by the incumbent Presiding Judges through the Office of the Court Administrator. The following procedure may be followed: First, the Judge who takes over the branch must immediately make an inventory of the cases submitted for decision left behind by the previous judge (unless the latter has in the meantime been promoted to a higher court). Second, the succeeding judge must then inform the parties that the previous judge who heard the case, at least substantially, and before whom it was submitted for decision, may be required to decide the case. In this event, and upon request of any of the parties, the succeeding judge may request the Court Administrator to formally endorse the case for decision to the judge before whom it was previously submitted for decision. Third, after the judge who previously heard the case is through with his decision, he should send back the records together with his decision to the branch to which the case properly belongs, by registered mail or by personal delivery, whichever is more feasible, for recording and promulgation, with notice of such fact to the Court Administrator (emphasis supplied).[12cräläwvirtualibräry

Bearing in mind that a judge's reputation is highly prized, is it too much to expect of complainant that he reflect seriously before accusing his brethren of misconduct? This should not be lost on complainant who, we presume, is deeply aware of the strains of the judicial profession. We are then impelled to conclude that whatever may be complainant Judges motive in filing this complaint, such was not prompted solely by his devotion to the rule of law and the Code of Judicial Ethics. Indeed, grave doubts are raised as to the bona fides of his actions. The records clearly show that when complainant issued his order denying the motion for new trial of SCIENCE PARK he was aware that respondent Judge had earlier issued his order granting new trial.

It may be worth to remind complaining Judge that he should have shown greater restraint; he should have conducted himself in a manner befitting a dignified judge, instead of displaying a mulish obstinacy and charging his brethren in the profession with grave misconduct. As a judge, complainant should have taken greater pains to avoid the impression that his personal feelings were not kept under control. He should have displayed a greater sense of professional maturity and thus avoid acts of impropriety that greatly embarrass the administration of justice.

This sad and appalling spectacle of a petulant judge diminishes public confidence in the courts. Being the visible representation of law and justice, judges should always conduct themselves within the confines of proper judicial deportment and behave in a manner shorn of reproach. It is not so much for their sake, but more so for the protection of the peoples faith in the courts and in the administration of justice.

WHEREFORE, the complaint against respondent Regional Trial Court Judge Hilario F. Corcuera is DISMISSED. Respondent Judge is exonerated of the charge against him. On the other hand, complainant Judge Pablo B. Francisco is severely REPRIMANDED for conduct unbecoming a judge. He is enjoined to observe greater care and circumspection in the exercise of his judicial functions and uphold the exacting standards of propriety attached to his position as judge. Complainant Francisco is warned that a repetition of the same or similar act in the future will be dealt with more severely.

SO ORDERED.

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



Endnotes:

1 Par. 2 of SC Adm. Circ. No. 5-98 provides: 2. However, cases submitted for decision and those past the trial stage, i.e. where all the parties have finished presenting their evidence before such Acting/Assisting Judge at the time of the assumption of the Presiding Judge shall be decided by the former. This authority shall include resolutions of motions for reconsideration and motions for new trial thereafter filed. But if a new trial is granted, the Presiding Judge thereafter appointed or designated shall preside over the new trial until it is terminated and shall decide the same.

[2 Rollo, pp. 2-5.

[3 354 Phil. 698 (1998).

[4 Rollo, pp. 35-46.

[5 Id., p. 48.

6 Id., p. 42.

[7 Id., pp. 52-58.

8 Mabunay was promulgated by the Court en banc on 22 July 1998.

[9 Rollo, pp. 97-101.

[10 See Note 3 at 702.

[11 In re: Impeachment of Hon. Horilleno, 43 Phil. 212 (1922); Ajeno v. Hon. Inserto, Adm. Matter No. 1098-CFI, 31 May 1976, 71 SCRA 166.

12 See Note 3 at 705.




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