Republic of the Philippines
SUPREME COURT
Manila

SECOND DIVISION

A.M. No. RTJ-11-2258               June 20, 2012
(Formerly A.M. OCA IPI No. 10-3340-RTJ)

ELADIO D. PERFECTO, Complainant,
vs.
JUDGE ALMA CONSUELO DESALES-ESIDERA, Respondent.

D E C I S I O N

BRION, J.:

For resolution is the present administrative complaint1 filed by Eladio D. Perfecto (complainant) against Presiding Judge Alma Consuelo Desales-Esidera (respondent), Regional Trial Court, Branch 20, Catarman, Northern Samar, for violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct and ignorance of the law.

The Factual Antecedents

In support of the charges, the complainant alleges that on July 29, 2008, he filed a Petition to Cite for Contempt against one Dalmacio Grafil and a Ven S. Labro. The petition was docketed as Special Civil Action No. 1942 and was raffled to the court presided over by the respondent. The complainant laments that the case has since been gathering dust in the court of the respondent. He maintains that the respondent should be made administratively liable for her failure to act on the case within a reasonable period of time.

On the second cause of action, the complainant claims that he is the publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Catarman Weekly Tribune (CWT), the only accredited newspaper in Northern Samar. He claims that in Special Proceedings Nos. C-346 (for adoption and change of name)3 and C-352 (for adoption),4 the respondent directed the petitioners to have her orders published in a newspaper of national circulation. Through these directives, the complainant posits, the respondent betrayed her ignorance of the law, considering that all judicial notices and orders emanating from the courts of Catarman, Northern Samar should be published only in the CWT, pursuant to Presidential Decree No. 1079.5

The Office of the Court Administrator (OCA), through then Deputy Court Administrator Nimfa C. Vilches, referred the complaint to the respondent for comment.6 Through her comment filed on March 1, 2010,7 the respondent denies the complaintís allegations and prays for its dismissal. With respect to her alleged inaction on the petition for contempt (Special Civil Action No. 194), she maintains that the summons were served on the respondents.8 Eventually, the respondents filed their Answer with Affirmative Defenses and Counterclaim,9 but no other pleadings followed. The respondent denies the complainantís claim that he made several follow-ups with her regarding the case.

The respondent faults the complainant for the lack of movement in the case. She contends that the complainant could have just filed a motion to set the case for preliminary conference, instead of bringing an administrative complaint against her. Be this as it may, she claims that out of consideration to a fellow lawyer Ė the complainantís counsel, Atty. Elino C. Chin, allegedly had been seeking treatment in Manila for brain tumor Ė and because of information she received that the complainant was no longer interested in the case, she withheld action on the petition. However, after the Courtís July-December 2009 docket inventory, she realized that the case (among others) was not moving, prompting her to set it for trial.

Relative to the issue on the publication of court orders/notices, the respondent submits that the CWT is not generally circulated in the province. According to her, "[t]he [CWT] caters only to those who buy commercial space from the publisher for announcements and legal notices. But even to these clients, the copies of the newspapers where the notices appear are delivered late; thus, defeating the purpose of the requirement of publication."10 Attached to her comment is a list of cases where she was constrained to reset the hearings because of the delay in the publication of court orders and notices.11 The respondent adds that CWT does not even have a business permit to operate in the province.

To prove her point, the respondent made a survey of CWTís track record in Northern Samar (24 towns) in terms of subscription and quality of service. The response of sixteen (16) towns, banks and other establishments confirmed the respondentís observations about CWT.12 The replies ranged from no subscription, subscription terminated, no circulation in the municipality, to late or irregular delivery.

Apart from her reservations on CWTís capability to satisfy the requirement of publication for court orders and notices, the respondent posits that her directives to have her orders published in a newspaper of general circulation do not violate Presidential Decree No. 1079, as her directives even ensure that court orders and notices are published on time.

In a letter dated March 24, 201013 to the OCA, the respondent reiterates her observation that CWT is not generally circulated in Northern Samar. For this reason, she requests that her court be exempted from publishing judicial orders and notices in CWT. She also asks that an investigation be conducted on the matter and, if warranted, the accreditation of CWT be revoked.

Acting on the OCAís report dated October 11, 2010,14 the Court issued a Resolution on January 10, 2011,15 re-docketing the case as a formal administrative complaint against the respondent, and denying (1) the respondentís request for the revocation of CWTís accreditation, the OCA not being the proper office to address the issue, and (2) the respondentís request for exemption from publishing judicial orders/notices in a newspaper accredited by the Executive Judge, for lack of merit. Lastly, the Court required the parties to manifest whether they were willing to submit the case for decision on the basis of the pleadings/records on file.

By way of a Manifestation (with Motion) dated March 23, 2011,16 the respondent manifests that she is not willing to submit the case for decision based on the pleadings. She asks instead that the case be investigated. The complainant, on the other hand, submits the case for decision "as a hearing is no longer necessary because all the evidences for the complaint x x x are documentary, and respondent failed to refute or rebut the same in her answer, but rather admitted material allegations in the complaint."17

On June 8, 2011, the Court issued a Resolution18 referring the case to the OCA for evaluation, report and recommendation. In its report dated August 16, 2011,19 the OCA informed the Court that it found no cogent reason to submit the case for investigation (by a Court of Appeals Justice); neither did the respondent present any compelling justification for such an investigation. It, therefore, recommended that the case be considered submitted for decision. The Court adopted the OCA recommendation in its Resolution dated November 14, 2011.20

Through another Manifestation dated February 14, 2012,21 the respondent advises the Court that she is of the firm belief that the second cause of action for ignorance of the law (non-publication of court orders/notices in CWT) had already been passed upon by the Court (Third Division) in its Decision in A.M. No. RTJ-11-2270.22 Thinking that the issue to be investigated would only be the first cause of action, she asks for clarification on the matter.

The Courtís Ruling

We find the respondentís Manifestation of February 14, 2012 in order. Indeed, the complainantís second cause of action, emanating from the respondentís directive to have court orders/notices published in a newspaper of national circulation, had already been passed upon by this Court in the decision above cited. Relevant portions of the decision stated:

Anent the allegations of ignorance of the law and usurpation of authority against respondent Judge Esidera, for issuing a directive to the petitioner in a special proceedings case to cause the publication of her order in a newspaper of general publication, this Office finds the same devoid of merit.

Complainant Perfecto had made a similar allegation in OCA I.P.I. No. 10-3340-RTJ, insisting that all orders from the courts of Northern Samar should only be published in the Catarman Weekly Tribune, the only accredited newspaper in the area.

x x x x

[T]hat Catarman Weekly Tribune is the only accredited newspaper of general publication in Catarman does not bar the publication of judicial orders and notices in a newspaper of national circulation. A judicial notice/order may be published in a newspaper of national circulation and said newspaper does not even have to be accredited.23 (underscorings supplied)

We, therefore, hold that the second cause of action had already been resolved.

On the charge of ignorance of the law, the respondentís alleged inaction on Special Civil Action No. 194 which involves a petition for contempt, we find relevant the following evaluation of the OCA:

Contrary to the claim of complainant Perfecto that respondent Judge Esidera did not act on Special Civil Action No. 194, records show that summons were served on the respondents in the case. However, other than the issuance of summons, there has been no other action from respondent Judge Esidera. The contention of respondent Judge Esidera that complainant Perfecto should have filed the appropriate motion to set the case for hearing is not entirely accurate.

In Mely Hanson Magpali vs. Judge Moises M. Pardo, RTC, Branch 31, Cabarroquis, Quirino (A.M. No. RTJ-08-2146; 14 November 2008), the Court held:

Respondent Judge fell short of these standards when he failed in his duties to follow elementary law and to keep abreast with prevailing jurisprudence. His claim that the party did not in any manner request that the case be scheduled for hearing as provided under Rule 18, par[.] 1 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure, and that it should be the party who will ask an ex-parte setting/scheduling of the case for its pre-trial is not exactly correct. A.M. No. 03-1-09-SC, 16 August 2004 (Rule on Guidelines to be Observed by Trial Court Judges and Clerks of Court in the Conduct of Pre-trial and Use of Deposition-Discovery Measures) provides that within 5 days from date of filing of reply, the plaintiff must promptly move ex-parte that the case be set for pre-trial conference. If the plaintiff fails to file said motion within the given period, the Branch COC shall issue a notice of pre-trial. The respondent Judge should be conversant therewith. The case has not been set for pre-trial or at least for a hearing after the filing of the Answer dated 23 July 2007. He must know the laws and apply them properly. Service in the judiciary involves continuous study and research from beginning to end.24 (italics, emphases and underscorings supplied)

In the aforementioned case, the Court found the respondent judge guilty of Gross Ignorance of the Law and fined him in the amount of ₱10,000.00.

Indeed, the respondent deserves to be sanctioned for gross ignorance of the law.1‚wphi1 With her inaction on the petition for contempt, she betrayed her unbecoming lack of familiarity with basic procedural rules such as what was involved in the contempt proceedings before her court. She should have known that while the petitioners have the responsibility to move ex parte to have the case scheduled for preliminary conference, the court (through the branch clerk of court) has the duty to schedule the case for pre-trial in the event that the petitioners fail to file the motion.

The respondent cannot pass the blame for the lack of movement in the case to her staff who, she claims, were monitoring the case. As presiding judge, she should account for the anomaly that since the respondents filed their answer, the petition for contempt had been gathering dust or had not moved in the respondentís court. Clearly, the respondent fell short of the standards of competence and legal proficiency expected of magistrates of the law in her handling of the petition for contempt. As in Magpali v. Pardo,25 she should be fined ₱10,000.00 for gross ignorance of the law.

In closing, it bears stressing that "[w]hen the law is so elementary, not to know it or to act as if one does not know it constitutes gross ignorance of the law."26

WHEREFORE, premises considered, Judge Alma Consuelo Desales-Esidera, Regional Trial Court, Branch 20, Catarman, Northern Samar, is found LIABLE for gross ignorance of the law and is fined Ten Thousand Pesos (₱10,000.00), with a stern warning against the commission of a similar offense.

SO ORDERED.

ARTURO D. BRION
Associate Justice

WE CONCUR:

ANTONIO T. CARPIO
Senior Associate Justice
Chairperson

JOSE PORTUGAL PEREZ
Associate Justice
MARIA LOURDES P. A. SERENO
Associate Justice

BIENVENIDO L. REYES
Associate Justice


Footnotes

1 Rollo, pp. 1-4; dated January 7, 2010.

2 Id. at 34.

3 Id. at 16.

4 Id. at 17.

5 Revising and Consolidating All Laws and Decrees Regulating Publication of Judicial Notices, Advertisements for Public Biddings, Notices of Auction Sales and Other Similar Notices.

6 Rollo, p. 18.

7 Id. at 21-30.

8 Id. at 34.

9 Id. at 37-43.

10 Supra note 7 at 22.

11 Id. at 23-24.

12 Id. at 25-26; rollo, pp. 66-90.

13 Rollo, pp. 97-101.

14 Id. at 149-153.

15 Id. at 154-155.

16 Id. at 156-157.

17 Id. at 160, paragraph 4.

18 Id. at 177.

19 Id. at 180-181.

20 Id. at 182-183.

21 Id. at 184-185.

22 Id. at 186-193; Eladio D. Perfecto v. Judge Alma Consuelo Desales-Esidera.

23 Id. at 189-190.

24 Id. at 150-151.

25 A.M. No. RTJ-08-2146, November 14, 2008, 571 SCRA 1.

26 Quindoza v. Banzon, 488 Phil. 35, 40 (2004).


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