Inexcusable ignorance of the law - A. C. No. 5355

A. C. No. 5355

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Inexcusable Ignorance of the Law

We are appalled by respondent’s ignorance of the basic rules of procedure. His wanton use of court processes in this case without regard for the repercussions on the rights and property of others clearly shows his unfitness to remain a member of the bar.

A cursory look at the Resolution dated 24 May 1996 issued by respondent would prompt an ordinary person to conclude that an action in the form of a Petition for Declaratory Relief was indeed filed, because it bears the name and the branch of the court of law that issued it. It had a docket number and the names of the parties involved. The Resolution even states the justiciable question to be resolved and accordingly makes a judicial determination thereof. In reality, though, there was no notice sent to Gozun, the named respondent in the Petition; nor was a hearing held to thresh out the issues involved. As far as respondent was concerned, he simply issued a “legal opinion,” but one with all the hallmarks of a valid issuance by a court of law, despite the absence of mandatory processes such as notice – especially to Gozun – and hearing. Even this excuse is unacceptable. Judges do not, and are not allowed, to issue legal opinions. Their opinions are always in the context of judicial decisions, or concurring and dissenting opinions in the case of collegiate courts, and always in the context of contested proceedings.

What is most unfortunate is that the Sanguniang Bayan, relying on the Resolution respondent issued, caused the demolition of the house of Gozun and his family, who were thus ejected from the property they had been occupying for decades. In effect, Gozun was deprived of his property without due process. To us, this is precisely the injustice that members of the bench and the bar are sworn to guard against. Regrettably, respondent as judge was even instrumental in its commission. When his liability for his act was invoked, he casually justifies them as honest mistakes not attended by malice or bad faith. His justification is unacceptable to us.

As a member of the bar and former judge, respondent is expected to be well-versed in the Rules of Procedure. This expectation is imposed upon members of the legal profession, because membership in the bar is in the category of a mandate for public service of the highest order. Lawyers are oath-bound servants of society whose conduct is clearly circumscribed by inflexible norms of law and ethics, and whose primary duty is the advancement of the quest for truth and justice, for which they have sworn to be fearless crusaders.[34]
As judge of a first-level court, respondent is expected to know that he has no jurisdiction to entertain a petition for declaratory relief. Moreover, he is presumed to know that in his capacity as judge, he cannot render a legal opinion in the absence of a justiciable question. Displaying an utter lack of familiarity with the rules, he in effect erodes the public’s confidence in the competence of our courts. Moreover, he demonstrates his ignorance of the power and responsibility that attach to the processes and issuances of a judge, and that he as a member of the bar should know.

Canon 1 of the Code of Professional Responsibility mandates that a lawyer must uphold the Constitution and promote respect for the legal processes.[35] Contrary to this edict, respondent malevolently violated the basic constitutional right of Gozun not to be deprived of a right or property without due process of law.

Under Canon 10, Rule 10.03, respondent as lawyer is mandated to observe the Rules of Procedure and not to misuse them to defeat the ends of justice.[36] In this case, however, the opposite happened. Respondent recklessly used the powers of the court to inflict injustice.

Should the misconduct of respondent as judge also warrant his disbarment from the legal profession? We answer in the affirmative.

In Collantes v. Renomeron,[37] we ruled therein that the misconduct of the respondent therein as a public official also constituted a violation of his oath as a lawyer:

As the late Chief Justice Fred Ruiz Castro said:

"A person takes an oath when he is admitted to the Bar which is designed to impress upon him his responsibilities. He thereby becomes an ‘officer of the court’ on whose shoulders rest the grave responsibility of assisting the courts in the proper, fair, speedy and efficient administration of justice. As an officer of the court he is subject to a rigid discipline that demands that in his every exertion the only criterion be that truth and justice triumph. This discipline is what has given the law profession its nobility, its prestige, its exalted place. From a lawyer, to paraphrase Justice Felix Frankfurter, are expected those qualities of truth-speaking, a high sense of honor, full candor, intellectual honesty, and the strictest observance of fiduciary responsibility - all of which, throughout the centuries, have been compendiously described as 'moral character.'

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"A lawyer shall not engage in conduct that adversely reflects on his fitness to practice law, nor shall he, whether in public or private life, behave in a scandalous manner to the discredit of the legal profession." (Rule 7.03, Code of Professional Responsibility.)

This Court has ordered that only those who are "competent, honorable, and reliable" may practice the profession of law (Noriega vs. Sison, 125 SCRA 293) for every lawyer must pursue "only the highest standards in the practice of his calling" (Court Administrator vs. Hermoso, 150 SCRA 269, 278).

Recently, in Samson v. Judge Caballero,[38] we ruled that because membership in the bar is an integral qualification for membership in the bench, the moral fitness of a judge also reflects the latter’s moral fitness as a lawyer. A judge who disobeys the basic rules of judicial conduct also violates the lawyer’s oath.

We note that on 25 August 2011, respondent filed a Petition for Review on Certiorari assailing Resolution No. XVIII-2008-525 dated 09 October 2008 promulgated by the IBP board of governors, which adopted and approved the findings of the investigating commissioner recommending his disbarment. Respondent alleged therein that he had served as assistant provincial prosecutor in the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor of Pampanga for thirteen (13) years prior to his dismissal as MTC judge of San Luis, Pampanga and as acting MCTC judge of Mexico-San Luis, Pampanga. He also complains that he was deprived of due process by the IBP board of governors when it approved and adopted the findings of the investigating commissioner recommending his disbarment; and he prays for a second look at his case, considering the withdrawal of the Complaint originally filed by Gozun.

In the light of our ruling in this case, we can no longer consider the undocketed Petition for Review on Certiorari filed by respondent. In the first place, such kind of petition is not available to assail the resolution of the IBP in an administrative case. His remedies from an adverse resolution is to seek a reconsideration of the same, and when denied, to raise the same defenses against administrative liability before this Court. He has availed of both remedies in this case.

Disbarment proceedings are sui generis. As such, they render the underlying motives of complainant unimportant and of little relevance. The purpose of disbarment proceedings is mainly to determine the fitness of a lawyer to continue acting as an officer of the court and as participant in the dispensation of justice – an issue which the complainant’s personal motives have little relevance. For this reason, upon information of an alleged wrongdoing, the Court may initiate the disbarment proceedings motu proprio.[39]

Recently in Garrido v. Atty. Garrido,[40] we reiterated the unique characteristic of disbarment proceedings and their purpose in this wise:

Laws dealing with double jeopardy or with procedure – such as the verification of pleadings and prejudicial questions, or in this case, prescription of offenses or the filing of affidavits of desistance by the complainant – do not apply in the determination of a lawyer’s qualifications and fitness for membership in the Bar. We have so ruled in the past and we see no reason to depart from this ruling. First, admission to the practice of law is a component of the administration of justice and is a matter of public interest because it involves service to the public. The admission qualifications are also qualifications for the continued enjoyment of the privilege to practice law. Second, lack of qualifications or the violation of the standards for the practice of law, like criminal cases, is a matter of public concern that the State may inquire into through this Court. In this sense, the complainant in a disbarment case is not a direct party whose interest in the outcome of the charge is wholly his or her own; effectively, his or her participation is that of a witness who brought the matter to the attention of the Court.

Thus, despite Gozun’s desistance in A.M. No. MTJ-97-1136, from whence this case originated, respondent is not exonerated."
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