Contempt of court explained - G.R. No. 155849

G.R. No. 155849

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Did the statements contained in the Sea Transport Update constitute or amount to indirect contempt of court?


We dismiss the petition.

Contempt of Court: Concept and Classes

Contempt of court has been defined as a willful disregard or disobedience of a public authority. In its broad sense, contempt is a disregard of, or disobedience to, the rules or orders of a legislative or judicial body or an interruption of its proceedings by disorderly behavior or insolent language in its presence or so near thereto as to disturb its proceedings or to impair the respect due to such a body. In its restricted and more usual sense, contempt comprehends a despising of the authority, justice, or dignity of a court.[21] The phrase contempt of court is generic, embracing within its legal signification a variety of different acts.[22]

The power to punish for contempt is inherent in all courts,[23] and need not be specifically granted by statute.[24] It lies at the core of the administration of a judicial system.[25] Indeed, there ought to be no question that courts have the power by virtue of their very creation to impose silence, respect, and decorum in their presence, submission to their lawful mandates, and to preserve themselves and their officers from the approach and insults of pollution.[26] The power to punish for contempt essentially exists for the preservation of order in judicial proceedings and for the enforcement of judgments, orders, and mandates of the courts, and, consequently, for the due administration of justice.[27] The reason behind the power to punish for contempt is that respect of the courts guarantees the stability of their institution; without such guarantee, the institution of the courts would be resting on a very shaky foundation.[28]

Contempt of court is of two kinds, namely: direct contempt, which is committed in the presence of or so near the judge as to obstruct him in the administration of justice; and constructive or indirect contempt, which consists of willful disobedience of the lawful process or order of the court.[29]

The punishment for the first is generally summary and immediate, and no process or evidence is necessary because the act is committed in facie curiae.[30] The inherent power of courts to punish contempt of court committed in the presence of the courts without further proof of facts and without aid of a trial is not open to question, considering that this power is essential to preserve their authority and to prevent the administration of justice from falling into disrepute; such summary conviction and punishment accord with due process of law.[31] There is authority for the view, however, that an act, to constitute direct contempt punishable by summary proceeding, need not be committed in the immediate presence of the court, if it tends to obstruct justice or to interfere with the actions of the court in the courtroom itself.[32] Also, contemptuous acts committed out of the presence of the court, if admitted by the contemnor in open court, may be punished summarily as a direct contempt,[33] although it is advisable to proceed by requiring the person charged to appear and show cause why he should not be punished when the judge is without personal knowledge of the misbehavior and is informed of it only by a confession of the contemnor or by testimony under oath of other persons.[34]

In contrast, the second usually requires proceedings less summary than the first. The proceedings for the punishment of the contumacious act committed outside the personal knowledge of the judge generally need the observance of all the elements of due process of law, that is, notice, written charges, and an opportunity to deny and to defend such charges before guilt is adjudged and sentence imposed.[35]

Plainly, therefore, the word summary with respect to the punishment for contempt refers not to the timing of the action with reference to the offense but to the procedure that dispenses with the formality, delay, and digression that result from the issuance of process, service of complaint and answer, holding hearings, taking evidence, listening to arguments, awaiting briefs, submission of findings, and all that goes with a conventional court trial.[36]

A distinction between in-court contempts, which disrupt court proceedings and for which a hearing and formal presentation of evidence are dispensed with, and out-of-court contempts, which require normal adversary procedures, is drawn for the purpose of prescribing what procedures must attend the exercise of a court’s authority to deal with contempt. The distinction does not limit the ability of courts to initiate contempt prosecutions to the summary punishment of in-court contempts that interfere with the judicial process.[37]

The court may proceed upon its own knowledge of the facts without further proof and without issue or trial in any form to punish a contempt
committed directly under its eye or within its view.[38] But there must be adequate facts to support a summary order for contempt in the presence of the court.[39] The exercise of the summary power to imprison for contempt is a delicate one and care is needed to avoid arbitrary or oppressive conclusions.[40] The reason for the extraordinary power to punish criminal contempt in summary proceedings is that the necessities of the administration of justice require such summary dealing with obstructions to it, being a mode of vindicating the majesty of the law, in its active manifestation, against obstruction and outrage.[41]

Proceedings for contempt are sui generis, in nature criminal, but may be resorted to in civil as well as criminal actions, and independently of any action.[42] They are of two classes, the criminal or punitive, and the civil or remedial. A criminal contempt consists in conduct that is directed against the authority and dignity of a court or of a judge acting judicially, as in unlawfully assailing or discrediting the authority and dignity of the court or judge, or in doing a duly forbidden act. A civil contempt consists in the failure to do something ordered to be done by a court or judge in a civil case for the benefit of the opposing party therein.[43] It is at times difficult to determine whether the proceedings are civil or criminal. In general, the character of the contempt of whether it is criminal or civil is determined by the nature of the contempt involved, regardless of the cause in which the
contempt arose, and by the relief sought or dominant purpose.[44] The proceedings are to be regarded as criminal when the purpose is primarily punishment, and civil when the purpose is primarily compensatory or remedial.[45] Where the dominant purpose is to enforce compliance with an order of a court for the benefit of a party in whose favor the order runs, the contempt is civil; where the dominant purpose is to vindicate the dignity and authority of the court, and to protect the interests of the general public, the contempt is criminal.[46] Indeed, the criminal proceedings vindicate the dignity of the courts, but the civil proceedings protect, preserve, and enforce the rights of private parties and compel obedience to orders, judgments and decrees made to enforce such rights.[47]

Indirect contempt is defined by and punished under Section 3, Rule 71 of the Rules of Court, which provides:

Section 3. Indirect contempt to be punished after charge and hearing. — After a charge in writing has been filed, and an opportunity given to the respondent to comment thereon within such period as may be fixed by the court and to be heard by himself or counsel, a person guilty of any of the following acts may be punished for indirect contempt:

(a) Misbehavior of an officer of a court in the performance of his official duties or in his official transactions;

(b) Disobedience of or resistance to a lawful writ, process, order, or judgment of a court, including the act of a person who, after being dispossessed or ejected from any real property by the judgment or process of any court of competent jurisdiction, enters or attempts or induces

another to enter into or upon such real property, for the purpose of executing acts of ownership or possession, or in any manner disturbs the possession given to the person adjudged to be entitled thereto;

(c) Any abuse of or any unlawful interference with the processes or proceedings of a court not constituting direct contempt under section 1 of this Rule;

(d) Any improper conduct tending, directly or indirectly, to impede, obstruct, or degrade the administration of justice;

(e) Assuming to be an attorney or an officer of a court, and acting as such without authority;

(f) Failure to obey a subpoena duly served;

(g) The rescue, or attempted rescue, of a person or property in the custody of an officer by virtue of an order or process of a court held by him.

But nothing in this section shall be so construed as to prevent the court from issuing process to bring the respondent into court, or from holding him in custody pending such proceedings. (3a)

Misbehavior means something more than adverse comment or disrespect.[48] There is no question that in contempt the intent goes to the gravamen of the offense.[49] Thus, the good faith, or lack of it, of the alleged contemnor should be considered.[50] Where the act complained of is ambiguous or does not clearly show on its face that it is contempt, and is one which, if the party is acting in good faith, is within his rights, the presence or absence of a contumacious intent is, in some instances, held to be determinative of its character.[51] A person should not be condemned for contempt where he contends for what he believes to be right and in good faith institutes proceedings for the purpose, however erroneous may be his conclusion as to his rights.[52] To constitute contempt, the act must be done willfully and for an illegitimate or improper purpose.[53]

Unfounded accusations or allegations or words tending to embarrass the court or to bring it into disrepute have no place in a pleading. Their employment serves no useful purpose. On the contrary, they constitute direct contempt of court or contempt in facie curiae and, when committed by a lawyer, a violation of the lawyer’s oath and a transgression of the Code of Professional Responsibility.

Utterances in Sea Transport Update,
Not Contemptuous

The petitioners did not sufficiently show how the respondents’ publication of the Sea Transport Update constituted any of the acts punishable as indirect contempt of court under Section 3 of Rule 71, supra.

The petitioners’ mere allegation, that “said publication unfairly debases the Supreme Court because of the scurrilous, malicious, tasteless, and baseless innuendo therein that the Court allowed itself to be influenced by the petitioners as concocted in the evil minds of the respondents thus leading said respondents to unjustly conclude: Supreme Court ruling issued in one month only, normal lead time is at least 3 to 6 months,”[54] was insufficient, without more, to sustain the charge of indirect contempt.

Nor do we consider contemptuous either the phrase contained in the Sea Transport Update stating: “The Motion for Reconsideration filed with the Supreme Court was denied based on technicalities and not on the legal issue DMAP presented”,[55] or the phrase in the Sea Transport Update reading “Supreme Court ruling issued in one month only, normal leadtime is at least 3 to 6 months.” Contrary to the petitioners’ urging that such phrases be considered as “scurrilous, malicious, tasteless and baseless innuendo” [56] and as indicative that “the Court allowed itself to be influenced by the petitioners”[57] or that “the point that respondents wanted to convey was crystal clear: ‘defy the decision, for it was based on technicalities, and the Supreme Court was influenced!’”,[58] we find the phrases as not critical of the Court and how fast the resolutions in G.R. No. 152914 were issued, or as inciting DMAP’s members to defy the resolutions. The unmistakable intent behind the phrases was to inform DMAP’s members of the developments in the case, and on the taking of the next viable move of going back to MARINA on the issues, as the ruling of the Court of Appeals instructed.

We have long recognized and respected the right of a lawyer, or of any other person, for that matter, to be critical of the courts and their judges as long as the criticism is made in respectful terms and through legitimate channels. We have no cause or reason to depart from such recognition and respect, for the Court has long adhered to the sentiment aptly given expression to in the leading case of In re: Almacen:[59]

xxx every citizen has the right to comment upon and criticize the actuations of public officers. This right is not diminished by the fact that the criticism is aimed at a judicial authority, or that it is articulated by a lawyer. Such right is especially recognized where the criticism concerns a concluded litigation, because then the court’s actuation are thrown open to public consumption.
Courts and judges are not sacrosanct. They should and expect critical evaluation of their performance. For like the executive and the legislative branches, the judiciary is rooted in the soil of democratic society, nourished by the periodic appraisal of the citizens whom it is expected to serve.

Well-recognized therefore is the right of a lawyer, both as an officer of the court and as a citizen, to criticize in properly respectful terms and through legitimate channels the acts of courts and
Hence, as a citizen and as officer of the court, a lawyer is expected not only to exercise the right, but also to consider it his duty to avail of such right. No law may abridge this right. Nor is he “professionally answerable for a scrutiny into the official conduct of the judges, which would not expose him to legal animadversion as a citizen.” xxx
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But it is the cardinal condition of all such criticism that it shall be bona fide, and shall not spill over the walls of decency and propriety. A wide chasm exists between fair criticism, on the one hand, and abuse and slander of courts and the judges thereof, on the other. Intemperate and unfair criticism is a gross violation of the duty of respect to courts. It is such a misconduct that subjects a lawyer to disciplinary action. (bold emphasis supplied)[60]

The test for criticizing a judge’s decision is, therefore, whether or not the criticism is bona fide or done in good faith, and does not spill over the walls of decency and propriety. Viewed through the prism of the test, the Sea Transport Update was not disrespectful, abusive, or slanderous, and did not spill over the walls of decency and propriety. Thereby, the respondents were not guilty of indirect contempt of court. In this regard, then, we need to remind that the power to punish for contempt of court is exercised on the preservative and not on the vindictive principle, and only occasionally should a court invoke its inherent power in order to retain that respect without which the administration of justice must falter or fail.[61] As judges we ought to exercise our power to punish contempt judiciously and sparingly, with utmost restraint, and with the end in view of utilizing the power for the correction and preservation of the dignity of the Court, not for retaliation or vindictiveness.[62]

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