SC sacks CA justice, suspends another in bribery scandal

by PURPLE S. ROMERO, Newsbreak/

Posted at Sep 09 2008 04:16 PM | Updated as of Sep 10 2008 06:16 PM

Justice Vicente Roxas is the third magistrate from the Court of Appeals (CA) to be dismissed in the appellate court’s history after the High Tribunal told him to hang his robe for displaying “dishonesty,” “disrespectfulness” and “undue interest” in the case involving the battle for control of the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) between the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) and the Lopez family.

Roxas received the biggest blow among five CA justices sanctioned Tuesday by the High Court for committing irregularities and improprieties in the Meralco-GSIS case pending before the CA. 

The Supreme Court adopted the findings of the investigating panel composed of retired justices Carolina Griño, Flerida Romero and Romeo Callejo on the bribery scandal and stripped Roxas of all benefits except accrued leave credits.

Roxas is a member of the Eighth Division which promulgated the July 23 decision favoring the Lopez-owned utility. Along with division chair Justice Bienvenido Reyes and Justice Apolinario Bruselas, Roxas ruled that a regional trial court, and not the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), has authority over intra-corporate disputes.

Prior to this, Roxas was part of the Special Ninth Division, together with Justice Jose Sabio Jr. as chair, and Justice Myrna Dimaranan-Vidal as member. This division issued the temporary restraining order (TRO) which barred the SEC from implementing its cease-and-desist order against Meralco last May 30.

SC Spokesperson Jose Midas Marquez said Roxas could still challenge the decision and file a motion for reconsideration, but he added it is “immediately executory.” 

In response to the ruling, Press Secretary Jesus Dureza said: "Although the issue has implications on orderly administration of justice that should concern all, the matter pertaining to the pursuit of an investigation of Court of Appeals justices and its consequent results are matters that should be left entirely to the justice department to handle and determine."

Sought for comment, former President Fidel Ramos said he hoped the people would not lose trust in the country's justice system as a result of the CA mess.

He said this was just a temporary setback, adding he expected the CA's credibility to be restored eventually.

Other justices dismissed 

Roxas’s dismissal came seven years after the SC dismissed Justice Elvi John Asuncion for gross ignorance of the law in 2001, according to records of the CA.

Asuncion was sacked after he issued an October 30, 2001 resolution in the case between Philippine National Bank, the National Labor Relations Commission and Erlinda Archinas.

Asuncion, who headed the 12th Division, extended the temporary restraining order he issued a month earlier, which violated the Supreme Court rule stipulating that the Court of Appeals may issue a TRO only for a period of 60 days.

Aside from this, Asuncion also sat on 71 motions for reconsideration and 82 cases which under Article 8, Section of the 1987 Constitution, should have been resolved within a 12-month period. He also decided 409 cases after the one-year period lapsed.

But Asuncion was not the first justice to lose his seat in the Court of Appeals due to improper behavior.

On March 27, 2001, Justice Demetrio G. Demetria was removed from the bench after he was found guilty of interceding on behalf of alleged drug syndicate Yu Yuk Lai.

Demetria was stripped of his retirement benefits and was forbidden from taking on any other government post after he violated Rule 2.04 of the 1989 Code of Judicial Conduct, which prohibits justices from exerting undue influence that could affect the outcome of pending cases.  

Price of 'dishonesty'

Justice Roxas’s “fabrication” of the transcript of the Eighth Division’s July 24 final deliberations on the Meralco-GSIS legal tiff proved to be his worst misstep as such violation warranted dismissal from the judiciary.

The said transcript contained seemingly verbatim statements and arguments from the three members of the eighth division.

However, in the last day of the hearing on the CA controversy on August 23, Justice Reyes testified that he “never” saw such transcript, adding that he did not give Roxas his consent to record their meeting.

Reyes explained that he also did not consider their July 4 meet as the division’s deliberations, viewing it only as a “preliminary” discussion.

Roxas admitted that he only wrote the transcript from “memory.”

Another loophole in Roxas’s actions that marked deceit was his denial of Vidal’s assertion that he asked her to sign a decision on the Meralco-GSIS case on July 8, days before the concerned parties submitted their respective memoranda. 

Roxas claimed that he only asked Vidal to read the “draft of the decision, not sign it, to which Vidal responded by branding him a “liar.”

The High Tribunal, however, concurred with the panel that Roxas acted suspiciously when he made a draft of the decision before receiving the respective memorandum of the parties in the case.

“We agree with Madame Justice Romero’s observation that the “rush to judgment” was indicative of Justice Roxas’s undue interest,” they said.

The Supreme Court added that the above acts of falsehood showed that Roxas “lacks the qualification of integrity and honesty expected of a magistrate and a member of the appellate court."

They said that dishonesty, under Rule 140 of the Rules of Court and Rule IV, Sec. 52 of the Uniform Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service, is punishable by dismissal.

Pending motions

The Court also slammed Roxas’s inaction on the following motions:

• GSIS’s May 29 “Urgent ex-parte motion to defer action on any incident of the petition pending resolution of re-raffle”;
• The government pension fund’s motion which sought Roxas’s inhibition on May 30, 2008;
• GSIS’s motion to lift the May 30 TRO;
• GSIS’s motion which requested for the use of a Power point presentation in the June 23 oral arguments;
• Meralco’s June 25 motion for extension of time to file consolidated memorandum of authorities;
• Meralco’s urgent motion for Reyes to assume chairmanship.

Roxas’s sidelining of these motions constituted a violation of Rule V, Sec.3 of Internal Rules of the Court of Appeals (IRCA), which calls for the swift resolution of motions.

The embattled justice was earlier found guilty of the same offense in an administrative complaint filed against him by Victoriano Orocio, counsel for the employees of the National Power Corporation.

In a unanimous vote, the Supreme Court fined Roxas with P15,000 for sitting on two motions filed by Orocio in 2006 and 2007.

Sabio brothers

The High Court also ordered the two-month suspension of Sabio, chair of the Special Ninth Division which issued the TRO, on the ground that he conferred with parties interested in the case.

Sabio talked to his brother, Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) chair Camilo Sabio before the TRO was handed down last May 30. The PCGG head tried to convince his brother of the “rightness” of the GSIS position in a phone call.

On July 1, Justice Sabio met with businessman-deal maker Francis Roa de Borja, who purportedly offered him a P10 million bribe in exchange for handing the case over to Reyes, chair of the Eighth division.

The High Court said Sabio’s acts, along with his refusal to relinquish the chairmanship of the Special Ninth Division to Reyes, made him guilty of simple misconduct.

In communicating with his brother and de Borja, Sabio violated the following:
• Canon 13 of the Code of Professional Responsibility for lawyers, which requires attorneys to “refrain from any impropriety which tends to influence, or gives the appearance of influencing the Court”;
• Section 1 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct, which mandates judges to “exercise the judicial function independently, free from extraneous influence, inducement, pressure, threat or interference”;
• Sec. 4, which states that judges “shall not allow family, social, or other relationships to influence judicial conduct of judgment”;
• Sec. 5, which stipulates that judges shall not “only be free from inappropriate connections with, and influence by, the executive and legislative branches of government, but must also appear to be free therefrom to a reasonable observer”.

The High Court disagreed, however, with the probe panel’s conclusion that even if Sabio signed the TRO favoring Meralco, holding on to the case showed that he may have yielded to his brother’s influence.

“Based on the facts on record, the Court is wary of declaring that Justice Sabio had been influenced by his brother by speculating that he would have favored GSIS had he been a part of the division which rendered the decision in the Meralco case,” the SC said.

But they rued Sabio’s continued communication with De Borja even after the alleged bribery incident. Sabio called De Borja on July 3, two days after the De Borja allegedly offered the payoff, to ask him to stop “pestering” him with his calls. 

The High Court also noted Sabio’s “stubborn insistence” on his interpretation of the IRCA, disregarding the opinion of Justice Edgardo Cruz, head of the CA Rules Committee.

Cruz said in his June 19 letter that Reyes should take over the Meralco-GSIS case since a TRO is not one of the conditions prescribed in the IRCA where a case stays with a division even in the face of reorganization.

The appellate court was reorganized on July 4 following the retirement of three justices. Reyes became the head of the eighth division, while Sabio was transferred to the sixth division.

Before the reorganization however, a chairmanship row already erupted between the two after Sabio declined to hand over the top position in the Special Ninth Division to Reyes, the original chair of the Ninth Division, who just returned from leave.

Reyes was on leave from May 30 to June 6. He returned to work on June 10.

The SC adopted similar observations and said that “it was improper for Justice Sabio to hold on to the chairmanship of the Ninth Division despite the return of Justice Reyes.”
Reprimanded, admonished

Those who were meted with lighter penalties include Vidal, Reyes and Vasquez.

Vidal was admonished for signing an alleged draft of a decision even before the parties in the Meralco-GSIS case submitted their respective memorandum.

The Supreme Court said that Vidal “deviated” from the IRCA when she bowed to pressure and signed the draft following Roxas’s insistence. The Court stressed that Canon 1 of the Code of Judicial Conduct mandates judges to carry out their duties “independently.”

On the other hand, Reyes was reprimanded for promulgating his division’s July 24 decision even before Vasquez resolved the chairmanship row.

But the Supreme Court explained that Reyes’s continued request for Vasquez’s decision on the headship dispute mitigated his offense.

Meanwhile, Vasquez was also reprimanded for vacillating on the squabble between Reyes and Sabio.

“Much of the trouble now being faced by the Court of Appeals could have been averted by timely, judicious and decisive action on the part of the Presiding Justice,” the Supreme Court said.

Referred probes

The Supreme Court also ruled on the improprieties committed by De Borja and Sabio.

They referred De Borja’s alleged bribery of Justice Sabio to the Department of Justice, while Sabio’s attempt to influence his brother was referred to the Office of the Bar Confidant for investigation.

Sought for his reaction on the High Court’s decision, De Borja said he still has to study the decision before proceeding with any actions. -- with reports from RG CRUZ and APPLES JALANDONI, ABS-CBN News is the online news department of ABS-CBN Interactive Inc., a subsidiary of ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp., part of the Lopez Group of Companies.