SC suspends judge for six months for cellphone message to lawyers after promulgating decision

Published July 4, 2021, 8:00 AM

by Rey Panaligan 

Supreme Court (SC)

“Let the court decision speak for itself.”

A judge need not send cellphone text messages to the parties in a case or to their lawyers to explain his decision or suggest what legal recourse to take, the Supreme Court (SC) said.

With these admonitions, the SC suspended for six months without pay Naga City regional trial court (RTC) Judge Soliman M. Santos Jr. who, on Dec. 17, 2018, acquitted a couple of estafa charge but ordered them to pay P1.39 million in damages to the complainant.

After promulgating his decision on the case, Judge Santos sent a text message to the parties’ lawyers and asked them, in effect, to accept his decision or to file a motion for reconsideration since his ruling was not yet final.

A copy of the text message presented as evidence showed that Santos even greeted the lawyers “MERI XMAS” (Merry Christmas).

Associate Justice Rodil V. Zalameda

The SC decision, which was made public last June 22, was written by Associate Justice Rodil V. Zalameda for the court’s first division.

The Office of the Court Administrator (OCA), which conducted the investigation, found Judge Santos liable for impropriety. It also pointed out that the judge had been fined previously on two administrative cases for violating SC rules, directives and circulars; simple misconduct, gross inefficiency or undue delay (in deciding cases); and gross ignorance of the law.

OCA recommended that Judge Santos be fined P20,000 for impropriety, a violation of the New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary.

Section 1 of Canon 4 of the Code states that “judges shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all their activities.” Section 3 of Canon 4 states that “judges shall, in their personal relations with individual members of the legal profession… avoid situations which might reasonably give rise to the suspicion or appearance of favoritism or partiality.”

In resolving the complaint and acting on OCA’s report and recommendation, the SC said “there is sufficient basis to find respondent (Judge Santos) guilty of impropriety for sending the parties’ respective counsels his text message supposedly explaining his judgment.”

“It was certainly unnecessary for respondent Judge to elaborate on the rationale for his disposition because his promulgated judgment should already speak for itself,” the SC said.

It said that “respondent Judge’s supposed intent to discourage the parties from appealing cannot justify his text message to their lawyers because his judgment itself had already included such a discussion on this matter.”

“As correctly noted by the OCA, his message effectively cast doubt over his impartiality, integrity, and competence in rendering his judgment,” it stressed.

“It is of no moment that he sent his message after the decision was promulgated because the termination of the case will not preclude public criticism for acts which may render the disposition of a case suspect,” it said.

The SC pointed out that “respondent Judge’s violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct constitutes gross misconduct, punishable under Rule 140 of the Rules of Court.”

Citing its previous decisions, the SC said that “when the judge himself becomes the transgressor of any law which he is sworn to apply, he places his office in disrepute, encourages disrespect for the law and impairs public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary itself.”

“It is therefore paramount that a judge’s personal behavior both in the performance of his duties and his daily life, be free from any appearance of impropriety as to be beyond reproached,” it said.

The SC also said: “Herein respondent Judge has placed his judicial office, indeed, the entire Judiciary, into a position of notoriety, and opened the actions of all judges and justices to questions on their integrity. The Court will not countenance such actions, and respondent Judge must be appropriately penalized.”

The complaint against the judge for gross violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct and gross ignorance of the law was filed by Roberto L. Obiedo who lodged the estafa charge against spouses Nino Rice and Mary Anne Nery.

Obiedo alleged that by sending a text message to the lawyers, the judge was justifying his ruling. He also claimed that by suggesting the filing of a motion for reconsideration or appeal, the judge was “selling crap” to his (Obiedo’s) lawyer, unsure of his decision, or “waiting who between the parties would give him the best offer.”

In his answer, Judge Santos explained that his approach to problem solving is “more practical” rather than “overly legalistic.”

Santos said that his text message “should not be an issue in this day and age where lawyers indicate their cellphone numbers and email addresses in their pleadings for no purpose than to ensure ‘speedier communications.’”

He said that he did not suggest the filing of a motion for reconsideration and, in fact, he dissuaded the parties from doing so.

He also said that he sent the text message not because he was unsure of his decision but merely wanted to end the litigation in the best interest of the parties.

The SC’s decision noted: “This is not the first administrative case where respondent Judge had been found liable. Thus, the recommended penalty is too light considering respondent Judge’s previous infractions.”

“It is significant that in the present case, respondent Judge is also being held accountable for the same type of conduct, i.e., engaging with parties and their counsels outside of official court proceedings to convince them follow a particular course of action or to convince them to settle the case,” the SC said.

“The Court cannot but conclude that respondent Judge has a propensity for flouting the rules of propriety in his injudicious quest at finding, in his own words, ‘more practical’ rather than ‘overly legalistic’ resolutions to cases, it stressed.

“As good as his intentions may be, We cannot have magistrates running rogue, disregarding the rules and directives of this Court to advance their own agenda,” it said.

“Any effort to declog the court dockets, promote alternative dispute resolution, or otherwise improve court processes must be done not only with noble purpose, but pursued within the acceptable bounds of judicial conduct,” it added.

The SC said that “considering that this is already respondent Judge’s third administrative offense, the penalty of a fine of P20,000 is too lenient.”

“WHEREFORE, the foregoing premises considered, the Court finds respondent Judge Soliman M. Santos, Jr., Presiding Judge of Branch 61, Regional Trial Court, Naga City, Camarines Sur GUILTY of Impropriety. He is SUSPENDED from his duties as presiding judge for SIX (6) MONTHS, without salary and other benefits. He is also STERNLY WARNED that a repetition of the same or similar act shall be dealt with more severely by the Court,” the SC ruled.