By By Atty. Romulo P. Atencia
IMMUNITY FROM SUIT
posted 6-Nov-2015  ·  
4,524 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

In a recent piece, I said that a sitting president of the Philippines cannot be sued during his incumbency but can only be impeached. But when a member of the Bar holds a position in the judiciary – as in the case of a member of he Supreme Court itself, may this court exercise disciplinary power over such member of the Bar who is holding a judicial position, considering that there are existing statutory provisions regarding the causes and the procedure for removal from office of the members of the judiciary?  Like the President, a Justice of the Supreme Court may only be removed from office by impeachment.

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In the case of "In re Pelaez", our Highest Court has adopted the doctrine laid down by the Supreme Court of Kansas (U.S.A.) in the case of "Peyton's Appeal" that the power of the Court to exclude unfit and unworthy members of the (legal) profession is inherent; that "it is a necessary incident to the proper administration of justice; that it may be exercised without any special statutory authority, and in all proper cases, unless positively prohibited by statute; and that it may be exercised in any manner that will give the party to be disbarred a fair trial and a full opportunity to be heard."   In the case of "In re Cunanan, et al.", the Court declared the part of a law as unconstitutional which provides that bar candidates who obtained in the bar examinations of 1946 to 1952 a general average of 70% without falling below 50% in any subject be admitted in mass to the practice of law saying that the disputed law is not a legislation; it is a judgment – a judgment revoking those promulgated by the Supreme Court during the aforecited year affecting the bar candidates concerned; and although the Court certainly can revoke these judgments even then, for justifiable reasons, it is no less certain that only this Court, and not the legislative nor executive department, that may do so.  Any attempt on the part of any of these departments would be a clear usurpation of its functions, as it is the case with the law in question. 

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In its usually eloquent words, our Supreme Court said that law and justice are no brooding omnipresence in the sky, for they are encountered in no other way than in human form, particularly through the officers of the court. The image of the court is inescapably etched in the conduct and actuations of those who compose it and who, in turn, are judged according to the public perception of accountability, responsibility and morality. Thus, to court officials, theirs is the unqualified and invariable duty to be living examples of uprightness in the performance of official functions in order to preserve the good name and standing of the Judiciary in the community.

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Thus, in a case arising out of a leakage in the 1999 bar examinations involving Justice Fidel P. Purisima, then an incumbent Justice and Chairperson of the 1999 Bar Examinations, he was censured by the Court en banc for failure to disclose that his nephew, the son of his eldest brother, was one of the examinees. Accordingly, the Court declared the forfeiture of 50% of the fees due him as Bar Chairperson. The disciplinary sanction was imposed upon him in the discharge of his duties as a Justice of the Court, albeit not pertaining to the strictly judicial function of adjudicating cases, in order to safeguard and ensure the integrity of the Bar Examinations which is a matter relating to the Court.

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In another case involving retired Justice Ruben T. Reyes regarding the unauthorized release of his an unpromulgated  ponencia,  Justice Reyes argued that members of the Supreme Court may be removed from office only by impeachment. Since removal from office is a disciplinary or administrative sanction, it follows that there is no manner by which a Justice of said court may be disciplined for acts done during his incumbency, considering that the power to impeach a Justice of the Highest Court is lodged in the legislative branch of the government. He added that Court is without authority to proceed against and discipline its former Member. He further argued that what constitutes impeachable offenses is a purely political question which the Constitution has left to the sound discretion of the legislature, and that the misconduct of leakage is not one of the impeachable offenses.

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In rejecting the arguments of Justice Reyes, the Supreme Court held that the rule prohibiting the institution of disbarment proceedings against an impeachable officer who is required by the Constitution to be a member of the bar as a qualification in office applies only during his or her tenure and does not create immunity from liability for possibly criminal acts or for alleged violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct or other supposed violations. Once the said impeachable officer is no longer in office because of his removal, resignation, retirement or permanent disability, the Court may proceed against him or her and impose the corresponding sanctions for misconduct committed during his tenure, pursuant to the Court's power of administrative supervision over members of the bar. Provided that the requirements of due process are met, the Court may penalize retired members of the Judiciary for misconduct committed during their incumbency.

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CONCLUDING THOUGHTS: No greater responsibility devolves upon a member of the bar than that of living up to its high and exacting standards.  Failure on his part to do so entails conse­quences far from pleasant.  He is as is but just and proper, held accountable. Whatever disciplinary measure is warranted is imposed.   So does justice requires in an administrative proceeding against a member of the Philippine Bar, be he/she a judge or a member of the Highest Court of the land.

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