No hearings at RTC courts as judge serves suspension
posted 14-Oct-2018  ·  
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No transactions are being entertained at the Regional Trial Court (RTC) in Virac until further notice after Executive Judge Lelu P. Contreras began serving her two-month suspension from the service last week.

Court sources who requested anonymity told the Tribune that the absence of Judge Contreras from RTC Branch 43, which she presides, and 42 where she is acting presiding judge, means there will be no scheduled hearings for 245 pending cases in Branch 43 and another 434 cases in Branch 42 until December 4, 2018.

Two judges from RTC Tabaco City – Judge Alben Rabe and Judge Mamerto Buban – are handing 12 and nine cases, respectively, where Judge Contreras had inhibited herself from hearing the cases.

However, Judge Rabe is reportedly recovering from a brain operation after suffering a stroke. While sources say he would be back by the end of October, it is not certain if he would be allowed by his doctors to handle stressful work this early.

Two weeks earlier, Judge Contreras allegedly received a suspension order from the Supreme Court following its decision on an administrative complaint involving her and former RTC Branch 43 Presiding Judge Genie Gapas-Agbada. Details of the complaint or administrative case are not available as the High Court is said to keep such cases involving judges confidential.

Contreras reportedly filed a motion for reconsideration but, after talking with an unidentified SC official, decided to begin serving her suspension pending consideration of her motion. She informed some court staff of her temporarily stepping down but did not call for a meeting with the key RTC officials.

A court official told the Tribune that it is not sure whether the SC would send a replacement judge or designate an acting judge. What is certain is that the High Court is designating an executive judge for the two branches but he or she would only be handling administrative matters.

“There is no word yet on whether the Supreme Court would designate judges to handle the cases pending before the two branches,” it was stated.

The last time the RTC’s two branches were without judges was in late 2004 when then Judge Romulo Atencia resigned to become a private lawyer.

“Two months is a short time,” a court worker said, but it would seem longer for those awaiting arraignment, trial or even decisions on motions.

One urgent petition for Temporary Protection Order (TPO) was reportedly left unacted upon when Judge Contreras stepped down last week. The raffle of several criminal and civil cases as well as special proceedings was indefinitely postponed.

Asked for comment on the situation at the RTC, Provincial Prosecutor Mary Jane Zantua said that even if court hearings in both RTC branches are deferred until the SC designates a judge to handle the cases, work at the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor of Catanduanes will continue.

“Our office is under the National Prosecution Service of the Department of Justice (DOJ) -- which is part of the Executive Branch of the government -- while the courts, including the Regional Trial Court, are under the Judiciary. At present, we share the same Hall of Justice Building but we belong to two different branches of the government. May I also take this occasion to correct a common misconception by some that prosecutors are part of the Judiciary,” she stated.

“Our work as prosecutors is not limited to litigation or court appearance but includes conducting preliminary investigation and inquest proceedings. These will continue and will not be affected by the suspension of a judge. We will also continue to prosecute cases filed before the Municipal Trial Courts and Municipal Circuit Trial Courts in Catanduanes,” Prosecutor Zantua said.

According to reports, the misunderstanding between Judge Contreras and Judge Agbada began sometime in 2011 or sometime before when they were dragged into an administrative complaint filed by a court employee against the latter before the Office of the Court Administrator.

In accusing Agbada of oppression, conduct unbecoming a judge and abuse of authority, the employee had claimed Agbada maligned the character of Judge Contreras by mailing an anonymous letter to the Supreme Court, conveying malicious text messages against Contreras to a local radio station and directing her to mail a letter to the Tribune imputing wrongful acts to Contreras.

Judge Agbada, however, asserted that the stories were fabricated by the employee to destroy her relationship with Contreras.

However, in a separate letter to the OCA, Judge Contreras attested to the credibility of the employee, who she said warned her of the true character of Judge Gapas-Agbada. She also claimed that before she assumed office in RTC Virac, she was forewarned by some judges to be careful in dealing with Agbada.

The SC’s Second Division chaired by Justice Antonio Carpio, however, dismissed the employee’s beef against Judge Agbada in January 2013.

“The valuable time and resources of the Court had been wasted in the resolution of the instant administrative matter. The time of the judges which is supposed to be spent in conducting hearings and drafting of decisions was instead spent for the conduct of investigation, preparation of comments and submission of report. In highlighting the quarrel between the two judges of Virac, Catanduanes, the core issue which led to the filing of this complaint was overlooked,” the division stated in its decision.

Records of the OCA Legal Office at the time showed that Judge Contreras had filed an administrative complaint against her fellow Virac RTC judge for rumor-mongering and other offenses, Justice Carpio noted.

The two judges also clashed in the past after their decisions on similar criminal cases involving violations of forest laws differed hugely in its interpretation of existing jurisprudence, a court source told the Tribune.

In June 2011, Agbada, then presiding judge of RTC Branch 42, was designated as assisting judge at RTC Branch 221 in Quezon City where she was later ordered to work in the same capacity for the Maguindanao massacre case. She is now the full-time presiding judge of RTC Branch 264 in Pasig City.

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