In the present case, the “matter” that gave rise to the issuance of a subpoena duces tecum was a criminal complaint filed by the complainants Lozano for the alleged violation by retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide, Jr. and retired Associate Justice Ma. Alicia Austria-Martinez of Section 3(e) of R.A. 3019, as amended (the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act).
A first step in considering whether a criminal complaint (and its attendant compulsory processes) is within the authority of the Ombudsman to entertain (and to issue), is to consider the nature of the powers of the Supreme Court. This Court, by constitutional design, is supreme in its task of adjudication; judicial power is vested solely in the Supreme Court and in such lower courts as may be established by law. Judicial power includes the duty of the courts, not only to settle actual controversies, but also to determine whether grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction has been committed in any branch or instrumentality of government. As a rule, all decisions and determinations in the exercise of judicial power ultimately go to and stop at the Supreme Court whose judgment is final. This constitutional scheme cannot be thwarted or subverted through a criminal complaint that, under the guise of imputing a misdeed to the Court and its Members, seeks to revive and re-litigate matters that have long been laid to rest by the Court. Effectively, such criminal complaint is a collateral attack on a judgment of this Court that, by constitutional mandate, is final and already beyond question.
A simple jurisprudential research would easily reveal that this Court has had the occasion to rule on the liability of Justices of the Supreme Court for violation of Section 3(e) of R.A. 3019—the very same provision that the complainants Lozano invoke in this case.
In In re Wenceslao Laureta, the client of Atty. Laureta filed a complaint with the Tanodbayan charging Members of the Supreme Court with violation of Section 3(e) of Republic Act No. 3019 for having knowingly, deliberately and with bad faith rendered an unjust resolution in a land dispute. The Court unequivocally ruled that insofar as this Court and its Divisions are concerned, a charge of violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act on the ground that such collective decision is “unjust” should not prosper; the parties cannot “relitigate in another forum the final judgment of the Court,” as to do so is to subordinate the Court, in the exercise of its judicial functions, to another body.
In re Joaquin T. Borromeo reiterates the Laureta ruling, particularly that (1) judgments of the Supreme Court are not reviewable; (2) administrative, civil and criminal complaints against a judge should not be turned into substitutes for appeal; (3) only courts may declare a judgment unjust; and (4) a situation where the Ombudsman is made to determine whether or not a judgment of the Court is unjust is an absurdity. The Court further discussed the requisites for the prosecution of judges, as follows:
That is not to say that it is not possible at all to prosecute judges for this impropriety, of rendering an unjust judgment or interlocutory order; but, taking account of all the foregoing considerations, the indispensable requisites are that there be a final declaration by a competent court in some appropriate proceeding of the manifestly unjust character of the challenged judgment or order, and there be also evidence of malice and bad faith, ignorance or inexcusable negligence on the part of the judge in rendering said judgment or order.
Thus, consistent with the nature of the power of this Court under our constitutional scheme, only this Court – not the Ombudsman – can declare a Supreme Court judgment to be unjust.
In Alzua v. Arnalot, the Court ruled that “judges of superior and general jurisdiction are not liable to respond in civil action for damages, and provided this rationale for this ruling: Liability to answer to everyone who might feel himself aggrieved by the action of the judge would be inconsistent with the possession of this freedom and would destroy that independence without which no judiciary can be either respectable or useful.” The same rationale applies to the indiscriminate attribution of criminal liability to judicial officials.
Plainly, under these rulings, a criminal complaint for violation of Section 3(e) of RA 3019, based on the legal correctness of the official acts of Justices of the Supreme Court, cannot prosper and should not be entertained. This is not to say that Members of the Court are absolutely immune from suit during their term, for they are not. The Constitution provides that the appropriate recourse against them is to seek their removal from office if they are guilty of culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust. Only after removal can they be criminally proceeded against for their transgressions. While in office and thereafter, and for their official acts that do not constitute impeachable offenses, recourses against them and their liabilities therefor are as defined in the above rulings.
Section 22 of Republic Act No. 6770, in fact, specifically grants the Ombudsman the authority to investigate impeachable officers, but only when such investigation is warranted:
Section 22. Investigatory Power. The Office of the Ombudsman shall have the power to investigate any serious misconduct in office allegedly committed by officials removable by impeachment, for the purpose of filing a verified complaint for impeachment, if warranted.
Conversely, if a complaint against an impeachable officer is unwarranted for lack of legal basis and for clear misapplication of law and jurisprudence, the Ombudsman should spare these officers from the harassment of an unjustified investigation. The present criminal complaint against the retired Justices is one such case where an investigation is not warranted, based as it is on the legal correctness of their official acts, and the Ombudsman should have immediately recognized the criminal complaint for what it is, instead of initially proceeding with its investigation and issuing a subpoena duces tecum.