In cases where the critics are not only citizens but members of the Bar, jurisprudence has repeatedly affirmed the authority of this Court to discipline lawyers whose statements regarding the courts and fellow lawyers, whether judicial or extrajudicial, have exceeded the limits of fair comment and common decency.

The Show Cause Resolution does not deny respondents their freedom of expression.

          It is respondents’ collective claim that the Court, with the issuance of the Show Cause Resolution, has interfered with respondents’ constitutionally mandated right to free speech and expression.  It appears that the underlying assumption behind respondents’ assertion is the misconception that this Court is denying them the right to criticize the Court’s decisions and actions, and that this Court seeks to “silence” respondent law professors’ dissenting view on what they characterize as a “legitimate public issue.”

          This is far from the truth. A reading of the Show Cause Resolution will plainly show that it was neither the fact that respondents had criticized a decision of the Court nor that they had charged one of its members of plagiarism that motivated the said Resolution.  It was the manner of the criticism and the contumacious language by which respondents, who are not parties nor counsels in the Vinuya case, have expressed their opinion in favor of the petitioners in the said pending case for the “proper disposition” and consideration of the Court that gave rise to said Resolution.  The Show Cause Resolution painstakingly enumerated the statements that the Court considered excessive and uncalled for under the circumstances surrounding the issuance, publication, and later submission to this Court of the UP Law faculty’s Restoring Integrity Statement.

To reiterate, it was not the circumstance that respondents expressed a belief that Justice Del Castillo was guilty of plagiarism but rather their expression of that belief as “not only as an established fact, but a truth”[111] when it was “[o]f public knowledge [that there was] an ongoing investigation precisely to determine the truth of such allegations.”[112]  It was also pointed out in the Show Cause Resolution that there was a pending motion for reconsideration of the Vinuya decision.[113]  The Show Cause Resolution made no objections to the portions of the Restoring Integrity Statement that respondents claimed to be “constructive” but only asked respondents to explain those portions of the said Statement that by no stretch of the imagination could be considered as fair or constructive, to wit:

Beyond this, however, the statement bore certain remarks which raise concern for the Court. The opening sentence alone is a grim preamble to the institutional attack that lay ahead. It reads:

An extraordinary act of injustice has again been committed against the brave Filipinas who had suffered abuse during a time of war.

The first paragraph concludes with a reference to the decision in Vinuya v. Executive Secretary as a reprehensible act of dishonesty and misrepresentation by the Highest Court of the land. x x x.

The insult to the members of the Court was aggravated by imputations of deliberately delaying the resolution of the said case, its dismissal on the basis of “polluted sources,” the Court’s alleged indifference to the cause of petitioners [in the Vinuya case], as well as the supposed alarming lack of concern of the members of the Court for even the most basic values of decency and respect.[114] x x x. (Underscoring ours.)

          To be sure, the Show Cause Resolution itself recognized respondents’ freedom of expression when it stated that:

While most agree that the right to criticize the judiciary is critical to maintaining a free and democratic society, there is also a general consensus that healthy criticism only goes so far. Many types of criticism leveled at the judiciary cross the line to become harmful and irresponsible attacks. These potentially devastating attacks and unjust criticism can threaten the independence of the judiciary. The court must “insist on being permitted to proceed to the disposition of its business in an orderly manner, free from outside interference obstructive of its functions and tending to embarrass the administration of justice.

The Court could hardly perceive any reasonable purpose for the faculty’s less than objective comments except to discredit the April 28, 2010 Decision in the Vinuya case and undermine the Court’s honesty, integrity and competence in addressing the motion for its reconsideration. As if the case on the comfort women’s claims is not controversial enough, the UP Law faculty would fan the flames and invite resentment against a resolution that would not reverse the said decision. This runs contrary to their obligation as law professors and officers of the Court to be the first to uphold the dignity and authority of this Court, to which they owe fidelity according to the oath they have taken as attorneys, and not to promote distrust in the administration of justice.[115] x x x. (Citations omitted; emphases and underscoring supplied.)

          Indeed, in a long line of cases, including those cited in respondents’ submissions, this Court has held that the right to criticize the courts and judicial officers must be balanced against the equally primordial concern that the independence of the Judiciary be protected from due influence or interference.  In cases where the critics are not only citizens but members of the Bar, jurisprudence has repeatedly affirmed the authority of this Court to discipline lawyers whose statements regarding the courts and fellow lawyers, whether judicial or extrajudicial, have exceeded the limits of fair comment and common decency.

          As early as the 1935 case of Salcedo v. Hernandez,[116] the Court found Atty. Vicente J. Francisco both guilty of contempt and liable administratively for the following paragraph in his second motion for reconsideration:

We should like frankly and respectfully to make it of record that the resolution of this court, denying our motion for reconsideration, is absolutely erroneous and constitutes an outrage to the rights of the petitioner Felipe Salcedo and a mockery of the popular will expressed at the polls in the municipality of Tiaong, Tayabas. We wish to exhaust all the means within our power in order that this error may be corrected by the very court which has committed it, because we should not want that some citizen, particularly some voter of the municipality of Tiaong, Tayabas, resort to the press publicly to denounce, as he has a right to do, the judicial outrage of which the herein petitioner has been the victim, and because it is our utmost desire to safeguard the prestige of this honorable court and of each and every member thereof in the eyes of the public. But, at the same time we wish to state sincerely that erroneous decisions like these, which the affected party and his thousands of voters will necessarily consider unjust, increase the proselytes of ‘sakdalism’ and make the public lose confidence in the administration of justice.[117] (Emphases supplied.)

The highlighted phrases were considered by the Court as neither justified nor necessary and further held that:

[I]n order to call the attention of the court in a special way to the essential points relied upon in his argument and to emphasize the force thereof, the many reasons stated in his said motion were sufficient and the phrases in question were superfluous. In order to appeal to reason and justice, it is highly improper and amiss to make trouble and resort to threats, as Attorney Vicente J. Francisco has done, because both means are annoying and good practice can never sanction them by reason of their natural tendency to disturb and hinder the free exercise of a serene and impartial judgment, particularly in judicial matters, in the consideration of questions submitted for resolution.

There is no question that said paragraph of Attorney Vicente J. Francisco’s motion contains a more or less veiled threat to the court because it is insinuated therein, after the author shows the course which the voters of Tiaong should follow in case he fails in his attempt, that they will resort to the press for the purpose of denouncing, what he claims to be a judicial outrage of which his client has been the victim; and because he states in a threatening manner with the intention of predisposing the mind of the reader against the court, thus creating an atmosphere of prejudices against it in order to make it odious in the public eye, that decisions of the nature of that referred to in his motion promote distrust in the administration of justice and increase the proselytes of sakdalism, a movement with seditious and revolutionary tendencies the activities of which, as is of public knowledge, occurred in this country a few days ago. This cannot mean otherwise than contempt of the dignity of the court and disrespect of the authority thereof on the part of Attorney Vicente J. Francisco, because he presumes that the court is so devoid of the sense of justice that, if he did not resort to intimidation, it would maintain its error notwithstanding the fact that it may be proven, with good reasons, that it has acted erroneously.[118] (Emphases supplied.)

          Significantly, Salcedo is the decision from which respondents culled their quote from the minority view of Justice Malcolm.  Moreover, Salcedo concerned statements made in a pleading filed by a counsel in a case, unlike the respondents here, who are neither parties nor counsels in the Vinuya case and therefore, do not have any standing at all to interfere in the Vinuya case.  Instead of supporting respondents’ theory, Salcedo is authority for the following principle:


As a member of the bar and an officer of this court, Attorney Vicente J. Francisco, as any attorney, is in duty bound to uphold its dignity and authority and to defend its integrity, not only because it has conferred upon him the high privilege, not a right (Malcolm, Legal Ethics, 158 and 160), of being what he now is: a priest of justice (In re Thatcher, 80 Ohio St. Rep., 492, 669), but also because in so doing, he neither creates nor promotes distrust in the administration of justice, and prevents anybody from harboring and encouraging discontent which, in many cases, is the source of disorder, thus undermining the foundation upon which rests that bulwark called judicial power to which those who are aggrieved turn for protection and relief.[119] (Emphases supplied.)

Thus, the lawyer in Salcedo was fined and reprimanded for his injudicious statements in his pleading, by accusing the Court of “erroneous ruling.”  Here, the respondents’ Statement goes way beyond merely ascribing error to the Court.

Other cases cited by respondents likewise espouse rulings contrary to their position.  In re: Atty. Vicente Raul Almacen,[120] cited in the Common Compliance and the Vasquez Compliance, was an instance where the Court indefinitely suspended a member of the Bar for filing and releasing to the press a “Petition to Surrender Lawyer’s Certificate of Title” in protest of what he claimed was a great injustice to his client committed by the Supreme Court. In the decision, the petition was described, thus:

He indicts this Court, in his own phrase, as a tribunal “peopled by men who are calloused to our pleas for justice, who ignore without reasons their own applicable decisions and commit culpable violations of the Constitution with impunity.” His client’s he continues, who was deeply aggrieved by this Court’s “unjust judgment,” has become “one of the sacrificial victims before the altar of hypocrisy.” In the same breath that he alludes to the classic symbol of justice, he ridicules the members of this Court, saying “that justice as administered by the present members of the Supreme Court is not only blind, but also deaf and dumb.” He then vows to argue the cause of his client “in the people’s forum,” so that “the people may know of the silent injustices committed by this Court,” and that “whatever mistakes, wrongs and injustices that were committed must never be repeated. He ends his petition with a prayer that

“x x x a resolution issue ordering the Clerk of Court to receive the certificate of the undersigned attorney and counsellor-at-law IN TRUST with reservation that at any time in the future and in the event we regain our faith and confidence, we may retrieve our title to assume the practice of the noblest profession.”[121]

It is true that in Almacen the Court extensively discussed foreign jurisprudence on the principle that a lawyer, just like any citizen, has the right to criticize and comment upon actuations of public officers, including judicial authority.  However, the real doctrine in Almacen is that such criticism of the courts, whether done in court or outside of it, must conform to standards of fairness and propriety.  This case engaged in an even more extensive discussion of the legal authorities sustaining this view.  To quote from that decision:

But it is the cardinal condition of all such criticism that it shall be bona fide, and shall not spill over the walls of decency and propriety. A wide chasm exists between fair criticism, on the one hand, and abuse and slander of courts and the judges thereof, on the other. Intemperate and unfair criticism is a gross violation of the duty of respect to courts. It is such a misconduct that subjects a lawyer to disciplinary action.

For, membership in the Bar imposes upon a person obligations and duties which are not mere flux and ferment. His investiture into the legal profession places upon his shoulders no burden more basic, more exacting and more imperative than that of respectful behavior toward the courts. He vows solemnly to conduct himself “with all good fidelity x x x to the courts;” and the Rules of Court constantly remind him “to observe and maintain the respect due to courts of justice and judicial officers.” The first canon of legal ethics enjoins him “to maintain towards the courts a respectful attitude, not for the sake of the temporary incumbent of the judicial office, but for the maintenance of its supreme importance.

As Mr. Justice Field puts it:

“x x x the obligation which attorneys impliedly assume, if they do not by express declaration take upon themselves, when they are admitted to the Bar, is not merely to be obedient to the Constitution and laws, but to maintain at all times the respect due to courts of justice and judicial officers. This obligation is not discharged by merely observing the rules of courteous demeanor in open court, but includes abstaining out of court from all insulting language and offensive conduct toward judges personally for their judicial acts.” (Bradley, v. Fisher, 20 Law. 4d. 647, 652)

The lawyer’s duty to render respectful subordination to the courts is essential to the orderly administration of justice. Hence, in the assertion of their clients’ rights, lawyers — even those gifted with superior intellect — are enjoined to rein up their tempers.

“The counsel in any case may or may not be an abler or more learned lawyer than the judge, and it may tax his patience and temper to submit to rulings which he regards as incorrect, but discipline and self-respect are as necessary to the orderly administration of justice as they are to the effectiveness of an army. The decisions of the judge must be obeyed, because he is the tribunal appointed to decide, and the bar should at all times be the foremost in rendering respectful submission.” (In Re Scouten, 40 Atl. 481)

x x x x

In his relations with the courts, a lawyer may not divide his personality so as to be an attorney at one time and a mere citizen at another. Thus, statements made by an attorney in private conversations or communications or in the course of a political campaign, if couched in insulting language as to bring into scorn and disrepute the administration of justice, may subject the attorney to disciplinary action.[122] (Emphases and underscoring supplied.)

          In a similar vein, In re: Vicente Sotto,[123] cited in the Vasquez Compliance, observed that:

[T]his Court, in In re Kelly, held the following:

The publication of a criticism of a party or of the court to a pending cause, respecting the same, has always been considered as misbehavior, tending to obstruct the administration of justice, and subjects such persons to contempt proceedings. Parties have a constitutional right to have their causes tried fairly in court, by an impartial tribunal, uninfluenced by publications or public clamor. Every citizen has a profound personal interest in the enforcement of the fundamental right to have justice administered by the courts, under the protection and forms of law, free from outside coercion or interference. x x x.

Mere criticism or comment on the correctness or wrongness, soundness or unsoundness of the decision of the court in a pending case made in good faith may be tolerated; because if well founded it may enlighten the court and contribute to the correction of an error if committed; but if it is not well taken and obviously erroneous, it should, in no way, influence the court in reversing or modifying its decision. x x x.

x x x x

To hurl the false charge that this Court has been for the last years committing deliberately “so many blunders and injustices,” that is to say, that it has been deciding in favor of one party knowing that the law and justice is on the part of the adverse party and not on the one in whose favor the decision was rendered, in many cases decided during the last years, would tend necessarily to undermine the confidence of the people in the honesty and integrity of the members of this Court, and consequently to lower or degrade the administration of justice by this Court. The Supreme Court of the Philippines is, under the Constitution, the last bulwark to which the Filipino people may repair to obtain relief for their grievances or protection of their rights when these are trampled upon, and if the people lose their confidence in the honesty and integrity of the members of this Court and believe that they cannot expect justice therefrom, they might be driven to take the law into their own hands, and disorder and perhaps chaos might be the result. As a member of the bar and an officer of the courts Atty. Vicente Sotto, like any other, is in duty bound to uphold the dignity and authority of this Court, to which he owes fidelity according to the oath he has taken as such attorney, and not to promote distrust in the administration of justice. Respect to the courts guarantees the stability of other institutions, which without such guaranty would be resting on a very shaky foundation.[124] (Emphases and underscoring supplied.)

That the doctrinal pronouncements in these early cases are still good law can be easily gleaned even from more recent jurisprudence.

In Choa v. Chiongson,[125] the Court administratively disciplined a lawyer, through the imposition of a fine, for making malicious and unfounded criticisms of a judge in the guise of an administrative complaint and held, thus:

As an officer of the court and its indispensable partner in the sacred task of administering justice, graver responsibility is imposed upon a lawyer than any other to uphold the integrity of the courts and to show respect to its officers. This does not mean, however, that a lawyer cannot criticize a judge. As we stated in Tiongco vs. Hon. Aguilar:

It does not, however, follow that just because a lawyer is an officer of the court, he cannot criticize the courts. That is his right as a citizen, and it is even his duty as an officer of the court to avail of such right. Thus, in In Re: Almacen (31 SCRA 562, 579-580 [1970]), this Court explicitly declared:

Hence, as a citizen and as officer of the court, a lawyer is expected not only to exercise the right, but also to consider it his duty to avail of such right. No law may abridge this right. Nor is he “professionally answerable to a scrutiny into the official conduct of the judges, which would not expose him to legal animadversion as a citizen.” (Case of Austin, 28 Am Dec. 657, 665).

x x x x

Nevertheless, such a right is not without limit. For, as this Court warned in Almacen:

But it is a cardinal condition of all such criticism that it shall be bona fide, and shall not spill over the walls of decency and propriety. A wide chasm exists between fair criticism, on the one hand, and abuse and slander of courts and the judges thereof, on the other. Intemperate and unfair criticism is a gross violation of the duty of respect to courts. It is such a misconduct, that subjects a lawyer to disciplinary action.

x x x x

Elsewise stated, the right to criticize, which is guaranteed by the freedom of speech and of expression in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution, must be exercised responsibly, for every right carries with it a corresponding obligation. Freedom is not freedom from responsibility, but freedom with responsibility. x x x.

x x x x

Proscribed then are, inter alia, the use of unnecessary language which jeopardizes high esteem in courts, creates or promotes distrust in judicial administration (Rheem, supra), or tends necessarily to undermine the confidence of people in the integrity of the members of this Court and to degrade the administration of justice by this Court (In re: Sotto, 82 Phil. 595 [1949]); or of offensive and abusive language (In re: Rafael Climaco, 55 SCRA 107 [1974]); or abrasive and offensive language (Yangson vs. Salandanan, 68 SCRA 42 [1975]; or of disrespectful, offensive, manifestly baseless, and malicious statements in pleadings or in a letter addressed to the judge (Baja vs. Macandog, 158 SCRA [1988], citing the resolution of 19 January 1988 in Phil. Public Schools Teachers Association vs. Quisumbing, G.R. No. 76180, and Ceniza vs. Sebastian, 130 SCRA 295 [1984]); or of disparaging, intemperate, and uncalled-for remarks (Sangalang vs. Intermediate Appellate Court, 177 SCRA 87 [1989]).

Any criticism against a judge made in the guise of an administrative complaint which is clearly unfounded and impelled by ulterior motive will not excuse the lawyer responsible therefor under his duty of fidelity to his client. x x x.[126] (Emphases and underscoring supplied.)

In Saberon v. Larong,[127] where this Court found respondent lawyer guilty of simple misconduct for using intemperate language in his pleadings and imposed a fine upon him, we had the occasion to state:

The Code of Professional Responsibility mandates:

CANON 8 – A lawyer shall conduct himself with courtesy, fairness and candor toward his professional colleagues, and shall avoid harassing tactics against opposing counsel.

Rule 8.01 – A lawyer shall not, in his professional dealings, use language which is abusive, offensive or otherwise improper.

CANON 11 – A lawyer shall observe and maintain the respect due to the courts and to judicial officers and should insist on similar conduct by others.

Rule 11.03 – A lawyer shall abstain from scandalous, offensive or menacing language or behavior before the Courts.

To be sure, the adversarial nature of our legal system has tempted members of the bar to use strong language in pursuit of their duty to advance the interests of their clients.

           However, while a lawyer is entitled to present his case with vigor and courage, such enthusiasm does not justify the use of offensive and abusive language. Language abounds with countless possibilities for one to be emphatic but respectful, convincing but not derogatory, illuminating but not offensive.

           On many occasions, the Court has reminded members of the Bar to abstain from all offensive personality and to advance no fact prejudicial to the honor or reputation of a party or witness, unless required by the justice of the cause with which he is charged. In keeping with the dignity of the legal profession, a lawyer’s language even in his pleadings must be dignified.[128]

Verily, the accusatory and vilifying nature of certain portions of the Statement exceeded the limits of fair comment and cannot be deemed as protected free speech.  Even In the Matter of Petition for Declaratory Relief Re: Constitutionality of Republic Act 4880, Gonzales v. Commission on Elections,[129] relied upon by respondents in the Common Compliance, held that:

From the language of the specific constitutional provision, it would appear that the right is not susceptible of any limitation. No law may be passed abridging the freedom of speech and of the press. The realities of life in a complex society preclude however a literal interpretation. Freedom of expression is not an absolute. It would be too much to insist that at all times and under all circumstances it should remain unfettered and unrestrained. There are other societal values that press for recognition. x x x.[130] (Emphasis supplied.)

One such societal value that presses for recognition in the case at bar is the threat to judicial independence and the orderly administration of justice that immoderate, reckless and unfair attacks on judicial decisions and institutions pose.  This Court held as much in Zaldivar v. Sandiganbayan and Gonzales,[131] where we indefinitely suspended a lawyer from the practice of law for issuing to the media statements grossly disrespectful towards the Court in relation to a pending case, to wit:

Respondent Gonzales is entitled to the constitutional guarantee of free speech. No one seeks to deny him that right, least of all this Court. What respondent seems unaware of is that freedom of speech and of expression, like all constitutional freedoms, is not absolute and that freedom of expression needs on occasion to be adjusted to and accommodated with the requirements of equally important public interest. One of these fundamental public interests is the maintenance of the integrity and orderly functioning of the administration of justice. There is no antinomy between free expression and the integrity of the system of administering justice. For the protection and maintenance of freedom of expression itself can be secured only within the context of a functioning and orderly system of dispensing justice, within the context, in other words, of viable independent institutions for delivery of justice which are accepted by the general community.  x x x.[132] (Emphases supplied.)

For this reason, the Court cannot uphold the view of some respondents[133] that the Statement presents no grave or imminent danger to a legitimate public interest.

About Erineus

Born on December 28, 1965, Surallah, South Cotabato, Southern Mindanao, Philippines.
This entry was posted in Freedom of Expression, Judicial and Legal Ethics, Supreme Court and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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