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To Inhibit Or Not To Inhibit

By J. Edgardo P. Cruz

Arguably, every member of the bench has, at one point or another, been faced with a motion to inhibit himself from hearing or deciding a case. Meritorious or not, a prayer for recusal has a way of ruffling a judge’s equanimity as it is, after all, an ostensible attack on his ability to exercise his judgment fairly and independently.

More than just a remedial matter, the inhibition of judges is grounded on the party-litigant’s constitutional right to due process. The Bill of Rights provides that no man shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. And inherent in this principle is the right to be heard by a disinterested and impartial judge.

The first paragraph of Section 1, Rule 137 of the Revised Rules of Court lays down specific parameters for the disqualification of a judge from trying a case. Thus, if the judge, his wife or child, has pecuniary interest in the case, or if he is related to either party within the sixth degree of consanguinity or affinity, or if he is related to counsel within the fourth degree or if he has been an executor, administrator, guardian, trustee or counsel for a party in the case, or if he has presided over the case in an inferior court and his ruling or decision is the subject of review, the judge must recuse himself from the proceedings.

In most instances, however, the circumstances are not as clear-cut as in the foregoing cases and the issue of whether a judge should inhibit himself from a case becomes a vast gray area. When the grounds upon which the motion for inhibition is based do not fall squarely within any of the situations outlined in the first paragraph of Section 1, Rule 137, the provision on voluntary recusal in the second paragraph of the same rule sets in.

At first blush, it would seem that the easiest way out is to simply grant the motion and move on. After all, one less disagreeable or disenchanted party-litigant before the court is a welcome treat. For those so inclined, it is useless to defend themselves against preconceived and oftentimes unshakable notions of distrust and partiality, no matter how unwarranted and baseless they may be. Moreover, to the sensitive ego, it is not farfetched that the mere filing of a motion for inhibition may itself breed contempt and bias against the movant, where there was none beforehand.

However, there are cases where the motion to inhibit is clearly borne of personal prejudice, hostility or groundless suspicions. Worse, parties and counsel have not found it beneath themselves to resort to this tactic to delay or railroad the proceedings or to find a more sympathetic judge. It is these cunning attempts to manipulate the administration of justice that behooves the members of the bench to be ever vigilant and guard against undue pressure intended to undermine the integrity of the judicial process.

While there are no hard and fast rules as to when a judge must exercise his prerogative to voluntarily recuse himself, the Supreme Court has had occasion to emphasize that the decision should be based on his rational and logical assessment of the circumstances prevailing in the case before him (People of the Philippines vs. Ong, G.R. Nos. 162130-39, May 05, 2006). As the issue is primarily a matter of conscience and sound discretion, judges should be circumspect in resolving questions about their own competence and impartiality. A fine balance must be struck between maintaining faith and confidence in the integrity of the judicial system on one hand, and protecting the system against manipulative maneuvers on the other.

Indeed, it is quite a tall order to summon objectivity in the face of an attack on one's competence, but this is a reality every judge must deal with. Having answered the call to administer justice and uphold the law at all times, a judge must, when faced with possible disqualification, learn to stand back, sift through the issues and distinguish between mere diatribe and real concerns about his ability to decide a case fairly. It takes strength of character, humility and wisdom to acknowledge that sometimes, no matter how good and pure his intentions are, a judge's relationships, past declarations or actions and personal beliefs may get in the way of his ability to render justice.

Certainly, no judge can be so self-righteous as to claim absolute immunity from bias or prejudice. Apart from their role as dispensers of justice, judges are members of society. They have families, relatives, friends, affiliations, involvements and beliefs that unavoidably impact on their ability to fulfill their sworn duties as members of the bench. While a judge need not go to such extremes as presenting his family tree or personal history to litigants, it is good practice to closely examine each case that comes to him and scrutinize the personalities involved to ensure that he is not disqualified from hearing the dispute. And even if there appears to be no grounds for mandatory disqualification, a judge must always be open to the possibility of voluntary inhibition.

In the final analysis, the fundamental guidepost is the principle that a judge should at all times be like Ceasar's wife – above suspicion. Any appearance of impropriety should, therefore, be avoided because appearance, as they say, is a manifestation of reality. Further and equally important is that judges are a reflection of the institution they represent. Negative impressions of judges ultimately taint the integrity and independence of the judiciary and the legal system as a whole.

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