Over the weekend, news report came out that the defense panel in the Corona Impeachment Trial is planning to ask for the inhibition of certain senator-judges, ostensibly for showing bias and partiality towards the prosecution and acting as prosecutors themselves. We now tackle the rules and jurisprudence regarding the inhibition and disqualification of judges to see if there is legal basis for the defense panel’s plan.
Section 1, Rule 137 of the Rules of Court sets forth the rule on inhibition and disqualification of judges, to wit:
SECTION 1. Disqualification of judges. – No judge or judicial officer shall sit in any case in which he, or his wife or child, is pecuniarily interested as heir, legatee, creditor or otherwise, or in which he is related to either party within the sixth degree of consanguinity or affinity, or to counsel within the fourth degree, computed according to the rules of civil law, or in which he has been executor, administrator, guardian, trustee or counsel, or in which he has presided in any inferior court when his ruling or decision is the subject of review, without the written consent of all parties in interest, signed by them and entered upon the record.
A judge may, in the exercise of his sound discretion, disqualify himself from sitting in a case, for just or valid reasons other than those mentioned above.
This rule enumerates the specific grounds upon which a judge may be disqualified from participating in a trial. It must be borne in mind that the inhibition of judges is rooted in the Constitution, specifically Article III, the Bill of Rights, which guarantees that no person shall be held to answer for a criminal offense without due process of law. Due process necessarily requires that a hearing is conducted before an impartial and disinterested tribunal [Gutierrez v. Santos, G.R. No. L-15824, May 30, 1961, 2 SCRA 249.] because unquestionably, every litigant is entitled to nothing less than the cold neutrality of an impartial judge. All the other elements of due process, like notice and hearing, would be meaningless if the ultimate decision would come from a partial and biased judge. [Rallos v. Gako, A.M. Nos. RTJ-99-1484 and RTJ-99-1484 (A), March 17, 2000, 328 SCRA 324.]
The second paragraph of the rule addresses voluntary inhibition. Based on this provision, judges have been given the exclusive prerogative to recuse themselves from hearing cases for reasons other than those pertaining to their pecuniary interest, relation, previous connection, or previous rulings or decisions. The issue of voluntary inhibition in this instance becomes primarily a matter of conscience and sound discretion on the part of the judge. [Latorre v. Ansaldo, A.M. No. RTJ-00-1563, May 31, 2001, 358 SCRA 311.] It is a subjective test the result of which the reviewing tribunal will generally not disturb in the absence of any manifest finding of arbitrariness and whimsicality.
This discretion granted to trial judges takes cognizance of the fact that these judges are in a better position to determine the issue of voluntary inhibition as they are the ones who directly deal with the parties-litigants in their courtrooms. [Gutang v. CA, 354 Phil. 77 (1998).] Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that the authority for voluntary inhibition does not give judges unlimited discretion to decide whether or not they will desist from hearing a case. [People v. Kho, G.R. No. 139381, April 20, 2001, 357 SCRA 290.] The decision on whether or not judges should inhibit themselves must be based on their rational and logical assessment of the circumstances prevailing in the cases brought before them. [Gacayan v. Pamintuan, A.M. No. RTJ-99-1483, September 17, 1999, 314 SCRA 682.] Similarly, the right of a party to seek the inhibition or disqualification of a judge who does not appear to be wholly free, disinterested, impartial and independent in handling the case must be balanced with the latter’s sacred duty to decide cases without fear of repression. [Webb v. People, G.R. No. 127262, July 24, 1997, 276 SCRA 243.] The movant must therefore prove the ground of bias and prejudice by clear and convincing evidence to disqualify a judge from participating in a particular trial.