MANILA — The Supreme Court (SC) has dismissed from the service a judge in Surigao del Norte for immorality and gross misconduct.
In a 21-page per curiam decision promulgated on July 25, 2017, the Court found Presiding Judge Exequil L. Dagala of the Municipal Circuit Trial Court in Dapa-Socorro, Surigao Del Norte guilty of immorality and gross misconduct and perpetually disqualified him from re-employment in all public offices.
Dagala was dismissed after he was caught on video wielding an M-16 armalite rifle. It was also found out that he had sired a child with a woman other than his wife.
The Court also ordered the forfeiture of his retirement and other benefits except accrued leave credits.
Dagala was one of the officials named by President Rodrigo Duterte involved in illegal drugs trade last August 2016.
The dismissal stemmed from the 2015 anonymous letter-complaint to the Office of Ombudsman from an unnamed resident of San Isidro, Siargo Island, Surigao Del Norte, who had witnessed the altercation involving his neighbors and Judge Dagala over the ownership of his neighbor’s lot and the trees planted thereof.
Judge Dagala shouted invectives while brandishing an M-16 armalite rifle, which was caught on camera and tape by the other neighbors. He was also accused of involvement in alleged illegal activities.
Upholding the findings of the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) which had been ordered to investigate the case, the High Court held that there was sufficient evidence to hold Judge Dagala accountable for gross misconduct in connection with the September 29, 2015 incident, as recounted in the anonymous complaint.
OCA identified the man brandishing the armalite in video as Judge Dagala, who failed to deny or refute the allegations.
The High Court further held that such finding of fact has various consequences, noting that a certification issued by the Philippine National Police (PNP) Firearms and Explosives Office also disclosed that Dagala was not a licensed/registered firearm holder of any kind and calibre. It underscored that Judge Dagala’s actuations as recorded in the video “are unacceptable for a member of the bench and should merit a finding of administrative liability. This is without prejudice to any criminal action that may also be filed against him.”
Likewise, the High Court agreed with OCA’s finding that Judge Dagala was guilty of immorality for siring a child out of wedlock during the subsistence of his marriage.
The High Court stressed that while anonymous complaints should always be treated with great caution, the anonymity of the complaint does not, in itself, justify its outright dismissal, provided the allegations can be reliably verified and properly substantiated by competent evidence.
Immorality is a recognized ground for the discipline of judges and justices under the Rules of Court. The record is clear as evidenced by the certificate of live birth, showing Judge Dagala was the father of the child as shown by his signature in the affidavit of acknowledgement of paternity and the date of birth was during the subsistence of his marriage to his legal wife.
The High Court noted that Judge Dagala, in his comment, admitted he was married but was separated and “without any remorse” has three children with three different women. He denied involvement in illegal activities, but admitted to owning Sugba Cockpit in Del Carmen, Surigao del Norte, but had sold its rights in 2008.
In 2016, he submitted a letter of resignation, but the Court rejected it as he was still under investigation.
The High Court said that it does not “seek to interfere with a judge’s relationships” but nevertheless stressed that immorality is a valid ground for sanctioning members of the Judiciary because it (1) challenges his or her capacity to dispense justice, (2) erodes the faith and confidence of the public in the administration of justice, and (3) impacts the Judiciary’s legitimacy.
“We understand the undeniable sadness of a failed marriage….We understand that judges and justices are also human, and are naturally inclined to search for what is good and what gives meaning, including happy and fulfilling relationships…Nevertheless choices are made within particular contexts and in consideration of duties and obligations that must be honoured. More importantly, choices have consequences. Judge Dagala made his choice. He must now face the repercussions. Thus, as much as we commiserate with Judge Dagala, we remain a court of law with a mandate to dispense even-handed justice,” the High Court stressed.
The High Court further stressed that “[a]ll who desire to be part of the Judiciary must first decide if he or she can live up to the highest standards of morality expected of judges and justices….[O]nce a lawyer joins the Judiciary, he or she should abide by the rules. We remind all judges that no position demands greater moral righteousness and uprightness from its occupant than the judicial office.”
According to the OCA, while Judge Dagala may be excused for having sired two children prior to his marriage, the record was clear that he had his third child during the subsistence of his marriage with his legal wife.
Justice Marvic Leonen, who wrote a concurring and dissenting opinion, said that while he agrees with the majority that acts of grave misconduct were substantially proven, he found insufficient the evidence to include immorality as a ground for dismissal.
He opined that any complaint for immorality should not be entertained except when it is commenced by its victims.
Leonen noted that Judge Dagala and his wife have been childless and that there are no complaints from any of the children he had fathered. He also gave weight to the unrebutted manifestation of Judge Dagala that his wife has forgiven and even forgotten what he has done.
“It is time that we show more sensitivity to the reality of many families. Immorality is not to be wielded high-handedly and in the process cause shame on many of its victims. It should be invoked in a calibrated manner, always keeping in mind the interests of those who have to suffer its consequences on a daily basis. There is a time when the law should exact accountability; there is also a time when the law should understand the humane act of genuine forgiveness.”