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The singer, not just the song, made the tune bad

(Article published in the May 3, 2006 issue of Manila Standard Today)

We must be kindred spirits, the spouses-lawyers Ellis F. Jacoba and Olivia Velasco-Jacoba, on the one hand and I on the other.  A wanna-be senator is possibly a deviant cousin and Ma. Theresa Pangilinan a tenth degree niece.  It appears we have in our spirits the soul’s equivalent of an aberrant gene that causes a proclivity for infelicity of language.

The infelicity gene, I hasten to state, is peculiar.  By some strange alchemy of content and context, the spoken language causes great unhappiness on the people who hear and then recoils to make the source in some form or another unhappy too. In other words, my spiritual kin and I seem to have the dubious talent of making, at least some if not many, people unhappy with what we say, provoking them in turn to make us somehow regret it.  

        Husband and wife Jacobas were, in the case decided in March of this year, suspended by the Supreme Court from the practice of law for two (2) years and two (2) months respectively (Lacuron v. Jacoba, A.C. No. 5921, March 10, 2006) for disrespectful language in a motion for reconsideration filed in a lower court.  I, with others, was detained for six (6) hours on 15 March 2005 at the Senate Sergeant-at-arms office for describing, in a petition for prohibition filed before the Supreme Court, the investigation then being conducted by a senate committee headed by Senator Edgardo J. Angara as “in aid of collection.”  Famous but still aspirant for the Senate spiritual relative was said to have been barred for life, on account of language and behavior unacceptable to another senate committee, from practicing his profession (presumably, law) in the Upper House of Congress.  And young Maria Theresa just might be hounded by the dogs of prosecution of the ever amusing Secretary of Justice, Raul Gonzalez, for articulating in a forceful manner what she rightfully believes is written in many hearts of her countrymen.

The Supreme Court last March decided that the habeas corpus case that I and my co-detainees filed to question our 6-hour detention was already moot and academic since we were anyway released by the time the Supreme Court decided acted on it.  I am not aware whether the usually pugnacious senatorial aspirant contested his exclusion from Senate practice or, which I consider unlikely, had uncharacteristically accepted his fate like a meek lamb.  Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales has not gone much beyond barking at Maria Theresa.  Hence, my comment today, if I may, is limited to the Supreme Court’s action on the spouses Jacoba.

The Jacoba-Valasco-Jacoba Law Firm (“Jacoba Law Firm”) was lawyer for the plaintiff in an unlawful detainer case.  They won the case at the level of the municipal trial court.  But the defendant appealed and won at the level of  the regional trial court presided over by Judge Ubaldino A. Lacurum.  As is routinely done by a number of self-respecting but losing lawyers, Jacoba Law Firm filed a motion for reconsideration of the resolution by Judge Lacurum.

In the said motion for reconsideration, linguistic indignation, if not rage, like Prometeus, was unbound. In its motion, the Jacoba law firm described the resolution as “an abhorrent nullity”, a “legal monstrosity”, a “horrendous mistake”, a ‘horrible error”, a “real boner”, and “an insult to the Judiciary and an Anachronism in the Judicial Process”.  The good judge, hurt by the language, cited them, individually for contempt, and complained with the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.  After due hearing, the IBP found the Jacobas “prone to using offensive language and derogatory remarks and phrases which amounted to discourtesy and disrespect for authority”.  The Supreme Court agreed and meted out the penalty earlier described.

Undoubtedly, the Jacobas had a penchant for, to say the least, interesting language.  The husband assumed authorship of the motion for reconsideration that offended the gentle judge when he said that he simply “trained his guns and fired at the errors which he perceived and believed to be gigantic and monumental.” (Emphasis supplied). The wife, for her part, admitted that “if we are to pick such stringent words at random and bunch them together, side by side x x x then collectively and certainly they present a cacophonic picture of total and utter disrespect.” (Emphasis supplied). 

She consequently expressed willingness to apologize “for whatever mistake [they] may have committed in a moment of unguarded discretion when [they] may have ‘stepped on the line and gone out of bounds’.”  Clearly, she was contrite enough to be open to doing some version of the presidential “I am sorry”  for the “lapse of judgment” in the “Hello Garci” show.  Of the two apologies, I am not in a position to know which was more genuine; but I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of a fellow lawyer.

What I do doubt, however, based on my reading of the Jacobas case,  is whether that it was really what were written by the Jacobas, when taken by themselves, that made the Court impose disciplinary action on them.  After all, in at least three occasions, the Supreme Court was confronted with two of said words and phrases, and at no instance did the Supreme Court indicate any form of displeasure. 

In his dissent to the rare 5-5 decision in the early case of Ramos v. COMELEC, Justice Perfecto quoted in full the report of the provincial surgeon Domingo Abella, first lieutenant of the military police command in charge of the duties of watching the 1947 elections for the maintenance of peace and order in the town of Bato in Camarines Sur.  A paragraph in said report reads:

“In the election just held on 11 November 1947, the rules were reversed. The Nacionalistas were in the minority and were the complainants against the abuses of the Liberals who were in the saddle with the great differences that the abuses this time were widespread, flagrant, offensive to the conscience of any decent-thinking individual, and done so brazenly and with such audacity and self-assertion as to imply to the gullible that the law is on the side of the Liberals no matter what boners they might commit.” (Emphasis supplied. Ramos v. COMELEC, 80 Phil 722,732).  The rest of the members of the Court made no comment on the military man’s use of “boners”.

Many years later, the Supreme Court ponencia in Boysaw v. Interphil Promotions, quoted with approval the appellee’s contention that “the two qualities that ought to concur or dwell on each and every piece of evidence that is invoked as a ground for new trial in order to warrant the reopening…inhered separately on two unrelated species of proof” which “creates a legal  monstrosity that deserves no recognition.”  (Emphasis supplied. Boysaw v. Interphil Promotions, Inc. 148 SCRA 635,647).

And, as if confirming that it sees nothing wrong with the phrase “legal monstrosity”, the ponencia of a Supreme Court decision in  2000, Republic v. Salem Investment Corporation quoted verbatim, and without complaining, a petitioner’s contention assailing a ruling of the lower court as “absurd and preposterous.  It is a legal monstrosity.” (Republic v. Salem, 334 SCRA  320,337).

Clearly, at least two of the words and phrases used by the Jacobas were considered innocuous.  A more detailed research, I am confident, would indicate the courts’ tolerance of the others. So what could have made the Supreme Court see them in a different light the same when written by the Jacobas?  Aside from the contextual tone of the entire motion (thus proving in a way that in law the sum is greater than the total of its parts), it appears to me that it was really the prior record of the Jacobas that worked against them.

Both spouses had previously been administratively penalized by the Supreme Court.  Mr. Jacoba was penalized with suspension from the practice of law for six months in Administrative Case No. 2594 and for one year in Administrative Cases No. 5505 for two different lapses of professional duty.  Mrs. Jacoba, in turn, was made to pay a fine of Php 5000 in Administrative Case No. 6296 for ignoring a prohibition in barangay conciliation.

These cases clearly had an influence on the Supreme Court’s decision to discipline. Ponente Justice Antonio T. Carpio wrote:

“In these cases, the Court sternly warned respondents that a repetition of similar acts would merit a stiffer penalty. Yet, here again we are faced with the question of whether respondents have conducted themselves with the courtesy and candor required of them as members of the bar and officers of the court.  We find respondents to have fallen short of the mark.” (Emphasis supplied. Lacurum v. Jacoba, A.C. No. 5921, March 10, 2006).

A strong dose of humility and obedience apparently is what is necessary to counter one’s predisposition to infelicitous language. Oremus.