Over the past days, an issue had people scratching their heads. According to news articles circulating on social media, a certain judge issued a subpoena directing certain traffic enforcers of Baguio City to appear before his sala to explain why they should not be charged with indirect contempt of court. Allegedly, the traffic enforcers confiscated the number plate of the judge while he was in the city attending a conference. According to available information, the judge’s vehicle was illegally parked in violation of a city ordinance. As a consequence the license plate was confiscated for the judge to claim from the City Government after payment of the corresponding penalty. News articles stated that the judge claimed that the confiscation violated due process and caused the cancellation of some of his hearings and in effect delayed the administration of justice. The news of the judge issuing the summons created an uproar on social media with some saying that no person must use his position to harass those who are not on the same level as his. Some lawyers were quick to lend their expertise and opined that the issuance of a subpoena without any case being filed in court is simply not consistent with existing laws, rules, or jurisprudence. Other lawyers added: he being the complainant or ‘victim’, the said judge cannot issue a subpoena on his own. As of press time, another news followed. The Supreme Court has directed the judge to explain why he issued the subpoena against the traffic enforcers.
But what is ‘indirect contempt’?
“Contempt of court is defined as a disobedience to the court by acting in opposition to its authority, justice, and dignity. It signifies not only a willful disregard or disobedience of the court’s order, but such conduct which tends to bring the authority of the court and the administration of law into disrepute or, in some manner, to impede the due administration of justice. It is a defiance of the authority, justice, or dignity of the court which tends to bring the authority and administration of the law into disrespect or to interfere with or prejudice party-litigants or their witnesses during litigation.” (BPI vs Calanza, G.R. No. 180699, October 13, 2010) In the case quoted above, the sheriff in that case was included in the case for indirect contempt for implementing the writ of execution issued by the labor arbiter who was also included in the case. This writ was supposedly issued prematurely. According to the SC, the sheriff “was only performing his duty pursuant to the writ of execution. No matter how erroneous the writ was, it was issued by LA Calanza and was addressed to him as the sheriff, commanding him to collect from petitioner the amount due Enriquez and Sia.” He could not be held liable for contempt for merely obeying an order from a person who had the authority to do so. The labor arbiter was also absolved by the Court because “the erroneous issuance of the writ of execution by LA Calanza can only be deemed grave abuse of discretion which is more properly the subject of a petition for certiorari and not a petition for indirect contempt”.
I can only wonder what the outcome of the present issue will be. Whether the traffic enforcers were guilty of indirect contempt or the judge committed an error in issuing the subpoena against them, I can never presume to know.