Eventually, it’s difficult to bite the hand that feeds.
A judge has decided to let go of handling the long-running land dispute between the Rallos heirs and the Cebu City government over a P133-million money claim that City Hall refuses to pay.
In a one-page order, Regional Trial Court (RTC) Judge James Stewart Ramon Himalaloan said he is inhibiting from further hearing the civil case.
He cited only one reason for withdrawing— the monthly stipend that local judges receive from the city government that places him in an awkward position.
“Regardless of who are the officials standing for the defendant, a juridical entity, it is clear that defendant Cebu City is among the handful of local government units in the country that comply with the provision of the Local Government Code providing assistance to the judiciary adequately,” the judge said in his Nov. 16 omnibus order.
“This is enough just and valid ground for the sitting judge to inhibit himself from the two cases for his exercise of judicial discretion may be questioned on the matter especially as to the indirect contempt case,” he wrote.
The judge receives a monthly allowance of P30,000 from the Cebu City government like other RTC judges assigned in the city.
Pressure on the case has been building up since Sept. 23, when Judge Himalaloan issued a writ of execution against the Cebu City government on a final judgment to pay P133 million to heirs of the late Rev. Fr. Vicente Rallos for a private lot used as a road in barangay Sambag.
With his withdrawal, the possibility now arises that other Cebu judges who also receive a stipend from City Hall would keep their hands off the case.
Roy Rallos, one of the claimants, said the family will ask the judge to reconsider his decision because he has handled the case fairly.
“I respect the judge’s decision to inhibit. (But) we don’t know what will happen to the case. If it will be re-raffled, I guess the judge who will handle it also receives an allowance from the city. In effect, no one will handle it,” said Rallos.
Rallos said he understands their dilemma over the stipend.
“Usa baya na sa makaikog nila (Sometimes, they feel uncomfortable about it),” he said.
Himalaloan is the presiding judge of RTC Branch 62 in Oslob town, south Cebu.
He took over the case of Heirs of Rallos vs. Cebu City when he was assigned to Branch 9 in Cebu City in an acting capacity in the second half of the year. He filled the vacancy left by Judge Geraldine Faith Econg, who was assigned to Manila as chief of the Program Management Office of the Supreme Court.
Judge Himalaloan handles the main civil case for forfeiture of improvements and a recent petition for indirect contempt filed by one of their heirs, Lucina Rallos, against the Philippine Veterans Bank (PVB) and Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama for refusing to pay up.
A colleague, Judge Meinrado Paredes, former RTC executive judge, yesterday said he believes Judge Himalaloan shouldn’t back off.
“He should not inhibit himself from handling that case. You can handle cases even if you receive an allowance from the city if a judge knows he is impartial,” Paredes told Cebu Daily News.
“Otherwise, if he decides to inhibit, he might as well, refuse the allowances from the city government.”
Lawyer Jade Ponce, one of Mayor Rama’s consultants, declined to comment on the judge’s decision to inhibit. He said the city hasn’t received a copy yet.
The Cebu City government yesterday filed a motion for reconsideration on the court ruling to pay the Ralloses at least P133 million.
The city also asked the court to set aside notices of garnishment sent to the city’s depository banks in the Land Bank of the Philippines, Philippine Postal Bank, Development Bank of the Philippines and Philippine Veterans Bank.
The same notice was sent to three SM companies, who are partners of Cebu City in developing a commercial complex in the South Road Properties.
When Judge Himalaloan ruled against City Hall, he noted that the original judgement to be executed “is the decision of the Court of Appeals,” which the Supreme Court “did not even disturb” when the case was raised to the High Court.
City Hall lawyers, on instruction of Mayor Rama, are challenging the order. In heir motion for reconsideration, lawyers said there was already full satisfaction of the judgment.
They are banking on the recent discovery of an old document that showed the Rallos family sought to donate part of the family’s property to the Cebu City government for use as a road.
The “convenio” or a compromise agreement approved by the court in the 1940s revealed the family’s arrangement regarding the road, which is now being used by the government.
The court said Cebu city owes the Rallos heirs P44 million but the amount ballooned to P133 million last October due to interest accumulated through the years.
In 2001 and 2002, the sheriff made several garnishments worth P34.9 million. Another P21 million was levied on the city in 2008.
To fully carry out the court order, an auction is scheduled on Dec. 13 for city-owned property in the SRP for about 9.7 hectares.
Ponce, its legal consultant, advised Fuentes not to continue with the auction.
He cited Supreme Court Circular 10-2000 and a Commission on Audit (COA) report, which stated that “all money claims against the government must first be filed with the COA.” /By Ador Vincent Mayol, Reporter