Because of the Senate impeachment trial, contempt has become almost a household word. During the nationally televised hearings, the impeachment court has held two lawyers, one from each of the contending sides, guilty of contempt. However, after devoting much trial time on the issue, the Senate penalized the two with a mere “slap on the wrist.” So readers posed this question to me during the past weeks, which, for lack of space and time, I have not been able to answer: “Is this a case of too much ado about nothing?”

First, a little background. Recall that private prosecution lawyer Vitaliano Aguirre II was cited for contempt for cupping his ears with his hands while Senator-Judge Miriam Defensor Santiago was berating the prosecution for suddenly dropping five of the eight articles of impeachment and instantly resting its case against Chief Justice Renato C. Corona.

The feisty senator described Aguirre’s fully televised antic as “a galactic act of epal” that disrespected the Senate. Nonetheless, according to Majority Leader Vicente Sotto, “within two to three minutes” during a subsequent caucus, the Senate decided to simply admonish Aguirre, who was earlier caught by television cameras packing his clothes in preparation for an expected heavier sanction of detention.

On the other hand, the entire defense team, except retired Justice Serafin Cuevas, was cited for contempt for announcing, in a press conference, Malacañang’s alleged offer to the senators P100 million each in “soft projects” to defy a Supreme Court temporary restraining order barring inquiry into Chief Justice Corona’s dollar accounts.

Pressed to name their source and to prove their claim of bribery, none of the lawyers could comply. And yet, only one of them, Jose Roy III, was punished by the Senate, and with the very light penalty of reprimand. Roy gallantly accepted the sanction, saying, “I thank the impeachment court that [the other defense lawyers] were not included in the penalty.”

Contempt defined. Senate Resolution 39 governing the procedure for impeachment trials authorizes the Senate “to punish in a summary way contempt.” However, the resolution does not define it. On the other hand, the Supreme Court defines contempt quite broadly as “any misbehavior or conduct tending directly or indirectly to impede, obstruct, or degrade the administration of justice.”

When the misbehavior is committed “in the presence of or near a court,” it is direct contempt. When made in any other place, it is indirect contempt. Direct contempt may be punished summarily but indirect contempt requires a formal written charge and hearing because it was done without the personal knowledge of the judge.

On this basis, Aguirre’s conduct—having been done in open court—constituted direct contempt that could be punished summarily without need of a formal written charge and hearing. In contrast, the press conference of the defense team was conducted outside the view of the court and thus constituted indirect contempt requiring a formal charge and a hearing separate from the impeachment trial. However, this due process requirement became irrelevant when Roy instantly accepted the light penalty.

The sanctions for contempt range from detention (or imprisonment), to a fine, to reprimand plus, when applicable, restitution of the object illegally seized by the contemnor, apology to the aggrieved party, and compliance with the defied court order.

Interestingly, plain admonition, which the impeachment court imposed on Aguirre, is not a penalty. According to the Supreme Court (in Re: Letter of Presiding Justice Vasquez, Oct. 15, 2008), “What is considered as a penalty under Rule 140 of the Rules of Court is an ‘admonition with warning,’ which should be distinguished from plain admonition.”

Rationale for light sanctions. When the source of the contempt is an act or language protected by the constitutional right to free speech, courts are cautious in imposing extreme penalties because of the heavy bias of the Constitution in favor of free expression.

Thus, even in the celebrated contempt proceedings against law professors of the University of the Philippines (Re: Letter of the UP Faculty, Oct. 15, 2008) the Supreme Court’s decision, penned by Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro, merely imposed admonition, ruling:

“In a democracy, members of the legal community are hardly expected to have monolithic views on any subject, be it legal, political or social issue. Even as lawyers passionately and vigorously propound their points of view, they are bound by certain rules of conduct for the legal profession. This Court is certainly not claiming that it should be shielded from criticism. All the Court demands is the same respect and courtesy that one lawyer owes to another under established ethical standards.”

Incidentally, this “same respect and courtesy that one lawyer owes to another under established ethical standards” is the same mantra used by Aguirre in defending himself before the impeachment court.

In sum, I believe contempt should be invoked judiciously and sparingly, especially in matters involving free expression. Instead of delving on doubtful contempt cases, it may be more prudent for courts to set an example of dignified restraint. To avoid the impression of trivializing contempt as “much ado about nothing,” it may be better to heed the advice of the old 1918 case US vs Bustos that in the end, a clear conscience, not muzzled critics, is the balm for wounds caused by hostile acts and language.

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