House of investigations

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

HOUSE Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez is on the warpath against the judiciary, when the last thing the country needs now is for these two branches of government to be at each other’s throats while the President is busy fighting another war in Marawi.

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I am not a lawyer. But in my profession as an inhabitant of the discipline of political science, we see things not in the context of the hardened boundaries of the law, but in the dynamic context of political institutions.

It is germane in our constitutional democracy that the branches of government have specific tasks assigned vis-à-vis the law. The executive implements the law that the legislature makes, and when there is conflict, it is the judiciary that interprets the law.

Congress is tasked to formulate laws, and not to investigate malfeasance and misfeasance. Whatever investigative powers it has is derived from the limited allocation given to it by the Constitution, as spelled out in Sections 21 and 22 of Article VI. In fact, the word used by the framers is not “investigation” but “inquiries” to emphasize the limitations to the nature of the power of Congress.

Section 21 states that “The Senate or the House of Representatives or any of its respective committees may conduct inquiries in aid of legislation in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure. The rights of persons appearing in, or affected by, such inquiries shall be respected.”

It is understood that any legislative inquiry must be in relation to a legislative intent. It is therefore anomalous that any congressional inquiry must take on the character of an inquisitorial proceeding where invited guests are treated not as resource persons to contribute information for the passage of a law, but as accused and respondents being cross-examined for their culpability in a criminal or administrative offense.

Congress retains its oversight functions, and the constitutional provision which spells this out is in Section 22, which states that “The heads of departments may, upon their own initiative, with the consent of the President, or upon the request of either House, as the rules of each House shall provide, appear before and be heard by such House on any matter pertaining to their departments.”

Thus, the purpose of the oversight function is to enable Congress to inquire into the manner by which the laws they crafted are being implemented by the executive branch. It is here that possible anomalies are inquired into, but always in aid of legislation.

Congress also has the opportunity to subject the executive branch to review and scrutiny during budget deliberations.

But beyond this, any investigative powers of Congress that takes on the character of a prosecutorial proceeding is an anomaly.

Thus, it is therefore of grave concern that Congress, through one of its committees, has ordered the detention of six career officials of Ilocos Norte.

If the real purpose of the hearings is in aid of legislation, one has to ask what legislative intent would be compromised and how the crafting of a law is undermined when resource persons do not provide the answer that would please Congress, enough for the latter to deny them their liberties. I am sure there are other ways for the legislators to get the information they need to pass or amend laws.

And if Congress or any of its members feel that a crime or administrative offense has been committed, then the proper remedy is to bring the matter before the Ombudsman, or the justice department, for proper investigation.

What is even more disturbing is that not only has Congress repeatedly defied the order of the Court of Appeals, an entity of the judiciary, a co-equal branch of government, to release the six from detention. The Speaker even threatened to abolish the appellate court.

Speaker Alvarez commits two serious errors in his appreciation of the principle of institutional checks and balances. He thinks Congress can abolish lower courts, when on the contrary such power is limited by the fact that it should not affect the security of tenure of judges. He also isolates the Court of Appeals from the entire judiciary, seeking to demean it as a lesser component of a co-equal branch of government.

The judiciary is not just the Supreme Court, but refers to the collective court system that includes all lower courts.

Thus, a Court of Appeals judge is not necessarily lower than the entire Congress, in the same way that a House committee is not necessarily lower than the Supreme Court en banc. It is not an issue of hierarchies, but an issue of what is the aspect of the life of a political community that one branch has power over to the exclusion of the other branches of government.

On matters of legislation, Congress is supreme. But on matters of interpreting the law, and on acting on petitions for the enjoyment and protection of rights, it is the judiciary that should prevail.

The Speaker and the entire House must take a lesson from the Senate experience in Neri v. Senate, a decision penned by Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro. It is the controlling jurisprudence on the contempt-citing powers of Congress. Far from providing blanket powers to Congress to cite for contempt and detain anyone, the ruling defined the limits of such powers.

And in case Speaker Alvarez missed the lesson of Neri, Congress lost the case.

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2 Comments

  1. I agree with Speaker Alvarez regarding our corrupt judiciary but not now that our nation is in turmoil. We need unity right now. Poor Duterte, he is trying but unsuccessful in fixing this drug infested nation.