• House of Representatives should abide by judicial processes

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    AL S. VITANGCOL III

    To preserve integrity of co-equal branch of govt

    THE nation’s attention will again be focused on the House of Representatives when it convenes for its second regular session this month, not just because of the President’s state of the nation but also because of a scheduled hearing on July 25 of its committee on good government and public accountability. Ilocos Norte Gov. Imee Marcos has been subpoenaed to attend the hearing.

    The committee has since early May been conducting hearings, supposedly in aid of legislation, on the alleged improper use of the tobacco excise tax by the Ilocos Norte provincial government. House Majority Leader Rudy Fariñas initiated the inquiry, claiming that Governor Marcos violated several laws when she allowed the purchase of vehicles using funds from the tobacco excise tax.

    Six Ilocos Norte provincial officers who were invited to attend the hearings were accused of lying by Fariñas who then moved for the committee to cite them in contempt. The motion was approved and the six officers, thereafter tagged the “Ilocos 6” were ordered detained at the House.

    To regain their freedom, the Ilocos6 filed a petition for the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus before the Court of Appeals on June 1. The appellate court’s Fourth Division granted the petition and ordered the release of the detained officials.

    This is where the problem lies now. The House has refused to honor the court order. What’s more, the House committee has decided to issue a show-cause order against the justices who issued the writ—Acting Presiding Justice Stephen Cruz, Justices Erwin Sorongon and Nina Antonio-Valenzuela—on why they should not be held in contempt of Congress.

    The Constitution provides for three co-equal branches of government—the legislative (consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives), the executive, and the judiciary. None is supreme over the other.

    Likewise, the Constitution specifies that “the judicial power shall be vested in one Supreme Court.” It states, “judicial power includes the duty of the courts of justice to settle actual controversies involving rights which are legally demandable and enforceable, and to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion … on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the government.” Thus, judicial power can be applied to “any branch or instrumentality of the government,” including Congress.

    Misunderstandings about the powers of Congress and the courts are not new.

    One of the earliest case law is that of Lopez v. Delos Reyes (55 Phil 170) where Lopez was detained under a warrant of arrest issued by the Speaker of the House for contempt. Justice Malcolm wrote: “We recur again to the oft-repeated and all-controlling thought that the legislative power to punish for contempt arises by implication, is justified only by the right of self-preservation, and is the least possible power adequate to the end proposed. We point out again that where imprisonment is imposed for contempt of a legislative body in the United States, it terminates with the adjournment of the session of the body in which the contempt occurred.” Here, the court declared that detention ends when the session adjourns.

    Under the 1935 Constitution, one important precedent is Arnault v.Balagtas (97 Phil 358) where Arnault was held pursuant to a Senate resolution. The Supreme Court declared: “We must assume that the Senate will not be disposed to exert the power beyond its proper bounds. And if, contrary to this assumption, proper limitations are disregarded, the portals of this court are always open to those whose rights might thus be transgressed.” Thus, relief can be sought from the judiciary.

    In Bengzon v. Senate blue ribbon committee (203 SCRA 767) the court ruled that when “the judiciary mediates to allocate constitutional boundaries, it does not assert any superiority over the other departments; it does not in reality nullify or invalidate an act of the legislature, but only asserts the solemn and sacred obligation assigned to it by the Constitution.”

    This was again reiterated in the 2009 case of De la Paz v. Senate committee on foreign relations. The Supreme Court maintained that, the Constitution had been traditionally construed to have granted full discretionary authority to Congress in the formulation and promulgation of its own rules. As such, the exercise of this power is generally exempt from judicial supervision and interference, except on a clear showing of such arbitrary and improvident use of the power as will constitute a denial of due process.

    The decision of the Court of Appeals, which the House has defied, could be assailed and appealed before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, in the exercise of its appellate jurisdiction may, “review, revise, reverse, modify, or affirm on appeal or certiorari … final judgments and orders of lower courts,” including that of the CA.
    To avoid any impasse, the House of Representatives should abide by judicial processes. It could have elevated the questioned order of the CA to the Supreme Court for final resolution. The looming rift with the judiciary could have been avoided if the House’s contempt powers are discharged with circumspection and deference. Corollary with the doctrine of separation of powers is the obligation to respect a co-equal branch of government.

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