>MANILA, Philippines – The Supreme Court (SC) rejected yesterday Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez’s bid to stop Congress from hearing the impeachment cases filed against her by two militant groups for her alleged inaction on corruption and human rights cases involving former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her officials.
But SC spokesman Midas Marquez advised the House committee on justice to let the High Court rule first with finality on Gutierrez’s plea before hearing the impeachment cases. Gutierrez was an Arroyo appointee.
He explained that with the ruling, the SC in effect has lifted its status quo ante order that temporarily stopped the House committee from proceeding with the impeachment cases.
“The decision is not yet final, and the rules provide for filing of a motion for reconsideration. It would be more prudent if the House will respect the procedure on appeal since this case is being prioritized by the Court anyway so that (possible appeal) would be immediately resolved,” Marquez told a press conference.
Marquez’s advice to the House committee came after the Ombudsman’s office voiced its plan to appeal the SC ruling.
“The decision is not yet final. We will file a motion for reconsideration,” Gutierrez told The STAR.
“Our office has not yet received the official copy of the said decision. Pending such receipt, the Ombudsman is still studying her options, including the filing of a Motion of Reconsideration on the said decision,” Assistant Ombudsman and spokesman Jose de Jesus Jr. said in a statement.
Malacañang called the SC decision a “welcome reiteration of normal constitutional practice.”
Solicitor General Joel Cadiz said he was hopeful the SC would eventually reaffirm its ruling.
“We salute and thank the Supreme Court for upholding the separation of its powers with that of a co-equal branch of government – Congress,” he told The STAR over the phone.
The SC justices voted 7-5-2 in full court session to dismiss Gutierrez’s petition to stop the House committee on justice from proceeding with the consolidated impeachment complaints filed by former Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros and the militant group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) last year.
The High Court said the House committee did not violate the one-year constitutional ban on successive impeachment proceedings against an official, contrary to the claim of Gutierrez.
“The majority has decided there is no violation of the one-year ban and interpreted that the prohibition is on more than one impeachment complaint,” Marquez explained.
The SC justices who voted for the continuation of the impeachment hearings were Associate Justices Antonio Carpio, Conchita Carpio-Morales, Jose Mendoza, Roberto Abad, Maria Lourdes Sereno, Antonio Eduardo Nachura, Martin Villarama. Carpio-Morales penned the ruling.
Chief Justice Renato Corona and Associate Justices Arturo Brion, Lucas Bersamin, Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, and Diosdado Peralta dissented.
Associate Justices Mariano del Castillo and Jose Perez submitted a separate “partial” concurring opinion. They said only the first impeachment complaint – filed by Hontiveros – should be admitted.
“We have two justices concurring in part because they believe that while the second impeachment complaint might be banned, there is nothing to stop the first impeachment complaint from proceeding,” said Marquez.
Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco inhibited himself from the proceedings because his son, Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco, is a member of the House justice committee.
Marquez said the SC believes the impeachment cases – filed on July 22 and Aug. 3 last year – may be tackled as one because they were jointly referred to the House committee on Aug. 11.
“The complaints were referred to the House justice committee at the same time so the committee was doing only one proceeding,” he explained.
In her petition, Gutierrez argued that the second complaint violated the one-year ban on the filing of more than one impeachment complaint and that the move of the committee to consolidate the two was a “circumvention” of such ban.
But the SC stressed that the ban under Article XI Section 3(5) of the Constitution, which states that “no impeachment proceedings shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a period of one year,” does not refer to the number of impeachment complaints filed against the same public official.
It also junked the claim of the Ombudsman that her right to due process was violated and that the impeachment complaints against her do not meet the standards laid down by the committee itself for the determination of sufficiency in substance.
“There is no denial of due process since the respondent can file an answer after complaint has been declared sufficient in form and substance,” Marquez explained, quoting the ruling.
The groups of Hontiveros and Bayan moved to have Gutierrez impeached for her failure to act on corruption and human rights cases against the Arroyo administration.
She is accused of culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust.
Last Sept. 1, the House justice committee found the two complaints sufficient in form. Six days after, the same panel, voting 41-16, declared the complaints sufficient in substance.
The same committee had junked the impeachment complaints against Mrs. Arroyo for violation of the one-year ban.
Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas, House justice committee vice chairman, welcomed the ruling and said Gutierrez now has no choice but to face the panel again and answer the charges against her.
“That (SC ruling) has been our position all along, and we commend the SC for upholding us,” Fariñas said.
“This is all about accountability of the Ombudsman, and all other high officials who can only be removed from office by impeachment, which the Constitution tasks the House of Representatives as the exclusive power to initiate it,” he said.
He said the committee left off with Gutierrez being asked to respond to the two impeachment complaints. Instead,
Gutierrez went to the SC to contest the complaints.
“She (Gutierrez) will have to answer to us (justice committee) now,” Fariñas said.
“There in her answer, she can say anything she wants to say,” he said.
After receiving her answer, Fariñas said the panel would meet to determine whether there is probable cause to proceed with its investigation into the allegations against the Ombudsman.
On Gutierrez’s appealing the SC decision, Fariñas said, “Who knows, she can sway the other justices (to reverse their opinion).”
Fariñas said Gutierrez would have to answer the complaints within 10 days from SC’s issuance of a final ruling.
Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tañada III called the SC ruling “another triumph in the fight for accountability from our public officers.”
“Finally we can continue our quest for truth because that was what the proceedings were all about in the first place: getting at the truth. It is easy to forget what started this all, which was the question of the Ombudsman’s fitness to continue in office,” Tañada said.
“We now have an Ombudsman whose integrity is in doubt. Obviously, we cannot have that. Her position is so imbued with public interest that she must not only be above question, but beyond reproach,” he said.
Palace welcomes ruling
At Malacañang, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the SC decision is a major boost to the administration’s campaign for accountability.
“The SC decision effectively allowing the House to proceed with the impeachment of the Ombudsman is a welcome reiteration of normal constitutional practice,” Lacierda said.
“The Filipino people will be observing the process as it unfolds in the legislature. According to constitutional processes, the truth is the bulwark of good governance and accountability, which are in everyone’s interest,” he said.
“The Ombudsman’s less than stellar record in fulfilling the mandate of her office has caused dismay in a country seeking progress in the fight for accountability and against corruption,” Lacierda said in a statement.
“This has moved the House to seek accountability, in turn, from the Ombudsman. All citizens for good, transparent, accountable government can only welcome the SC’s removal of an obstacle to pursuing justice and honesty in public service,” he said.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan said the SC move disproved allegations that SC justices were protecting Arroyo and her former officials.
“We welcome the Supreme Court’s ruling on the impeachment case against the Ombudsman. There was this growing perception that the Supreme Court was taking the cudgels for former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo whose administration has cases that have been gathering dust in the Ombudsman,” Pangilinan said.
“The failure of the Ombudsman to act swiftly on corruption cases has emboldened many to continue with their corrupt ways. The last thing we want is a Supreme Court that is perceived to be a stumbling block in the efforts to address pervasive corruption in government,” he said.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile also welcomed the SC’s ruling on the issue but declined to comment further as the impeachment complaint might reach the Senate.
Sen. Francis Escudero said he is worried the impeachment proceedings might drag on until the end of Guiterrez’s term in October 2012.
Escudero said removing Gutierrez would have been easier had the lawmakers focused on the legality of her term.
Escudero said Gutierrez is serving a full seven-year term. He said Gutierrez should have just served the unfinished term of her predecessor Simeon Marcelo who resigned.
“I haven’t read the decision yet, but it sounds to me like good law because if the Supreme Court issues any kind of restraining order against an impeachment complaint, in effect that will negate the power of Congress to try and actually decide impeachment cases,” Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said.
“Even assuming for the sake of argument that the Supreme Court reiterates its original decision, then the House of Representatives would have about three months. So we’re looking at about six months before the case comes to the Senate,” Santiago said. With Christina Mendez, Paolo Romero, Delon Porcalla and Michael Punongbayan – By Edu Punay