Legal Notes – Impeaching Merceditas: Status Unknown

Legal Notes – Sept. 16, 2010

Rep. Kaka Bag-ao

Akbayan Party-list

North-wing 616, House of Representatives

Phone – 9316026 or 9315001 loc 7435 | Email: repbagao@gmail.com |Contact Annie Bag-ao (+639088849546)

Impeaching Merceditas: Status Unknown

Assuming that the House Committee on Justice will simply tackle the first complaint and leave the second complaint to the rulings of the Supreme Court, or assuming that the House Committee on Justice, proceeds with the hearings on the basis of an ad cautelam proceeding, will the Supreme Court cite the HCJ in contempt of court?

When the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court over the Committee on Justice of the House of Representative is being questioned; when the Supreme Court does not have the right to pass upon the sufficiency of the form and substance of the complaints; when the Supreme Court does not have the right to pass upon the propriety of having two impeachment complaints: the Supreme Court does not have the power even to cite the Committee on Justice in contempt of court.

Status quo ante in ordinary parlance means to go back to the situation before whatever happened or before the matter being discussed at the present. In the case of the Supreme Court issuance of the Status Quo ante order with regard to the impeachment proceeding against the Ombudsman Ma. Merceditas N. Gutierrez on-going before the House Committee on Justice (HCJ) of the House of Representatives, the order appears to be a directive to the HCJ to suspend its proceedings and observe the situation before the “issuance of the September 1, 2010 and September 7, 2010 Resolutions of the [HCJ] which found the separate Impeachment Complaints filed by Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel, et al., on July 22, 2010 and by Renato Reyes, Jr. et.al., on August 3, 2010, sufficient in form and substance.”

The question that immediately comes to the lawyers, the law students and the curious public is whether the same amounts to an encroachment by the Supreme Court in the affairs of a co-equal body, like the House of Representatives.

It is a given that there are three branches of the government, the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary. The Legislative branch includes the Senate and the House of Representative while the judiciary of course refers to the courts and the Supreme Court, which is the sole and final arbiter of all justiciable issues by way of judicial review as a form of check and balance against potential abuses by the other branches of the government. The House of Representative, aside from its being the representatives of the people and presumably representing the voice and the sentiment of the people,  under Article XI of the Philippine Constitution has also been given the sole and exclusive power to initiate impeachment proceedings.

In its order, the Supreme Court required not only the HCJ but also the complainants (Risa Hontiveros, et al.) to file Comments to the Petition filed by Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez.  Do the complainants have the power to pass upon the sufficiency in form and substance of the complaints?  Do the complainants have the power to decide whether considering 2 complaints is proper?  Aren’t these powers exclusive to the HCJ?  Why are the complainants being made to explain before the Supreme Court?  Isn’t the status quo ante directed against the HCJ?

During the hearings conducted by the HCJ on 01 September and 07 September, the issue of the two complaints have been raised by some congressmen.  And the body agreed, by way of voting, to pass these now assailed Resolutions noting the manifestations and objections of the congressmen concerned, particularly with regard to the issue of the existence of 2 impeachment complaints which matter was thoroughly discussed. Did the Status Quo Ante Order in effect, prejudge the HCJ by stating that the HCJ is wrong in the way they conducted their proceedings? Is the Supreme Court now telling the HCJ how to conduct its proceedings?

While the argument on the issue of independence of a co-equal body, not to mention the fact that the Constitution explicitly recognizes the sole prerogative of Congress to promulgate its own rules of impeachment, will most likely have different interpretations depending on whose side one favors, it cannot be helped that the issuance of the Status Quo Ante order may trigger a potential Constitutional crisis.

Assuming that there is a justiciable issue and there is no issue on encroachment on the independence of the House of Representatives, should not a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) suffice? At the very least, the TRO will just direct the HCJ to not proceed until the justiciable matter, assuming there is one, can be ruled upon by the Supreme Court, instead of the Status Quo Ante order which means that all the proceedings undertaken by the HCJ is now subject to review by the Supreme Court?

Was the Supreme Court, in its status quo order making sure that the impeachment proceedings before the Committee on Justice of the House become impossible to impeach high officers of the government including the Supreme Court justices?

A reading of the petition filed by the ombudsman shows that the issues she has raised go far beyond the issue on the 2 impeachment complaints but delve also on the issue of sufficiency of form and substance and the alleged lack of definitive rules of impeachment. The ombudsman is already questioning the grounds for her impeachment, which under the Rules of Impeachment, she should have done so before the HCJ and not the Supreme Court. And yet, the Supreme is now being asked to rule on these issues.  Are these justiciable issues already or better left to the HCJ to determine?

Considering that the order is for Status Quo Ante, even proceeding with just simply the first impeachment complaint has been placed in a quandary now. Because the order basically states that the HCJ should observe the situation prior to 01 September 2010, the HCJ cannot even act on the first complaint because then the Resolution finding the first complaint sufficient in form and substance is now being questioned before the Supreme Court? Is this not an encroachment or curtailment on the power of Congress?

Clearly, there are no definitive answers to the questions until after the Supreme Court rules on the matter. And in the case of Congress, until it decides to proceed with the proceedings notwithstanding the Supreme Court directive. Can these also lead to an impeachment complaint against the Supreme Court justices for culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust?   Status unknown.

*** A lawyer by profession, AKBAYAN Rep. Kaka Bag-ao was the Convenor of the Alternative Legal Group, a network of NGOs providing legal support to marginalized communities. She was the legal counsel of the Sumilao farmers.



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