Legal Notes – Legal Implications of Continuing with the Impeachment Proceedings for the House of Representatives

Legal Notes – Sept. 28, 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)

Legal Implications of Continuing with the Impeachment Proceedings for the House of Representatives

Today (September 28, 2010), the House Committee on Justice is expected to continue to perform its constitutional mandate and to tackle the status quo ante order issued by the Supreme Court.

Will the committee be cited for contempt? I think citing the House Committee on Justice in contempt of court is adding insult to a Constitutional injury.

The matter of impeachment is purely a political question which is not subject to judicial inquiry.  The Supreme Court does not have the power even to cite the House Committee on Justice in contempt of court should it choose to proceed with the impeachment proceedings.

The initiation of impeachment proceedings is a political question. This is the reason why the Constitution lodged the full discretionary authority over impeachment proceedings with the Congress, a political organ of the government.  Being vested with the sovereign power to initiate all cases of impeachment, the House of Representatives has adopted its own rules of procedure in impeachment proceedings.

When the separate Impeachment Complaints filed by Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel, et.al., (July 22, 2010) and by Renato Reyes, Jr. et.al., (August 3, 2010), were referred (August 11), the House Committee on Justice deliberated on the matter and thereafter, decided on the sufficiency in form (September 1) and substance (September 7) of the impeachment complaints. However, the process does not end there as the impeachment process is still in the initiatory stage.  The House Committee on Justice still has to determine the sufficiency of the grounds for impeachment, require the parties to submit evidence, and conduct hearings to determine if there are enough reasons to impeach Ombudsman Gutierrez. The Articles of Impeachment that will be prepared will be presented to the House plenary for approval.

After voting that the complaints are sufficient in form and substance, the House Committee on Justice notified (September 7) Ombudsman Gutierrez and required her to file her answer to the complaints. Instead of doing so, Ombudsman Gutierrez sought relief from the Supreme Court (September 9 when she filed a Petition for Certiorari and Prohibition with Prayer for the Issuance of a Temporary Restraining Order and/or Writ of Preliminary Injunction) and obtained a status quo ante order the following day (September 10).

As a result of the status quo ante order, Ombudsman Gutierrez did not and has not filed her answer to the complaints as directed by the House Committee on Justice.  Notably, during the deliberations by the House Committee on Justice on the sufficiency in substance (September 7), Ombudsman Gutierrez, through her counsel sought for a reconsideration of the findings of the House Committee on Justice, despite the fact that she has not yet been made to answer the complaints filed against her.

Although the petition filed by Ombudsman Gutierrez is now pending before the Supreme Court, the controversy sparked by her premature filing has been the subject of numerous opinions and opposing views and until the Supreme Court finally rules on this issue, the controversy will be dissected, discussed, and be subject of numerous interpretations and opinions. Nonetheless, it is an unassailable reality that the House Committee on Justice has the sole authority to deliberate on the sufficiency of the grounds for impeachment based on the complaints filed and the evidence and counter-evidence presented.

Accordingly, the complaints are supposed to go through the internal process as structured by House of Representatives in the exercise of its sole discretion and prerogative to determine if the impeachment complaints have sufficient grounds to proceed to the next stage.  The House Committee on Justice can actually decide to dismiss both complaints, accept one and dismiss the other or even decide to consolidate both. In deciding on which option to take, the Supreme Court cannot second-guess the House of Representative without impinging on the independence and the sole jurisdiction of the House of Representatives on impeachment cases. In short, the Supreme Court, in the current status of the impeachment proceeding against Ombudsman Gutierrez, does not yet have a justiciable question to be addressed.

<span>On citing the House Justice Committee in contempt</span>

Anent the foregoing apparent legal conundrum, there is a corollary issue that should pique the curiosity of many lawyers and the public on the issue of contempt. Can the House Committee on Justice be cited in contempt of court by the Supreme Court if the committee decides to proceed with its own committee hearings despite the status quo ante order?

In a long line of cases decided by the Supreme Court, the Court’s inherent power to punish persons in contempt is essential to the preservation of order in judicial proceedings and to the reinforcement of its lawful orders and decisions.  In the usual course of things, a person cited in contempt is meted with the penalty of imprisonment and/or payment of a fine.  Pushing further the issue of contempt, in the event that the Supreme Court finds the House Committee on Justice to be in contempt of court for proceeding with its hearings and deliberations on the impeachment complaints against Ombudsman Gutierrez, can the Supreme Court also order the arrest and imprisonment of the committee members for carrying out its Constitutional mandate? If the House Committee on Justice proceed in contravention of the status quo ante order, will this trigger a Constitutional crisis?

Being vested with the sovereign power to initiate all cases of impeachment, the House of Representatives is clothed with the power to issue and adopt its own rules of procedure in impeachment proceedings. As in the 1987 Constitution, the House rules of procedure also requires the justice committee to submit its report to the House within sixty (60) session days[1] from referral. Considering that the submission of report within 60 session days is a Constitutional mandate, the Justice Committee has the duty to finish the report and submit it to the House within the same period. Complying with such mandate by continuing with the impeachment proceeding is in accordance with the Constitution. Hence, no constitutional infirmity can be raised on this aspect.

Similarly, under the same justification, the running of the ten (10) day period[2] for Gutierrez to file her answer is not suspended by the status quo ante order of the Supreme Court. To rule otherwise will definitely affect the sixty session days within which the Committee on justice will have to submit the report to the House.

Impeachment is a political exercise under the sole discretion of the House of Representatives designed to serve as a deterrent and a sword against potential abuses by impeachable officers, including Supreme Court justices. The impeachment of Ombudsman Gutierrez, as some have voiced out, may only be the opening that the Supreme Court is looking for in order to make it more difficult for Congress to remove impeachable officers, including justices of the Supreme Court. While such a seeming conspiratorial scenario is just fodder for rumor mills, the same can serve as food for thought by the House of Representatives.

In the event that the House Committee on Justice decides to continue the impeachment proceedings despite the status quo ante order of the Supreme Court and agrees to grant Ombudsman Gutierrez sufficient period of time to file an Answer, the House Committee on Justice is doing it solely by reasons of equity and not because it is based on a right mandated by law since the 10-day period to file Answer has lapsed on September 17, 2010.

*** 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.

[1] Section 3 (2), Article 11, Philippine Constitution. X x x The Committee, after hearing, and by a majority vote of all its Members, shall submit its report to the House within sixty session days from such referral, together with the corresponding resolution. X x x

[2] Section 5,  House Rules of Procedure in Impeachment Proceedings.  If the Committee finds the complaint sufficient in form and substance, it shall immediately furnish the respondent(s) with a copy of the resolution and/or verified complaints, as the case may be, with written notice that he/.she shall answer the complaint within ten (10) days from receipt of notice thereof and serce the copy of the answer to the complainant(s). x x x



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One Response to Legal Notes – Legal Implications of Continuing with the Impeachment Proceedings for the House of Representatives

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