May House continue impeachment now?

IN GUTIERREZ v. House of Representatives (Feb. 15, 2011), the Supreme Court allowed the Committee on Justice of the House of Representatives to continue hearing the two complaints filed by former Rep. Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel and by Renato M. Reyes against Ombudsman Merceditas N. Gutierrez. It also lifted the status quo ante order that suspended the hearing. Question: May the House continue the hearing immediately even if the decision has not attained finality?

First, a brief background. Impeachment refers to the power of Congress to remove from office the President, Vice President, members of the Supreme Court and the constitutional commissions, and the Ombudsman.

The Constitution granted the House of Representatives the “exclusive power to initiate all cases of impeachment” for “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.” The Senate was given “the sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment.”

Baraquel and three others filed their complaint with the House secretariat on July 22, 2010, while Reyes and five others filed theirs on Aug. 3, 2010. Thereafter, the two complaints were on separate dates sent to the Speaker, then to the Committee on Rules, and then to the House Plenary Session which—at 4:47 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2010—“simultaneously referred both complaints” to the Committee on Justice.

After finding the two complaints “sufficient in form and substance,” the Committee directed Gutierrez to file her answer. Instead of doing so, the latter immediately went to the Supreme Court claiming that the Committee violated this constitutional provision: “No impeachment proceeding shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a period of one year.” The case hinged on the proper understanding of the words “proceeding” and “initiated” vis-à-vis the two complaints.

One proceeding. Penned by Justice Conchita Carpio Morales, the decision ruled that what the Constitution prohibits are multiple “proceedings” against the same official in the same year. It does not bar the filing of two (or more) complaints provided these multiple complaints are referred to the Committee on Justice on the same day and provided only one proceeding is conducted by the Committee for all the complaints.

Citing Francisco v. House of Representatives (Nov. 10, 2003), which she herself also wrote, Justice Morales explained that the term “initiate” means “to file the complaint and take action on it… It refers to the filing of the impeachment complaint coupled with Congress’ taking initial action on said complaint.” Initiation cannot be determined by the “senseless haste” in the filing of impeachment complaints in the House secretariat.

In sum, nine justices (Antonio T. Carpio, Morales, Antonio Eduardo B. Nachura, Mariano C. del Castillo, Roberto A. Abad, Martin S. Villarama Jr., Jose Portugal Perez, Jose Catral Mendoza and Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno) concurred that the impeachment can continue. Justices Del Castillo and Perez voted to allow only the Baraquel complaint but not that of Reyes. Five magistrates, Chief Justice Renato C. Corona, Justices Teresita J. Leonardo-de Castro, Arturo D. Brion, Diosdado M. Peralta and Lucas P. Bersamin, dissented. Justice Presbitero J. Velasco Jr. took no part.

Justice Sereno concurred with Justice Morales but for a different reason. She said that the “initiation” of the impeachment proceeding “should be counted from the House of Representative’s plenary action on the report of the Committee on Justice.”

She explained that the referral of the complaints to the Committee is a purely mechanical act that did not involve any discretion. In her view, the “initiation” should be reckoned only when the whole House deliberates and judges whether to send the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate.

Resumption of proceeding. Justice Sereno added, “No one should henceforth presume to tell the House of Representatives that any form of restraining order is still in effect and thereby seek to extend the effectivity of the Status Quo Ante Order.” The Court, she stressed, “was overly intrusive… in restraining without hearing a co-equal branch of Government.”

In his concurrence, Justice Carpio lamented the precipitate issuance of the status quo ante order. He noted that Gutierrez filed her petition at “9:01 a.m. of 13 September 2010,” yet “the following day, during the en banc morning session of 14 September 2010, over the objections of Justices Carpio, Carpio Morales and Sereno who asked for time to read the petition, the majority of this Court voted to issue a status quo ante order suspending the impeachment proceedings…”

He rued, “I received a copy of the petition only on the afternoon of 14 September 2010, after the en banc morning session of that day. The petition consists of 60 pages, excluding the annexes. All the Justices should have been given time, at least an hour or two as is the practice in such urgent cases, to read the petition before voting on the issuance of the status quo ante order. Unfortunately, this was not done.”

The status quo ante was imposed by a mere interlocutory order that took effect immediately, not via a judgment that would have taken effect only after 15 days. Hence, its lifting should also have instant effect. After all, the ponencia expressly lifted it, separate from the disposition dismissing the petition.

I will discuss the other opinions next Sunday.

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