Tread cautiously and prudently

LAST SUNDAY, I wrote that the Committee on Justice of the House of Representatives could immediately resume the impeachment of Ombudsman Merceditas N. Gutierrez that was suspended by a status quo ante order issued by the Supreme Court. True, a decision becomes final 15 days from its receipt by the parties, who may even prolong the period by filing a motion for reconsideration. Until the motion is resolved, the judgment will not attain finality.

Immediate effect. However, the status quo ante order was imposed by a mere interlocutory order that became effective immediately upon its issuance on September 14, 2010. Similarly, the order to lift it—which was written as a separate disposition in the Court’s decision—should also be deemed immediately executory. Settled is the doctrine that, at any time, a court may lift an interlocutory order with immediate effect.

I must quickly add however that in resuming the impeachment proceeding, the committee would be well advised to tread cautiously and prudently. The way forward is full of legal minefields laid down by the conflicting opinions of the justices. I think the committee should carefully weigh all these opinions.

To start with, two of the nine majority justices (Mariano C. del Castillo and Jose Portugal Perez) allowed only the first complaint but not the second. Justice Antonio Eduardo B. Nachura voted to dismiss the Gutierrez plea solely on the ground of “prematurity,” that is, Gutierrez should first bring her laments to the committee before asking for judicial relief. Justice Roberto A. Abad voted to dismiss the petition, not because he agreed with the ponencia but because he believed the one-year bar begins only when the House files the articles of impeachment in the Senate.

Dissenting opinion. Let us now examine the dissent of Justice Arturo D. Brion who was joined unqualifiedly by four other magistrates. He explained that when the Committee on Justice declared the first and second complaints “sufficient in form and substance,” the Rules governing impeachment in the House of Representatives had not been published and were thus not yet effective.

The Rules, according to Brion, partake the nature of laws that must be published before they can take effect. Unquestionably, the Rules were published only on Sept. 2, 2010 and took effect 15 days thereafter on Sept. 17. However, the committee used these Rules in declaring the complaints sufficient in form and substance prior to their effectivity. Thus, he concluded, these declarations are void for violating the due process rights of Gutierrez.

Happily however he suggested a remedy: “Given that the published Rules of Impeachment now exist and have become effective starting September 17, 2010, nothing should now prevent the House of Representatives from resuming its proceedings from its last valid action—the Speaker’s referral of the impeachment complaints to the Justice Committee which can now undertake its constitutional role on impeachment.” (bold types and italics in original)

Prudent advice. To forestall any possible flip-flops and delays on reconsideration, the Committee on Justice could heed this advice and take a new vote on the issue of sufficiency in form and substance when it resumes the impeachment proceedings. Then, the committee could re-direct the Ombudsman to answer within a fresh period of 15 days.

Though titled “Dissenting Opinion,” Brion’s views on the substantive issue of when an impeachment proceeding may be deemed “initiated” are not disadvantageous to the Committee on Justice. Brion believes a complaint is deemed initiated only after the Committee is given “the first opportunity for a meaningful action, involving the exercise of discretion that would justify the imposition of the (one-year) bar.” This first opportunity is when the committee rules on the complaint’s sufficiency in form and in substance.

Brion no longer answered the question of whether the second complaint should be given due course, saying curtly that since—in his view—the proceedings of the committee were invalid due to the absence of the Rules at the time the committee acted to determine sufficiency in form and substance, “any question posed by the filing of separate complaints by two separate parties… is not yet ripe for adjudication.”

To sum up, a strong majority voted to dismiss the Gutierrez petition for different reasons. Unlike in the earlier case of Francisco v. House of Representatives (Nov. 10, 2003), the present Court had no clear answer to the main question of when an impeachment proceeding is deemed initiated.

Of the nine majority justices, two (Del Castillo and Perez) voted to allow only the first complaint; another two (Abad and Sereno) opined that the one-year ban begins after the entire House votes whether to file the articles of impeachment in the Senate; one (Nachura) did not give any opinion on this issue. Hence, only the four remaining justices (Carpio, Morales, Villarama and Mendoza) can be said to have voted to sustain the Francisco ruling that the ban begins when the entire House refers a complaint to the Committee on Justice.

In contrast, the five dissenters (Corona, De Castro, Brion, Peralta and Bersamin) held that the one-year ban begins when the committee finds a complaint to be sufficient in form and substance. The 15th member (Velasco) inhibited.

Indeed, the Committee on Justice would be well advised to tiptoe its way in the maze of these labyrinthine opinions.

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