Impeachment is once again controversial. In an unprecedented move, the House Committee on Justice lead by its Chairman, Rep. Neil Tupas Jr., voted overwhelmingly to defy a status quo order ordered by the Supreme Court on the impeachment complaint filed against the Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. At issue is whether a second impeachment complaint by the party list Bayan Muna filed and consolidated with an earlier one filed by Rep. Rissa Hontiveros of Akbayan was a prohibited complaint for violating the one-year ban on the filing of subsequent impeachment proceedings against an impeachable officer. The allegation of the beleaguered Ombudsman is that it is. The House of Representatives believes that the Court has no jurisdiction to hear the Ombudsman’s petition. This is because according to it, the initiation of an impeachment complaint is an exclusive power of the House of Representatives. Hence, the Court is bereft of jurisdiction to hear the Petition of the Ombudsman.
To the surprise of the House of Representatives, and before it could be heard, the Supreme Court issued a stay order that effectively had the effect of a restraining order. Predictably, the Court spokesman warned members of the House that they risk being cited in contempt of court should they proceed with their proceedings. Well, the die has been cast: the House has defied the court. Who will blink in this constitutional confrontation?
We have had our share of involvement in impeachment proceedings. In 2003, we petitioned the court to restraint the House of Representatives from transmitting its articles of impeachment against then Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. on the ground that the same was a second prohibited impeachment proceeding. This was because the articles of impeachment was signed by one-third of all members of the lower house a day after the Justice Committee had dismissed an earlier impeachment complaint against the Chief Justice for administering the oath to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as President after Edsa 2.
Later, we also served as counsel for three impeachment complaints against ex-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and a petition in the Supreme Court questioning the dismissal of an amended impeachment complaint filed after an earlier complaint filed by Oliver Lozano.
At the center of all controversies is the one-year ban provided in Section 3 (5), Article XI of the 1987 Constitution: “(5) No impeachment proceedings shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a period of one year”.
In the first case, the court ruled in Roque et. al. v. De Venecia that it had jurisdiction to act on the petition seeking to restraint the filing of the impeachment despite clear language of the Constitution that the House of Representatives has the exclusive power to initiate impeachment complaints. This, according to the court, is precisely the purpose behind judicial power, that is, to uphold the supremacy of the constitution where there is grave abuse of discretion on the part of an agency or department of government. There is grave abuse of discretion where a branch of government contravenes a literal provision of the Constitution.
The Court then ruled that initiation is upon filing of a complaint and referral to the Committee of Justice. Under this interpretation, the court ruled hence: “In fine, considering that the first impeachment complaint, was filed by former President Estrada against Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide, Jr., along with seven associate justices of this Court, on June 2, 2003 and referred to the House Committee on Justice on Aug. 5, 2003, the second impeachment complaint filed by Representatives Gilberto C. Teodoro Jr. and Felix William Fuentebella against the Chief Justice on Oct. 23, 2003 violates the constitutional prohibition against the initiation of impeachment proceedings against the same impeachable officer within a one-year period”.
In the second petition, Martinez v. De Venecia, we questioned the decision of the House to junk the substantive amended complaint to the Lozano petition. We argued that what is prohibited by the Constitution is more than one impeachment proceeding per year and not multiplicity of complaints itself. Otherwise, we argued that all that an impeachable officer would do to ensure a year of impunity is to cause the filing of a bogus impeachment complaint.
In the vernacular, we warned that what would ensue would be an “unahan ng daga”. Hence we argued that what was literally prohibited was “multiple impeachment proceedings” and not “complaints”. No ruling on the merit was rendered in this second case because the court dismissed it on the ground that it had become moot when Mrs. Arroyo ended her nine years of destructive reign. But the court did miss a golden opportunity to give guidance to bar and bench on what is precisely prohibited by the constitution. This once more, is the issue in Gutierrez v. House of Representatives Committee on Justice.
The argument by the Ombudsman is that the House Committee on Justice violated the constitution when it consolidated the second Bayan petition with the first Akbayan petition and proceeded to determine sufficiency of form and substance of both complaints.
This we submit is the correct course of action in the event of multiple impeachment complaints. Provided it complies with the ruling in Roque that it was referred simultaneously to the Committee on Justice, the committee should consolidate all pending complaints in the same manner that any House committee would consolidate all the different bills covering the same subject matter in a committee report that would then be submitted to the plenary. The difference is that unlike in the earlier controversy, this is now the course of action taken by the Committee. Our problem then was whether as a result of separation of powers, the Court could in fact compel the House Committee on Justice to do what it did now in the Gutierrez complaint.
But the really interesting issue now is: which branch of government will blink? Relax and enjoy the best show in town!