MANILA, Philippines - The Supreme Court (SC) sees no reason to cite the House of Representatives in contempt despite the move by one of the House committees to hear the impeachment case against Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez in defiance of an order by the high tribunal.
“That is the discretion of the committee of justice. It’s very difficult to say at this point if it is considered an act of proceeding with the impeachment process,” SC spokesman and court administrator Midas Marquez said, referring to the House committee on justice chaired by Iloilo Rep. Neil Tupas.
The SC issued a status quo ante ruling last Sept. 14 temporarily halting the impeachment proceedings. Tupas’ committee voted to push ahead with the impeachment proceedings but set no date for a hearing.
“If it is considered a step taken as part of the impeachment proceedings, that will be discussed in the oral argument. So at the moment, I don’t see any reason to cite anyone in contempt,” Marquez said.
The SC has set for Oct. 5 the oral arguments on Gutierrez’s petition to junk the impeachment complaints.
Marquez expressed confidence that there would be no impeachment hearing as announced by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. – at least until the SC lifts its order.
“I don’t think Congress will continue with the impeachment process considering that they have already adjourned session and oral argument on this case has been set,” he said. “We also took note of that statement of the Speaker.”
He said the SC still believes that “members of the House are responsible gentlemen and ladies.”
“The Court would like to maintain the status quo,” he said as he downplayed the possibility of a constitutional crisis due to the judiciary’s and the legislative department’s conflicting stand on the matter.
He reiterated that the issuance of the status quo ante is within the “judicial power” of the SC and not an encroachment into the legislative turf.
Lift order, high court asked
With the House Justice committee’s show of defiance, the militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) – one of the two complainants in the consolidated impeachment case against the Ombudsman – asked the SC to lift its status quo ante order.
“No doubt the Court must desist from taking over the mandate of the House of Representatives in the determination of the sufficiency in substance of the impeachment complaint,” Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes Jr. said.
Bayan Muna, for its part, asked the SC to junk the petition of Gutierrez for the junking of the impeachment case against her “on the ground of prematurity and non-exhaustion of remedies in the House Committee on Justice, House of Representatives plenary, and the Senate.”
“Such power is lodged exclusively in Congress by the 1987 Philippine Constitution. It is the classic example of a textually demonstrable power dedicated to a co-equal body of government. Hence, the Honorable Court must desist from taking cognizance of the instant petition,” the group argued.
Last Monday, the other complainants in the impeachment case led by Risa Hontiveros filed a separate comment asking the SC to allow the House to continue the impeachment proceedings.
SC to blame
House Majority Leader and Mandaluyong Rep. Neptali Gonzales said the SC and not the House is to blame for any constitutional crisis that might arise from the impeachment proceedings against Gutierrez.
“Who’s afraid of the Big CC (constitutional crisis)? Will the prices of fish rise if we proceed with the (impeachment) hearings? Will there be a shortage of basic commodities?” Gonzales asked rhetorically.
He said it was the SC order suspending the impeachment proceedings that created animosity between the judiciary and legislative branches.
The committee earlier ruled the two impeachment complaints – filed separately by party-lists Akbayan and Bayan Muna – as both sufficient in form and substance.
Gonzales said the SC is expected to resolve the matter by November but there is a possibility the high tribunal might rule against the House and permanently block moves to impeach the Ombudsman for another year.
“That’s when the constitutional crisis would come, if the Supreme Court permanently stops us from proceeding any further,” he said.
“Why are they saying we are causing a crisis, it would be the Supreme Court that could trigger that, not us. We cannot abdicate our exclusive power to initiate impeachment proceedings,” he added.
Belmonte’s order to suspend all other committee hearings in the chamber in the next two weeks to allow lawmakers to focus on the plenary debates on the proposed P1.645-trillion national budget for next year could provide an excuse for the justice panel to say it did not violate the SC’s order.
Congress is going into recess on Oct. 15 and the House wants the budget approved by then. Lawmakers would resume session in the first week of November.
“Fortunately for Ombudsman Gutierrez, the plenary starts with the debate on the budget Monday and we have devoted the entire two weeks for budget deliberation and according to our rules, no committee can meet during budget deliberations,” Gonzales said in a radio interview yesterday.
He said the earliest time the justice committee can hold hearings again to discuss the grounds for impeachment is in November.
House Minority Leader and Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, meanwhile, scoffed at the move of the members of the majority in the justice committee to defy the SC.
“They are just posturing. The fact that they will comment and will participate in the oral arguments, they are submitting to the will of the Supreme Court. They must admit and recognize the Supreme Court is the final interpreter and arbiter of constitutional issues,” Lagman said.
Meanwhile, former president and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would inhibit herself from the impeachment proceedings if it reaches the floor, her spokeswoman said yesterday.
“Her position is she would not participate or she will inhibit so that the (impeachment) proceedings would not be given any political color,” Ma. Elena Bautista-Horn told reporters.
Among the allegations Gutierrez is facing is that she has been sitting on controversial cases against Mrs. Arroyo, who appointed her to the post.
“We just hope the relationship between the judiciary and the legislative would be patched up,” Bautista-Horn said.
Meanwhile, Sister Mary John Mananzan of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines has voiced her support for the justice committee’s decision to hear the impeachment case against Gutierrez.
“I think that is the right move,” she said.
“What they did was right. There is supposed to be a separation of powers” between the legislative branch and the judiciary, she said. With Paolo Romero and Evelyn Macairan