SC Upholds HRET’s Dismissal of Quo Warranto Case against Nueva Ecija Representative

October 13, 2021

The Supreme Court En Banc on October 5, 2021 upheld the ruling of the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET) which dismissed the quo warranto petition assailing the proclamation of Rosanna Vergara (Vergara) as the duly elected Representative of the Third District of Nueva Ecija in the 2016 Elections.

In the decision penned by Justice Alfredo Benjamin S. Caguioa and concurred in by six other magistrates, the Court dismissed, for lack of merit, the Petition for Certiorari filed by Philip Hernandez Piccio (Piccio) assailing the May 23, 2019 Decision and June 27, 2019 Resolution of the HRET. It ruled that the HRET did not commit grave abuse of discretion in rendering the assailed issuances.

The HRET’s May 23, 2019 Decision dismissed for lack of merit Piccio’s petition for quo warranto and that of petitioner-intervenor Aurelio Matias Umali against, Vergara and affirmed the latter’s proclamation as duly-elected Member of the House of Representatives representing the Third District of Nueva Ecija in the May 2016 National and Local Election. The June 27, 2019 Resolution denied Piccio’s Motion for Reconsideration.

Piccio, a registered voter, filed a quo warranto case against Vergara alleging that the latter was ineligible to sit as a Member of the House of Representatives as she allegedly remained an American citizen.

The Court held that the case was not mooted by the expiration of Vergara’s 2016 term, or by the passing of the 2019 elections. It stressed that “A case becomes moot when it ceases to present a justiciable controversy so that a determination thereof would be without practical use and value.” The Court noted that Vergara was re-elected in 2019; hence, continues to serve as an incumbent Member of the House of Representatives to this day.

Vergara was born to Filipino parents on November 5, 1963 in the City of Manila. In 1994, she moved to Cabanatuan City where she married and later established a family home. In 1998, she moved to the United States of America, obtained a Certificate of Naturalization as an American citizen, and was thereby issued an American passport.

In 2006, Vergara filed with the Philippine Bureau of Immigration (BI) a Petition for the Issuance of an Identification Certificate (IC) pursuant to RA 9225, or the Citizenship Retention and Re-acquisition Act of 2003, for the retention/reacquisition of Philippine citizenship. She also took her Oath of Allegiance to the Republic of the Philippines as part of the documentary requirements supporting her RA 9225 Petition. On November 30, 2006, she was issued IC No. 06-12955 having re-acquired her Philippine citizenship. She subsequently executed an Affidavit of Renunciation of Foreign Citizenship dated September 4, 2015.

The present Petition challenged the finding of the HRET on Vergara’s compliance with the requirements of RA 9225, alleging that the HRET gravely abused its discretion when it declared that Vergara had duly re-acquired her Philippine citizenship, despite the fact that both Vergara and the BI only had photocopies of her RA 9225 documents.

“In sum, there is overwhelming competent evidence proving Vergara’s compliance with R.A. 9225 for the re-acquisition of her Philippine citizenship,” the Court held.

The Court held that the evidence on record shows that Vergara  duly re-acquired her Philippine Citizenship pursuant to RA 9225.

In order that a natural-born Filipino citizen, who has lost his Filipino citizenship by reason of naturalization abroad, may qualify to run for elective public office in Philippines, he or she must 1) re-acquire Philippine citizenship by taking an oath of allegiance to the Republic of the Philippines; and 2) make a personal and sworn renunciation of his foreign citizenship.

The Court agreed with the HRET that Vergara had complied with both requisites. As correctly found by the HRET, Vergara had duly re- acquired her Philippine citizenship by observing the requirements of the law, foremost of which is the taking of the Oath of Allegiance.

The Court held that Vergara’s presentation of the original copy of her IC No. 06-12955, the existence and genuineness of which were not contested, is prima facie proof that she complied with the requirements of RA 9225 (and its implementing rules) to re-acquire her Philippine Citizenship. One of such requirements is the submission of two (2) original copies of her duly-executed Oath of Allegiance. It further held that the photocopies of Vergara’s RA 9225 documents were validly introduced in evidence, as she had sufficiently established and explained the loss of their originals.

Contrary to Piccio’s contention, the Court clarified that the absence of the original documents is not fatal to Vergara’s case. To emphasize, the issue in the present case pertains to the existence and due execution of these documents — and not their contents. Hence, the Best Evidence Rule (under the old Rules on Evidence which were used by the HRET), requiring the production of the original document, does not apply.

The Court noted that Vergara had submitted proof of loss of her documents from its last custodian – the BI. Moreover, she had established and shown a reasonable explanation for such loss. She narrated that she submitted said original documents to the BI, together with her RA 9225 Petition, when she applied for re-acquisition of Filipino citizenship. This was confirmed by: 1) the BI itself through its officials; 2) the BI General Instructions for Petitioners for Retention/Re-acquisition

of Philippine Citizenship under RA 9225 which requires two originals of the Oath as supporting documents and provide that such originals “will not be returned to the petitioner and will be part of the Bureau’s record;” and 3) AO No. 91, Series of 2004 designating the BI as the ‘repository of Certificates of Oath of Allegiance.’

“That the original documents do not appear to exist in the BI’s records at the time when they were sought does not mean that they  never existed,” said the Court. “It does not — as it logically cannot —  lead to a conclusion that Vergara’s RA 9225 documents were never filed, duly processed, and granted.”

In fact, the BI admitted that the original documents existed, and were filed, processed, and approved by it, according to its investigation, on the basis of its records, formal hearings conducted and the reports and comments of its relevant offices. The effective admission by the BI that the originals of the documents were presently not in its records cannot be taken to mean that such documents never existed. The pieces of evidence coming from the BI officials are competent proof of Vergara’s compliance with RA 9225.

“Records clearly show that, in reaching their conclusions that suggest Vergara’s valid re-acquisition of her Philippine citizenship, the BI officials did not rely on the presumption of regularity alone. The BI’s position is supported by the available records, the BI electronic database, the Dual Citizenship Office database, several meetings, formal hearings and investigations, as well as certifications, reports and comments from relevant BI offices,” the Court said.

The Court underscored that the rulings of other government bodies which resolved, in Vergara’s favor, the same issues regarding her compliance with RA 9225 and tampering and irregularities in the processing of her RA 9225 Petition, deserve great respect. Records reveal that Piccio had filed several suits against Vergara before different quasi- judicial and administrative agencies — the BI, the Commission on Elections, the City Prosecutor of Manila, and the HRET. All of these suits were resolved in Vergara’s favor.

The Court likewise stressed the state’s policy to hold the official custodian of public records accountable for their loss. Such loss cannot prejudice the public, including the persons who filed the documents and relied, in good faith, that the government custodian will safekeep the same in accordance with the standards set by law. To rule otherwise will set the dangerous precedent “that documents duly filed but have gone missing while in the custody of the receiving agency, without fault or even knowledge of the persons filing, will be rendered useless and void xxx. This will bestow great injustice, not just upon Vergara or other similarly situated public officials, but likewise upon the general public who, in the first place, is powerless to prevent such mishaps.”

The justices who concurred with the decision of J. Alfredo Benjamin S. Caguioa were Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo, J. Amy C. Lazaro – Javier, J. Henri Jean Paul B. Inting, J. Rodil V. Zalameda, J. Ricardo R. Rosario, and J. Jhosep Y. Lopez.

The dissenting justices were J. Ramon Paul L. Hernando, J. Rosmari D. Carandang, J. Mario V. Lopez, J. Samuel H. Gaerlan, and J. Japar B. Dimaampao.

Senior Associate Justice Estela M. Perlas – Bernabe and J. Marvic M.V.F. Leonen took no part.

The SC Public Information Office will immediately upload a copy of the decision in the SC website upon receipt of the decision from the Office of the Clerk of Court En Banc.