The Supreme Court En Banc on October 5, 2021 annulled the Decision of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) which cancelled, on the ground of false material representation, the Certificate of Candidacy (COC) filed by Rovelyn Echave Villamor, who won as Mayor of Lagangilang, Abra during the May 2019 elections.
The Court, voting 11-2, with one member on leave, granted the petition of Villamor assailing the resolutions dated April 26, 2019 and November 27, 2019 of the COMELEC Second Division and En Banc, respectively. It also dismissed the electoral protest filed against her by Antonio Bello Viernes. Villamor won over Viernes, her lone rival during the 2019 mayoral elections.
The Court said that its Resolution “is immediately executory.”
Viernes had earlier filed before the COMELEC a petition under Section 78 of the Omnibus Election Code (OEC) seeking the denial/cancellation of Villamor’s COC on the ground that Villamor had falsely represented her eligibility in her COC as she was allegedly a naturalized American citizen.
Villamor countered that although she became a naturalized American citizen and prior to filing her COC, she had duly complied with all the requirements for the reacquisition of her Filipino citizenship under Republic Act No. 9225, or the Citizenship Retention and Reacquisition Act of 2003. The COMELEC Second Division granted Viernes’ petition and ordered the cancellation of Villamor’s COC. This was affirmed by the COMELEC En Banc.
The Court found that the COMELEC committed grave abuse of discretion when it ordered the cancellation of Villamor’s COC without any prior determination of whether or not she had intended to deceive or mislead the electorate. This is so because a false representation under Section 78 of the OEC must also consist of a “deliberate attempt to mislead, misinform, or hide a fact which would otherwise render a candidate ineligible.” Otherwise stated, it must be made with a malicious intent to deceive the electorate as to the potential candidate’s qualifications for public office.
The Court declared that the lawmakers, as gleaned from the Congressional deliberations of the OEC, contemplated Section 78 to cover COCs filed in bad faith in order to limit the power granted to the COMELEC. Thus, intent to deceive in Section 78 petitions is necessary, as it is an integral element of the material representation under Section 78 of the OEC.
Here, the Court found that the absence of the COMELEC’s determination of Villamor’s intent to deceive or mislead the electorate constitutes grave abuse of discretion consistent with case law. The Court also considered the lack of bad faith on the part of Villamor since she never hid the fact of her naturalization as an American citizen or the date when she had renounced the same. Further, in the computation of her residency, she excluded the period of her stay in the United States of America (U.S.)., which negated the existence of bad faith and further bolstered the view that the statement was a mere error or mistake on a difficult question of law as to residency.
The Court also found sufficient proof to support Villamor’s claim that she had re-established residence in the Philippines after her naturalization as a U.S. citizen in 2009. In addition to Villamor’s acquisition of properties in Lagangilang and payment of taxes thereon, the Court also considered her registration and participation as a voter in the May 2018 Barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections, which registration was never challenged on the ground of failure to meet the residence qualification. The Court concluded that Villamor’s compliance with the six-month minimum residency requirement for voters during the May 2018 elections showed that she had satisfied the one-year residency requirement for a mayoralty candidate for purposes of the subsequent 2019 elections.
The Court likewise noted that the COMELEC’s failure to suspend Villamor’s proclamation was inconsistent with its finding that the latter was ineligible for failing to meet the residency requirement. “COMELEC should not have allowed Villamor to be proclaimed (much less assume) the position of Mayor if it truly believed that Villamor did not possess the requisite qualifications for the said post,” said the Court.
The Court thus reminded the COMELEC of the importance of resolving matters before it with all deliberate haste. “By their very nature and given the public interest involved, election cases must be resolved speedily, otherwise the will of the electorate will be frustrated,” it stressed.
Villamor won the elections with 5,879 votes as against the 1,534 votes received by Viernes during the pendency of the case before the COMELEC En Banc. She was proclaimed Mayor of Lagangilang, Abra on May 14, 2019.
The SC Public Information Office will immediately upload a copy of the Resolution in the SC website upon receipt of the ruling from the Office of the Clerk of Court En Banc. ###