SC: Senate Committed Grave Abuse of Discretion in Issuing Contempt and Arrest Orders vs. Pharmally Resource Persons
November 13, 2023
While the Senate has the power to conduct legislative inquiries, it must observe the Constitutional right to due process of the persons appearing before such proceedings.
Thus held the Supreme Court En Banc, in a Decision penned by Associate Justice Henri Jean Paul B. Inting, partly granting the petitions for certiorari and prohibition under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court filed by Linconn Uy Ong (Ong) and Michael Yang Hong Ming (Yang). The petitions challenged the contempt and arrest orders issued against them by the Senate of the Philippines.
In 2021, the Senate Committee on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations (Senate Blue Ribbon Committee) conducted an investigation in aid of legislation pertaining to the Department of Health’s expenditures in relation to the government’s COVID-19 pandemic response.
The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee issued subpoenas directing officers of Pharmally Pharmaceuticals Corporation (Pharmally), including Ong as Pharmally Board of Directors member and Supply Chain Manager, as well as Yang, a member of the Philippine Full Win Group of Companies, Inc., to attend the Committee hearings and testify. Ong and Yang initially failed to appear at the first hearings, but later voluntarily attended the hearing on September 10, 2021. The Committee, however, issued an order against Ong and Yang citing them for contempt and ordering their arrests for “testifying falsely and evasively” during the hearings.
These prompted Ong and Yang to file their respective petitions before the Court.
The Court first clarified the extent of the Senate’s power to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation, citing Article VI, Section 21 of the Constitution which expressly provides for the power of the Legislature and its committees to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation in accordance with duly published rules of procedure. The Court held that this power means that “the mechanisms available to both the Senate and House of Representatives, in order that they may effectively perform their legislative functions, are also available to their respective committees.”
Among such mechanisms is the power of contempt, which, while not expressly provided in the Constitution, is an inherent power of Congress and thus arises by implication. “This power permits either House of the Legislature to perform its duties without impediment as it enables the Senate or the House of Representatives to legislate wisely or effectively because they have the power to compel the availability of information necessary in shaping legislation,” held the Court.
The Court further held that Congress’ exercise of the contempt power is “anchored on the principle of self-preservation. As that branch of government vested with legislative power, it can assert its authority and punish contumacious acts against it independently of the Judicial Branch. Such power of the Legislature is ‘sui generis’ as it attaches not to the discharge of legislative functions per se but to the character of the Legislature as one of the three independent and coordinate branches of government.”
Another mechanism available to Congress is the power to arrest a witness. While not specified under the Senate Rules of Procedure Governing Inquiries in Aid of Legislation (Senate Rules of Procedure), the Court ruled that “an arrest is necessary to carry out the coercive process of compelling attendance, testimony, and production of documents relevant and material in a legislative inquiry.”
Reiterating its previous ruling in Arnault v. Nazareno, the Court held that some means of compulsion is essential, as experience has shown that “mere requests for [relevant] information are often unavailing” and that “information which is volunteered is not always accurate or complete.”
The Court thus stressed that Congress is not precluded from causing the appearance of a resource person. “As long as the testimony of a resource person is primordial in the Legislature’s inquiry in aid of legislation, then any House of Congress or its committees may compel, by way of an arrest, his or her appearance in the inquiry proceedings.”
Such power being inherent and necessary for Congress to effectively perform its function of inquiry in aid of legislation, it need not find textual basis in the Senate Rules of Procedure, held the Court, adding, “As the grant of legislative power which includes the power to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation is intended to be complete, i.e. without need to resort to judicial process in order that the Legislature may be able to perform its function, it follows that the Legislature likewise has the power to resort to mechanisms to obey its processes.”
The Court, however, stressed that Congress’ power of legislative investigation is subject to three limitations: (1) the inquiry must be in “aid of legislation”; (2) the inquiry must be conducted in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure; and (3) the rights of persons appearing in or affected by such inquiries shall be respected. Further, where there is factual basis for contempt, the resource person’s detention should only last until the termination of the legislative inquiry.
In the case of Ong and Yang, the Court found that while the Senate complied with the first two restrictions, it failed to meet the last when it cited the petitioners in contempt and ordered their arrests without giving them the opportunity to be heard.
While the Court upheld the provision in the Rules of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee enabling the Committee and its Chairperson to exercise its power of contempt punishing the act of “testifying falsely or evasively,” the Court ruled that the determination of whether a testimony was false or evasive requires an “assessment of the totality of evidence presented to determine whether a witness speaks truthfully or merely trying to evade answering the question directly.”
The Court further stressed that the assailed legislative inquiry seeks to aid legislation, not conduct a trial or make an adjudication. Thus, the legislative inquiry cannot result in legally binding deprivation of a person’s life, liberty or property. “[P]unishment for legislative contempt, albeit sui generis in character, must similarly observe the minimum requirements of due process,” said the Court.
Thus, witnesses charged by Congress with giving false or evasive testimony must be given a chance to explain why his or her testimony is not false or evasive.
In the case of Ong and Yang, however, the Court found that the Senate could not have determined whether their testimonies were false and evasive based solely on the testimonies given at the September 10, 2021 hearing.
The Court, however, found that the Senate did not commit grave abuse of discretion in ordering Yang to produce documents on his properties and business interests in the Senate’s inquiry in aid of contemplated legislation to improve government procurement processes in relation to Republic Act No. (RA) 11494, as the documents are related to the issue of whether Yang acquired and/or accumulated wealth in connection with the subject government funds.
The Court further ruled that Yang had no reasonable expectation of privacy over matters relating to Pharmally and his business interests therein. “[T]he right to privacy of Yang cannot prevail over the compelling State interest as the Senate Committee conducts inquiries anent a contemplated legislation relating to RA 11494. The purpose of the inquiry of the Senate to resolve the misuse of government funds in connection with the pandemic response of the government is a compelling state reason for it to proceed with its inquiry and require Yang to produce the subject documents.”
The Court also upheld the Senate Committee’s request for the issuance of a lookout bulletin against Yang. The Court ruled that the Senate had legal and factual reasons to request for the Department of Justice to place Yang under a lookout bulletin. [Courtesy of the Supreme Court Public Information Office]
Full text of G.R. Nos. 257401 and 257916 (Linconn Uy Ong v. Senate; Michael Yang Hong Ming v. Senate Committee on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations) at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/257401-257916-linconn-uy-ong-vs-the-senate-of-the-philippines-the-senate-committee-on-accountability-of-public-officers-and-investigations-blue-ribbon-committee-hon-senator-richard-j-gordon-in/
Full text of the Separate Concurring Opinion of Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/257401-257916-concurring-opinion-chief-justice-alexander-g-gesmundo/
Full text of the Separate Concurring Opinion of Senior Associate Justice Marvic M.V.F Leonen at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/257401-257916-separate-concurring-opinion-justice-marvic-m-v-f-leonen/
Full text of Concurring and Dissenting Opinion of Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin S. Caguioa at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/257401-257916-concurring-and-dissenting-opinion-justice-alfredo-benjamin-s-caguioa/
Full text of the Concurring and Dissenting Opinion of Associate Justice Amy C. Lazaro-Javier at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/257401-257916-concurrence-and-dissent-justice-amy-c-lazaro-javier/Blue