SC: Senate Should Follow Own Rules in Resolving Committee Jurisdictional Challenge
October 23, 2023
To maintain the separation of powers between the three departments of the government, the Court cannot exercise a power that belongs to the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee (SBRC).
Thus held the Supreme Court En Banc, in a Decision penned by Associate Justice Amy C. Lazaro-Javier, denying the petition for certiorari and prohibition filed by the Senate of the Philippines challenging the constitutionality of a Memorandum issued by then President Rodrigo Duterte.
In 2021, the SBRC started an investigation on the budget utilization of the Department of Health (DOH) following a report from the Commission on Audit (COA) that there was a deficiency of PhP67,322,186,570.57 in public funds intended for the government’s COVID-19 response.
The SBRC then conducted hearings on the following matters: (1) the DOH’s underutilization of its 2020 budget; (2) the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines by local government units; (3) unspent funds, misstatements, irregularities, and deficiencies of the DOH, as found by COA; and (4) payment claims issues between the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation and private hospitals. The hearings were attended by the concerned officials from the Executive Department, including then DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III.
However, executive officials stopped attending the hearings after President Duterte, through Executive Secretary Salvador C. Medialdea, issued a Memorandum dated October 4, 2021 directing all officials and employees of the Executive Department to cease from attending the SBRC hearings on the government’s disbursement of the COVID-19 funds.
The Memorandum also asserted that the SBRC inquiry has turned into a preliminary investigation of sorts meant to identify the persons allegedly liable for irregularities that existing statutes already defined and punish. Thus, the Memorandum claimed that the SBRC has stepped into the mandates of other branches of government.
Viewing the Memorandum as an obstruction to the Senate’s constitutional function to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation, Senate Resolution No. 131 was passed, authorizing the filing of the present petition before the Court.
In denying the Senate’s petition, the Court found that it failed to meet the requisites for a petition for certiorari to prosper.
Under Rule 65, Section 1 of the Rules of Court, the following are required for a petition for certiorari: (1) the writ is directed against a tribunal, board, or officer exercising judicial or quasi-judicial functions; (2) such tribunal, board, or officer has acted without or in excess of jurisdiction, or with grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction; and (3) there is no appeal, or any plain, speedy, and adequate remedy in the course of law.
The Court, however, found that the Senate’s petition failed to meet the third requisite as the SBRC itself has a remedy within its office to resolve the jurisdictional challenge raised by the President in the Memorandum.
Under Section 3 of the Senate Rules of Procedure Governing Inquiries in Aid of Legislation (Senate Rules), if the jurisdiction of the Committee is challenged on any ground, the said issue must first be resolved by the Committee before proceeding with any inquiry.
According respect for the Senate’s own rules, the Court thus deferred to the remedy found in the Senate Rules, which effectively proscribes a premature resort to the present petition.
The Court further ruled that there was no actual case or controversy ripe for judicial adjudication. “There is no immediate or threatened injury to the power of the Senate because it has yet to exercise the same. Hence, we still cannot tell whether this power, despite its proper exercise, has been disobeyed by the President as a result of his Memorandum,” held the Court.
“Unless and until the Senate has resolved with finality the jurisdictional challenge of the President, there can be no actual case or controversy to speak of yet,” the Court added.
Finally, the Court also distinguished the petition from its 2006 Decision in Senate v. Ermita.
In Senate v. Ermita, an executive order issued by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo requiring all heads of Executive departments to secure the consent of the President prior to appearing before either House of Congress, was challenged before the Court. The Court proceeded to rule on the petition, holding that “any executive issuance tending to unduly limit disclosures of information in such investigations necessarily deprives the people of information which, being presumed to be in aid of legislation, is presumed to be a matter of public concern. The citizens are thereby denied access to information which they can use in formulating their own opinions on the matter before Congress—opinions which they can then communicate to their representatives and other government officials through the various legal means allowed by their freedom of expression.”
Unlike the present petition, Senate v. Ermita involved a challenge on the ground of executive privilege and a blanket prohibition that did not reject any subject inquiry as one in aid of legislation. The instant case, on the other hand, presents a direct jurisdictional challenge to the SBRC’s inquiry and its characterization as one being in aid of legislation.
The Court was thus constrained to dismiss the petition for having been prematurely filed. (Courtesy of the Supreme Court Public Information Office)
Full text of G.R. No. 257608 (Senate v. Executive Secretary) at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/257608-the-senate-of-the-philippines-represented-by-the-senate-president-vicente-c-sotto-iii-senate-president-pro-tempore-ralph-g-recto-senate-majority-f-zubiri-senate-minority-floor-leader-fra/
Full text of the Concurring and Dissenting Opinion of Senior Associate Justice Marvic M.V.F. Leonen at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/257608-concurring-and-dissenting-opinion-justice-marvic-m-v-f-leonen/
Full text of the Dissenting Opinion of Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin S. Caguioa at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/257608-dissenting-opinion-justice-alfredo-benjamin-s-caguioa/