Republic of the Philippines
SUPREME COURT
Manila

EN BANC

G.R. No. 180643             September 4, 2008

ROMULO L. NERI, in his capacity as Chairman of the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) and as former Director General of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), Protestant versus SENATE COMMITTEE ON ACCOUNTABILITY OF PUBLIC OFFICERS & INVESTIGATIONS (BLUE RIBBON), SENATE COMMITTEE ON TRADE & COMMERCE, and SENATE COMMITTEE ON NATIONAL DEFENSE & SECURITY, Respondents

SEPARATE OPINION
ON THE MOTION FOR RECONSIDERATION

QUISUMBING, J.:

The instant motion filed by the respondents Senate Committees on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations, Trade and Commerce, and National Defense and Security, seeks a reconsideration of the Courtís March 25, 2008 Decision, which granted petitioner Romulo Neriís petition for certiorari. The Court nullified the Order dated January 30, 2008, of the Senate Committees citing petitioner in contempt and directing his arrest and detention. In said Decision, I concurred in the result.

For as long as the requirement of due process is paramount in proceedings involving life and liberty, the instant motion for reconsideration, which merely reiterates arguments that have been adequately threshed out in the Decision,1 must emphatically be denied. With due respect, we find that in Neriís case, respondents had neglected to observe elements of due process on more than one occasion in their proceedings, and thereby committed grave abuse of discretion which is proscribed by the present fundamental law.2

Worth stressing at the outset, the Senate is constitutionally required to publish its rules of procedure on the conduct of legislative inquiries in aid of legislation. Section 21 of Article VI of the 1987 Constitution states:

The Senate or the House of Representatives or any of its respective committees may conduct inquiries in aid of legislation in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure. The rights of persons appearing in or affected by such inquiries shall be respected.

Dwelling on this provision, Senate of the Philippines v. Ermita3 declared:

Section 21, Article VI likewise establishes crucial safeguards that proscribe the legislative power of inquiry. The provision requires that the inquiry be done in accordance with the Senate or Houseís duly published rules of procedure, necessarily implying the constitutional infirmity of an inquiry conducted without duly published rules of procedure.4

Also on this matter, the eminent constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, amply commented:

The significance of the second limitation on the investigatory power - that the inquiry be "in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure" - can, perhaps, be appreciated by considering it side by side with the control Congress has over its rules when they affect merely matters internal to it. As already seen in Osmeña, Jr. v. Pendatun, where Congress suspended the operation of a House rule which could have protected Congressman Osmeña, the Supreme Court accepted the view that parliamentary rules "may be waived or disregarded by the legislative body." This view can be accepted as applicable when private rights are not affected. When, however, the private rights of witnesses in an investigation are involved, Section 21 now prescribes that Congress and its committees must follow the "duly published rules of procedure." Moreover, Section 21 may also be read as requiring that Congress must have "duly published rules of procedure" for legislative investigations. Violation of these rules would be an offense against due process.

The third limitation on legislative investigatory power is that "the rights of persons appearing in or affected by such inquiries shall be respected." This is just another way of saying that legislative investigations must be "subject to the limitations placed by the Constitution on governmental action." And since all governmental action must be exercised subject to constitutional limitations, principally found in the Bill of Rights, this third limitation really creates no new constitutional right. But it emphasizes such fundamentals as the right against self-incrimination and unreasonable searches and seizures and the right to demand, under due process, that Congress observe its own rules.5

Justice Isagani A. Cruz, in his book Philippine Political Law, offers a verifiable observation:

The reason is that in the past this power was much abused by some legislators who used it for illegitimate ends or to browbeat or intimidate witnesses, usually for grandstanding purposes only. There were also times when the subject of the inquiry was purely private in nature and therefore outside the scope of the powers of the Congress.

To correct these excesses, it is now provided that the legislative inquiry must be in aid of legislation, whether it be under consideration already or still to be drafted. Furthermore, the conduct of the investigation must be strictly in conformity with the rules of procedure that must have been published in advance for the information and protection of the witnesses.6

Hence, it is indispensable that the Senate Rules of Procedure during the current 14th Congress must be duly published. The problem is, the rules have not been published in the Official Gazette or newspaper of general circulation as required by Tañada v. Tuvera.7 Publication in either of these forms is mandatory to comply with the due process requirement. Due process requires that fair notice be given to those concerned before the rules that put their liberty at risk take effect.8 The rationale of this requirement was enunciated in Tañada as follows:

Laws must come out in the open in the clear light of the sun instead of skulking in the shadows with their dark, deep secrets. Mysterious pronouncements and rumored rules cannot be recognized as binding unless their existence and contents are confirmed by a valid publication intended to make full disclosure and give proper notice to the people. The furtive law is like a scabbarded saber that cannot feint, parry or cut unless the naked blade is drawn.9

Fr. Bernas also said that there can be no such thing as a law that is effective immediately, even if the law is not penal in nature. The underlying reason for this rule is that due process, which is a rule of fairness, requires that those who must obey a command must first know the command.10

Hence, the current Senate cannot in good conscience neglect to publish its Rules of Procedure. Nor could its Committee ignore the Rules, specially those on quorum. In the absence of a published rule of procedure on a matter which is the subject of legislative inquiry, any action which affects substantial rights of persons would be anathema, and risks unconstitutionality. Even if there is such a rule or statute duly published, if it lacks comprehensible standards that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ in its application, the rule or statute would be repugnant to the Constitution in two respects: it violates due process for failure to accord persons, especially the parties targeted by it, fair notice of what conduct to avoid; and, it leaves the law enforcers unbridled discretion in carrying out its provisions and becomes an arbitrary flexing of the Government muscle.11 How much more in this case where there is a patent lack of publication and proper notice of the applicable rules. Or where the rules are misread and misapplied resulting in lack of quorum.12

Beyond debate, the fundamental law prohibits deprivation of liberty without due process of law. Comparatively speaking, the Court has on many occasions required judges to comply strictly with the due process requirements on issuing warrants of arrest, failure of which has resulted in the voiding of the warrants. The denial of a personís fundamental right to due process amounts to the illegality of the proceedings against him. The doctrine consistently adhered to by the Supreme Court is that a denial of due process suffices to cast on the official act taken by whichever branch of the government the impress of nullity, the fundamental right to due process being a cornerstone of our legal system.13 The right to due process is a cardinal and primary right which must be respected in all proceedings.14

Even granting arguendo that the rules had been published, the Rules of Procedure of the Senate and the Rules of the Blue Ribbon Committee do not state that respondent Committees have the power to issue an order of arrest. The rules only authorize the Committees to detain a witness found guilty of contempt. The Committees cannot go outside the clear ambit of its rules of procedure, as due process demands proper obedience to them.15

Moreover, it is also glaring that respondents did not consider petitionerís request for an advance copy of the questions that would be asked of him, as it was not unreasonable and difficult to comply with. In a letter dated November 29, 2007 to the Blue Ribbon Committee, petitioner requested that if there were new matters not yet taken up during the September 26, 2007 hearing, he be furnished questions in advance as to those matters he needed to clarify so that he may adequately prepare himself as a resource person. This request was further reiterated in another letter sent by his counsel, Atty. Antonio R. Bautista. Unfortunately, respondents did not grant this valid request, and instead precipitately issued the contempt and arrest order against petitioner.

Further, in our considered view, Neri was entitled to a ruling on his claim of executive privilege. For initially, both sides had agreed in open court to allow more exhaustive inquiry in the Senate on this matter. But as respondents themselves admitted, they did not rule on the claim of executive privilege, but instead sanctioned Neri for contempt.

The very recent case of Aquino v. Ng16is instructive on the subject of contempt, as far as court procedures are concerned. It held:

Moreover, the RTC failed to observe the standards of due process when it first cited petitioner for contempt of court. It must be stressed that indirect contempt proceedings partake of the nature of a criminal prosecution; hence, strict rules that govern criminal prosecutions also apply to a prosecution for criminal contempt; the accused is to be afforded many of the protections provided in regular criminal cases; and proceedings under statutes governing them are to be strictly construed.

The records do not bear any indication that petitioner was afforded an opportunity to rebut the charges against him when he was first charged by respondent with contempt. While petitioner was able to oppose respondentís motion, inasmuch as an indirect contempt charge partakes of the nature of a criminal charge, conviction cannot be had merely on the basis of written pleadings. There is no question that petitionerís disobedience to the RTCís lawful order constitutes indirect contempt of court. This, however, was not a license for the RTC to disregard petitionerís rights. It should have held a hearing in order to provide petitioner with the opportunity to state his defense and explain his side. A hearing affords the contemner the opportunity to adduce before the court documentary or testimonial evidence in his behalf. The hearing will also allow the court more thorough evaluation of the defense of the contemner, including the chance to observe the accused present his side in open court and subject his defense to interrogation from the complainants or the court itself.17

Also, Commissioner Rodriguez v. Judge Bonifacio18 held:

Contempt of court has been distinctly described as an offense against the State and not against the judge personally. To reiterate, a judge must always remember that the power of the court to punish for contempt should be exercised for purposes that are not personal, because that power is intended as a safeguard, not for judges as persons, but for the functions they exercise.

Viewed vis-à-vis the foregoing circumscription of a courtís power to punish for contempt, it bears stressing that the court must exercise the power of contempt judiciously and sparingly with utmost self-restraint with the end in view of utilizing the same for correction and preservation of the dignity of the court, not for retaliation or vindication.19

Comparatively, the subjective nature of respondentsí action in the present case is patent if not glaring. This is in contrast with the legitimate purpose of the inquiry in the case of Sabio v. Gordon,20 where the petitioners therein were invited to the Senateís public hearing on Senate Resolution No. 455, particularly "on the anomalous losses incurred by the Philippine Overseas Telecommunications Corporation, Philippine Communications Satellite Corporation, and Philcomsat Holdings Corporations due to the alleged improprieties in the operations by their respective board of directors." The inquiry focused on therein petitionersí acts committed in the discharge of their duties as officers and directors of said corporations where the government has interest.21

Here, in the instant controversy, the least respondents could have done, after browbeating the petitioner Neri (who was sick at that time) with a barrage of questions was to have granted his request for a copy of the questions for the next hearing. It is a well-settled principle in law that what due process contemplates is freedom from arbitrariness; what it requires is fairness and justice; substance, rather than form, being paramount.22 It is essential that the contemner be granted an opportunity to meet the charges against him and to be heard in his defense, as contempt of court proceedings are commonly treated as criminal in nature.23 A finding of guilt for an offense, no matter how light, for which one is not properly charged and tried cannot be countenanced without violating the rudimentary principle of due process.24

The case of Cañas v. Castigador25 held:

[T]he salutary rule is that the power to punish for contempt must be exercised on the preservative not vindictive principle, and on the corrective not retaliatory idea of punishment. The courts and other tribunals vested with the power of contempt must exercise the power for contempt for purposes that are impersonal, because that power is intended as a safeguard not for the judges as persons but for the functions that they exercised.

x x x x

Viewed in the light of the foregoing circumscription of a courtís power to punish for contempt, it bears stressing that the court must exercise the power of contempt judiciously and sparingly with utmost self-restraint, with the end in view of utilizing the same for correction and preservation of the dignity of the court, not for retaliation or vindication.26

All told, in our humble view, the respondents did not observe basic tenets of due process, which we believe is more than enough reason to grant petitioner Neriís petition. Worth stressing again, whenever there is an imminent threat to the life and liberty of the person in any proceeding conducted by or under the auspices of the State, his right to due process of law, when demanded, must not be ignored.27

In sum, we agree that respondentsí Motion for Reconsideration must be denied. This Court did not err in upholding petitioner Neriís constitutional rights, particularly to due process, by granting his petition in the assailed Decision dated March 25, 2008.

LEONARDO A. QUISUMBING
Associate Justice


Footnotes

1 Neri v. Senate, G.R. No. 180643, March 25, 2008.

2 1987 Constitution, Article VIII, Sec. 1.

Section 1. The judicial power shall be vested in one Supreme Court and in such lower courts as may be established by law.

Judicial power includes the duty of the courts of justice to settle actual controversies involving rights which are legally demandable and enforceable, and to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the Government.

3 G.R. Nos. 169777, 169659, 169660, 169667, 169834 & 171246, April 20, 2006, 488 SCRA 1.

4 Id. at 44.

5 J. Bernas, The Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines: A Commentary, 740-741 (2003 ed.).

6 I. Cruz, Philippine Political Law, 163-164 (2002 ed.).

7 No. L-63915, December 29, 1986, 146 SCRA 446.

8 See Globe Telecom, Inc. v. National Telecommunications Commission, G.R. No. 143964, July 26, 2004, 435 SCRA 110, 148, which held that Section 21 of the Public Service Act requires notice and hearing because a fine is a sanction, regulatory and even punitive in character. It also said that the requirement is the essence of due process and its non-observance will, as a rule, invalidate the administrative proceedings.

9 Tañada v. Tuvera, supra note 7 at 456.

10 Supra note 5 at 130.

11 Cf Estrada v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. No. 148560, November 19, 2001, 369 SCRA 394, 439-440.

12 See cf "Tatad points out Senateís Ďmisreadingí of its rules." Manila Bulletin, July 29, 2008, p. 18.

13 Macias v. Macias, G.R. No. 149617, September 3, 2003, 410 SCRA 365, 371.

14 Saya-ang, Sr. v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 155087, November 28, 2003, 416 SCRA 650, 656.

15 Ong v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 132839, November 21, 2001, 370 SCRA 48, 54.

16 G.R. No. 155631, July 27, 2007, 528 SCRA 277.

17 Id. at 284-285.

18 398 Phil. 441 (2000).

19 Id. at 468.

20 G.R. Nos. 174340, 174318 & 174177, October 17, 2006, 504 SCRA 704.

21 Id. at 737.

22 Long v. Basa, G.R. Nos. 134963-64, 135152-53 & 137135, September 27, 2001, 366 SCRA 113, 129.

23 Rodriguez v. Bonifacio, A.M. No. RTJ-99-1510, November 6, 2000, 344 SCRA 519, 545-546.

24 Summary Dismissal Board and the Regional Appellate Board, PNP, Region VI, Iloilo City v. Torcita, 330 SCRA 153, 164.

25 G.R. No. 139844, December 15, 2000, 348 SCRA 425.

26 Id. at 433 & 439.

27 Cf Secretary of Justice v. Lantion, G.R. No. 139465, January 18, 2000, 322 SCRA 160, 204.


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