SC junks ex-Marinduque solon’s plea vs. 2015 HRET rules

The Supreme Court (SC) has turned down a petition filed by former Marinduque lone district representative, Regina Ongsiako Reyes-Mandanas, challenging the constitutionality of several provisions of the 2015 Revised Rules of the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET).

In a 20-page decision dated Oct. 16 penned by Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio, the High Court found no merit in Reyes’ arguments that the requirement under Rule 6 of the 2015 HRET Rules that at least one justice should be present to constitute a quorum violates the equal protection clause of the 1987 Constitution and gives undue power to the justices over legislators.

The Court stressed the rule does not grant additional powers to the justices but rather maintains the balance of power between members of the judicial and legislative departments as envisioned by the framers of the 1935 and 1987 Constitutions.

“The presence of the three Justices is meant to tone down the political nature of the cases involved and do away with the impression that party interests play a part in the decision-making process,” the SC said.

It noted the presence of the three Justices as against six members of the House was intended as an additional guarantee to ensure impartiality in the judgment of cases.

The Court clarified that “Rule 6(a) of the 2015 HRET Rules requires the presence of at least one Justice and four members of the Tribunal to constitute a quorum. This means that even when all the Justices are present, at least two members of the House of Representatives need to be present to constitute a quorum. Without this rule, it would be possible for five members of the House of Representatives to convene and have a quorum even when no Justice is present. This would render ineffective the rationale contemplated by the framers of the 1935 and 1987 Constitutions for placing the Justices as members of the HRET.”

It pointed out that “petitioner is nitpicking in claiming that Rule 6(a) unduly favors the Justices because under the same rule, it is possible for four members of the House of Representatives and only one Justice to constitute a quorum. Rule 6(a) of the 2015 HRET Rules does not make the Justices indispensable members to constitute a quorum but ensures that representatives from both the Judicial and Legislative departments are present to constitute a quorum.” The Court emphasized that “[m]embers from both the Judicial and Legislative departments become indispensable to constitute a quorum.”

The Court also ruled that Rule 6(a) of the 2015 HRET Rules does not violate the equal protection clause embodied in Section 1, Article III of the 1987 Constitution, noting that ”there is a substantial distinction between the Justices of the Supreme Court and the members of the House of Representatives.”

It explained that “[t]here are only three Justice-members while there are six Legislator-members of the HRET. Hence, there is a valid classification. The classification is justified because it was placed to ensure the presence of members from both the Judicial and Legislative branches of the government to constitute a quorum. There is no violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution.”

The Court also clarified that “a member of the Tribunal who inhibits or is disqualified from participating in the deliberations cannot be considered present for having a quorum. In addition, Rule 69 clearly shows that the SC and the House of Representatives have the authority to designate a Special Member or Members who could act as temporary replacement or replacements in cases when one or some of the Members of the Tribunal inhibit from a case or are disqualified from participating in the deliberations of a particular election contest when the required quorum cannot be met.”

The Court stressed that “[t]here is no basis to petitioner’s claim that a member who inhibits or otherwise disqualified can sit in the deliberations to achieve the required quorum.”

The Court also found no merit in petitioner’s argument that the HRET Rules 15 and 17 unduly expanded the jurisdiction of the COMELEC as these Rules will allow the COMELEC to assume jurisdiction between the time of the election and within 15 days from June 30 of the election year or the date of actual assumption of office, whichever is later. The Court underscored that “the HRET’s jurisdiction is provided under Section 17, Article VI of the 1987 Constitution. There is no room for the COMELEC to assume jurisdiction because HRET’s jurisdiction is constitutionally mandated.”

Lastly, the Court took judicial notice of Resolution No. 16, series of 2018, dated Sept. 20, 2018, where the HRET amended Rules 17 and 18 of the 2015 HRET Rules providing the reckoning point within which to file an election protest or a petition for quo warranto, respectively, as “within 15 days from June 30 of the election year if the winning candidate was proclaimed on or before said date. However, if the winning candidate was proclaimed after June 30 of the election year, within 15 days from the date of promulgation.” Philippine News Agency / Marinduquenews.com

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