In a majority decision penned by J. Perlas-Bernabe and promulgated last March 19, 2013, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET) which declared the validity of private respondent Lucy Torres-Gomez’s substitution of Richard Gomez as the Liberal Party’s replacement candidate for the position of Leyte Representative.
The records clearly show that (i) Richard filed his certificate of candidacy (CoC) misrepresenting in his CoC that he resided in Ormoc City (in light of the Constitutional requirement that members of the House of Representatives be residents of their respective districts at least one year immediately preceding the day of the election) when he in fact resided in Greenhills, Mandaluyong City, (ii) an opposing candidate, Juntilla, filed a petition asking the COMELEC to disqualify Richard and to deny due course to or cancel his CoC for material misrepresentation regarding his residence, (iii) the COMELEC First Division granted Juntilla’s petition without any qualification although its resolution only spoke of disqualifying Richard without denying due course to or canceling his CoC, (iv) only Richard moved for reconsideration of the above resolution; Juntilla did not, (v) the COMELEC En Banc issued a resolution denying Richard’s motion for reconsideration and after the latter filed a Manifestation accepting the decision to enable a substitute to take his place, the COMELEC En Banc issued an Order declaring its resolution final and executory, (vi) Lucy promptly filed her CoC together with the Liberal Party endorsement as the party’s official substitute candidate vice Richard, (vii) over Juntilla’s opposing claim that there should be no substitution because there is no candidate to substitute for, the COMELEC En Banc issued a resolution allowing the substitution on the basis that the COMELEC First Division resolution only spoke of disqualifying Richard without denying due course to or canceling his CoC, (viii) Juntilla filed a motion for reconsideration of this En Banc order but, pending resolution of his motion, local elections were conducted and Lucy was proclaimed winner, (ix) 12 days after Lucy’s proclamation, one of her losing opponents, petitioner Tagolina, filed a petition for quo warranto before the HRET to oust Lucy from her congressional seat claiming, among others, that she did not validly substitute Richard since the latter’s CoC was void ab initio, (x) the HRET dismissed the quo warranto petition and held that the substitution was valid noting that the COMELEC First Division resolution only spoke of disqualifying Richard without denying due course to or canceling his CoC.
In reversing the HRET ruling, the Supreme Court distinguished between a disqualification case under Section 68 of the Omnibus Election Code (OEC), and a petition to deny due course to and/or cancel a CoC under Section 78. A disqualification case is hinged on either (i) a candidate’s possession of a permanent resident status in a foreign country or (ii) his commission of an election offense under the OEC, and results in the candidate still technically considered to have been a candidate but is ordered to discontinue such candidacy (or is disallowed from holding public office if he has already been elected) as a sanction for committing the election offense.
On the other hand, a denial of due course to and/or cancellation of a CoC proceeding is premised on a person’s misrepresentation of any of the material qualifications required for the elective office aspired for. Citing Miranda v Abaya (370 Phil 642), the majority noted that the deliberateness of the misrepresentation or one’s intent to defraud is of little consequence in the determination of whether one’s CoC should be deemed cancelled or not, as it is enough that the person’s declaration of a material qualification in the CoC be false. Pertinently, while a disqualified candidate under Section 68 is still considered to have been a candidate for all intents and purposes, a person whose CoC had been denied due course to and/or cancelled under Section 78 is deemed not to have been a candidate at all, as his cancelled CoC is considered void ab initio. And considering that Section 77 of the OEC requires that there be a candidate in order for substitution to take place, as well as the precept that a person without a valid CoC is not considered as a candidate at all, it necessarily follows that a person whose CoC has been denied due course to and/or cancelled cannot be validly substituted. It is equally revelatory that Section 77 enumerates the instances where substitution is permissible and noticeably, while death, withdrawal or disqualification for any cause of an official candidate of a registered political party are included as valid basis for substitution, material misrepresentation cases are not included.
In this case, it is undisputed that Richard was disqualified to run due to his failure to comply with the residency requirement. The confusion, however, stemmed from the use of the word “disqualified” in the Resolution of the COMELEC First Division, which was adopted by the COMELEC En Banc in granting the substitution of Lucy, and even further perpetuated by the HRET in denying the quo warranto petition. Yet, the fact that the COMELEC First Division’s Resolution did not explicitly decree denial of due course to and/or cancellation of Richard’s CoC should not have prevented the COMELEC En Banc from declaring the invalidity of Lucy’s substitution since the clear basis for Richard’s disqualification is his failure to comply with the residency requirement under the Constitution which is a ground for the denial of due course to and/or cancellation of a CoC under Section 78 of the OEC, not for disqualification. There is therefore no legal basis to support a finding of disqualification under the OEC, and it cannot be mistaken that the COMELEC First Division’s unqualified grant of Juntilla’s petition necessarily carried with it the denial of due course to and/or cancellation of Richard’s CoC pursuant to Section 78, notwithstanding the use of the term “disqualified” in its Resolution. Hence, the COMELEC En Banc misconstrued the COMELEC First Division’s Resolution when it noted that Richard was only disqualified and that his CoC was not denied due course to and/or cancelled, paving the way for the approval of Lucy’s substitution. And the HRET, in perpetuating the COMELEC En Banc’s error although not bound by previous COMELEC pronouncements – being the sole judge of all contests relating the election, returns and qualifications of the members of the House of Representatives – committed a grave abuse of discretion.
In his dissenting opinion, J. Leonardo-de Castro voted to deny the quo warranto petition of Tagolino on the ground that it was filed beyond the prescribed period of 10 days after the proclamation of the winner under Rule 17 of the HRET Rules, having been filed 12 days after the proclamation of Lucy Torres-Gomez. Hence, the petition should have been dismissed outright pursuant to Rule 21 of the said Rules.
Furthermore, the petition for quo warranto lacked factual basis since, under Rule 17 of the HRET Rules, the grounds for such petition are ineligibility to run for a public office or disloyalty to the Republic of the Philippines. The ponencia did not find any of the qualifications of a member of the House of Representatives absent in the case of Lucy; rather it attributed her ineligibility to its erroneous assumption that the CoC of Richard, whom she substituted, should have been cancelled.
Moreover, this dissenter believes that the substantive issue extensively discussed in the ponencia, particularly as to the divergent effects of disqualification and denial of due course to and/or cancellation of CoC cases vis-à-vis candidate substitution, is inappropriate, firstly because the CoC of Richard Gomez was not cancelled by the COMELEC, and secondly because the decision by the COMELEC not to cancel said CoC was proper as the COMELEC did not reach any finding that Richard deliberately committed a misrepresentation, which deliberate misrepresentation is a requisite for the cancellation of a CoC under Section 78 of the OEC, citing Mitra v. Commission on Elections (622 SCRA 744), contrary to the majority view that deliberateness of the misrepresentation is of little consequence in the determination of whether the CoC should be cancelled. Since the COMELEC did not cancel the CoC of Richard but only disqualified him from running in the elections, the substitution by Lucy of Richard squarely falls within Section 77 of the OEC, which uses the broad language “disqualification for any cause.”
In his separate dissenting opinion, J. Abad, joined by J. Mendoza and J. Del Castillo, posits that the real issue in this case is whether or not the HRET can review and reverse a COMELEC decision involving a member of the House of Representatives that had become final and executory. This dissenter believes that neither the HRET nor this Court can review or set aside final and executory resolutions of the COMELEC that it rendered pursuant to its powers under the Constitution, even if such resolutions are erroneous.
It is clear from the facts that the COMELEC First Division’s Resolution, which merely disqualified Richard but did not cancel or deny due course to his CoC, although it may be in error, became final and executory for the following reasons: first, Juntilla never filed a motion for reconsideration of that Resolution; second, only Richard moved to reconsider and when the COMELEC En Banc resolved to dismiss his motion, Richard filed a manifestation accepting its dismissal, whereupon the COMELEC En Banc declared its resolution final and executory and consequently closed down the last window of opportunity to review and possible reverse the COMELEC First Division’s Resolution; third, over Juntilla’s claim that the COMELEC First Division Resolution resulted in the COMELEC denying due course to Richard’s CoC with the effect that, without a valid CoC, he could not be substituted, the COMELEC En Banc issued a resolution allowing the substitution on the basis that the COMELEC First Division resolution merely ordered Richard’s disqualification and such resolution had become final and executory; fourth, while Juntilla filed a motion for reconsideration of this En Banc order, the motion remained unacted upon due to the supervening local elections and thereafter he never insisted that it be resolved and never elevated the matter before the Supreme Court or the HRET and may thus be deemed to have abandoned that motion for reconsideration.
This dissenter notes that the Supreme Court may have earlier ruled in Guerrero v. Commission on Elections (391 Phil 344) that, since the Constitution makes the HRET the sole judge of all contests relating to the election, returns and qualifications of members of the House of Representatives, it has the jurisdiction to pass upon the validity of substitution involving such members. However, this dissenter believes that Taganito cannot invoke that ruling for three reasons:
First, the Court’s thesis in that case is that the HRET can take over a pending matter before the COMELEC since the latter may be considered ousted of its jurisdiction over the same upon the winner’s assumption of office. Here, however, the key issue of whether or not the COMELEC First Division’s Resolution, which merely disqualified Richard but did not cancel his CoC, is no longer a pending matter but has become final and executory.
Second, the petitioner Guerrero in that case had the right to raise the issue of disqualification before the HRET since he intervened in the earlier action before the COMELEC. Here, Tagolino never intervened in Juntilla’s actions before the COMELEC; consequently, he has no right to ask the HRET to resolve Juntilla’s motion for reconsideration of the COMELEC En Banc’s order.
Third, Tagolino made a binding admission before the HRET that the COMELEC did not in fact order the cancellation of Richard’s CoC and is thus barred from claiming that, in disqualifying Richard, the COMELEC’s First Division in effect caused the cancellation of his CoC.