Dissension in the Court: June 2013

By a vote of seven justices, with three inhibiting, one absent, and four dissenting, the Supreme Court – in a decision penned by J. Perez and promulgated last June 25, 2013 – dismissed this petition for certiorari assailing the earlier Resolutions of public respondent COMELEC which ordered the cancellation of petitioner’s Certificate of Candidacy (CoC) for the position of Representative of the lone district of Marinduque.

This case stemmed from a petition to deny due course or to cancel petitioner Reyes’s CoC filed on October 2012 by private respondent Tan with the COMELEC alleging that Reyes misrepresented in her CoC that (a) she is single and a resident of Marinduque, when she is married to Rep. Mandanas of Bauan, Batangas and a resident of that town (and also of Quezon City as admitted in the Directory of Congressional Spouses of the House of Representatives), and (b) she is a Filipino citizen and not a permanent resident of another country, when she is an American citizen and a permanent resident of the United States.

In her answer, Reyes averred that (a) she is not legally married to Rep. Mandanas, thus his residence cannot be attributed to her, and (b) the evidence presented by Tan does not support the allegation that she is a permanent resident or citizen of the United States.

On February 8, 2013, Tan filed a Manifestation with Motion to Admit Newly Discovered Evidence consisting of, among others, (a) a copy of a January 2013 internet article of a Mr. Eli Obligacion which provided a database record from the Bureau of Immigration and Deportation (BID) indicating that Reyes is an American citizen and a holder of a US passport, and (b) a photocopy of a Certification of Travel Records from the BID which showed that Reyes used her US passport in her various travels abroad.

On March 27, 2013, the COMELEC First Division issued a Resolution granting Tan’s petition and cancelling Reyes’s CoC.  It found that Reyes is not a Filipino citizen because she failed to qualify for repatriation under RA 9225 by taking the required Oath of Allegiance and executing an Affidavit of Renunciation of her American citizenship. In addition, it ruled that Reyes did not comply with the one-year residency requirement under the 1987 Constitution.

On April 8, 2013, Reyes filed her motion for reconsideration claiming that she is a natural-born Filipino citizen and that she has not lost such status by simply obtaining and using a US passport.  Additionally, she averred that while she was married to an American citizen in 1997, this only resulted in her acquiring dual citizenship and not in her becoming a naturalized American citizen, thus, there is no need for her to fulfill the twin requirements under RA 9225.  She also attached to her motion an Affidavit of Renunciation of Foreign Citizenship dated September 21, 2012 and a Voter Certification in Boac, Marinduque dated April 17, 2012.

On May 14, 2013, the COMELEC en banc promulgated its Resolution denying Reyes’s motion for reconsideration for lack of merit.  Chairman Brillantes, however, dissented from the majority and held that Tan failed to offer substantial evidence to prove that Reyes lost her Filipino citizenship, noting that the internet article by Mr. Obligacion is hearsay, while the purported copy of the BID certification is merely a photocopy and not even a certified true copy of the original, thus similarly inadmissible as evidence.  Chairman Brillantes also opined that (a) a petition to deny due course tackles exclusively the issue of deliberate misrepresentation over a qualification, and not the lack of qualification per se which is the proper subject of a quo warranto proceeding, and (b) the issues pertaining to Reyes’s residence and citizenship require exhaustive presentation and examination of evidence that are best addressed in a full blown quo warranto proceeding rather than the summary proceedings in the present case.

On May 18, 2013, Reyes was proclaimed winner of the May 13, 2013 elections by the Marinduque Provincial Board of Canvassers.

On June 5, 2013, the COMELEC en banc issued a Certificate of Finality declaring its May 14, 2013 Resolution final and executory, pursuant to the COMELEC Rules of Procedure which provide that said resolutions shall become final and executory after the lapse of five days from promulgation, unless restrained by the Supreme Court.

On June 7, 2013, Reyes took her oath of office before Speaker Belmonte of the House of Representatives. On that same day, Reyes filed this Petition for Certiorari assailing the COMELEC Resolutions and claiming that (a) the COMELEC was ousted of its jurisdiction when she was duly proclaimed winner, and (b) the COMELEC committed grave abuse of discretion (i) when it took cognizance of Tan’s newly discovered evidence without the same have been testified and offered and admitted in evidence and without giving Reyes the opportunity to question and present controverting evidence, in violation of Reyes’s right to due process, (ii) when it declared that Reyes is not a Filipino citizen and did not meet the residency requirement, and (iii) when by, enforcing RA 9225, it imposed additional qualifications to those enumerated in the Constitution for a Member of the House of Representatives.

Without further proceedings, the majority of the SC justices dismissed the petition and held that:

A.  The COMELEC retained jurisdiction to the exclusion of the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET) because (a) Reyes has not filed a petition with the HRET, and (b) the jurisdiction of the HRET begins only after the candidate is considered a Member of the House of Representatives which, based on jurisprudence, happens only after a winning candidate has been proclaimed, taken his oath, and assumed office at “noon of the thirtieth day of June next following his election.”  The majority also believed that the COMELEC en banc had already disposed of the issue of petitioner’s lack of Filipino citizenship and residency last May 14, 2013 and so the Board of Canvassers which proclaimed petitioner as winner on May 18, 2013 cannot, by such act, be allowed to render nugatory the COMELEC en banc decision, which per COMELEC Rules of Procedure became final and executory on May 19, 2013.  To prevent the assailed Resolution from becoming final, petitioner should have filed a petition before the SC within the 5-day period as provided in said Rules, but she failed to do so.

B.  The COMELEC did not gravely abuse its discretion when it took cognizance of the newly discovered evidence because it is not bound to strictly adhere to the technical rules of procedure in the presentation of evidence, and since the proceedings in a petition to deny due course or to cancel a CoC are summary in nature.  There was no denial of due process because petitioner had five months from the filing of Tan’s petition to the issuance of the COMELEC First Division’s Resolution to adduce evidence, but she did not avail herself of the opportunity given her.

C.  A doubt was clearly cast on petitioner’s citizenship which petitioner failed to clear.  Early on, Reyes contended that it was Tan’s burden to prove that Reyes is not a Filipino citizen.  Tan was able to substantiate his allegation by evidence establishing that Reyes is a holder of an American passport.  The burden now shifted to Reyes to present evidence either that she is a natural-born citizen and has not lost the same or that she has availed of the privileges under RA 9225 but she failed to do that, and so the conclusion is that she remains to be an American citizen.  Notably, in her motion for reconsideration before the COMELEC en banc, Reyes admitted that she is a holder of a US passport, but she averred that she is only a dual Filipino-American citizen, thus RA 9225 does not apply to her.  Still, attached to the said motion is an Affidavit of Renunciation of Foreign Citizenship which she explained was attached “if only to comply with the rules, even as a superfluity.”  Given that the Affidavit was executed in September 2012 or even before the COMELEC issued the assailed Resolutions raising RA 9225 compliance as an issue, this must be taken as an admission by petitioner that RA 9225 applies to her.

D.  As to the issue of residency, the majority agrees with the ruling of the COMELEC First Division that petitioner cannot be considered a resident of Marinduque because she did not show that she had re-acquired her Filipino citizenship pursuant to RA 9225, and so it follows that she has not abandoned her domicile of choice in the USA.  The only proof presented by petitioner to show that she has met the one-year residency requirement is her claim that she served as Provincial Administrator of the province from January 18, 2011 to July 13, 2011, but no amount of her stay in the said locality can substitute the fact that she has not abandoned her domicile of choice in the USA.

E.  The COMELEC did not impose additional qualifications on candidates for the House of Representatives who have acquired foreign citizenship.  It merely applied the qualifications prescribed in the Constitution that the candidate must be a natural-born citizen and must have one-year residency prior to the date of elections.  Thus, it was proper for the COMELEC to inquire into Reyes’s compliance with RA 9225 to determine if she re-acquired her status as a natural-born citizen.

All in all, the majority believed, considering that the petition for denial and cancellation of the CoC is summary in nature, that the COMELEC is given much discretion in the evaluation and admission of evidence.  They also cited an earlier case where the SC held that the rule that factual findings of administrative bodies will not be disturbed by the courts except when there is absolutely no evidence or no substantial evidence in support of such findings should be applied with greater force when it concerns the COMELEC, as the latter was created and explicitly made independent by the Constitution itself and intended by its framers to be placed on a level higher than statutory administrative organs.  Citing another case, they noted that for an act to be struck down as having been done with grave abuse of discretion, the abuse of discretion must be patent and gross and, in this case, petitioner failed to adequately and substantially show that grave abuse of discretion exists.

In his dissenting opinion, J. Brion, joined by J. Carpio, J. Villarama, and J. Leonen, expressed his strong reservations to the majority’s outright dismissal of this petition after an initial review, based solely on the petition and its annexes and its finding that there was no grave abuse of discretion on the part of COMELEC.  The dissenters believed that the majority ought to have at least required public respondent COMELEC to comment on the petition in light of the gravity of the issues raised, the potential effect on jurisprudence, and “the affected personal relationships within and outside the Court,” before any further action can be made. That this case at least deserves further proceedings from the SC is supported by the following considerations:

First, the issues raised by petitioner on the jurisdiction of the COMELEC, on her right to due process and the COMELEC’s failure to properly appreciate and evaluate the evidence against her, and on the alleged imposition by the COMELEC of a qualification for the position of congressman other than those mentioned in the Constitution, among others, are all substantial issues deserving more than the hasty dismissive action the majority made.  For example, comments should have been solicited at least on how petitioner’s admitted marriage affected her citizenship and on how the COMELEC arrived at the conclusion that petitioner was a naturalized American citizen based on submitted evidence that could only show that petitioner was the holder of a US passport.

Second, unless the case is clearly and patently shown to be without basis, the SC should, out of delicadeza, at least hear and consider both sides before making a ruling that would favor the son of a member of the SC (blogger’s note:  petitioner’s rival candidate was the son of J. Velasco).

Third, the majority’s holding that the jurisdiction of the HRET only begins after the candidate has assumed office on June 30 is contrary to prevailing jurisprudence and the HRET Rules (which both hold the proclamation of the winner as the reckoning point and trigger that brings election contests within the HRET’s exclusive jurisdiction) and is, in fact, a major retrogressive jurisprudential development that can emasculate the HRET.  In this particular case, any election protest or petition for quo warranto filed after June 30 or more than fifteen (15) days from Reyes’s proclamation on May 18, 2013 shall be dismissed outright by the HRET for having been filed out of time under the HRET Rules.  In making this kind of ruling, the SC should have at least undertaken a full-blown proceeding.

All told, the dissenters believe that the COMELEC does not have an airtight case based on substantial evidence on the citizenship and residency issues, and much less a similar case on the jurisdictional issue, to justify a very prompt outright dismissal action from the SC.  They also believe that petitioner Reyes is not lacking in arguably meritorious positions to support her cause, even if only to the extent of being fully heard by the SC.  If the SC is really serious in administering justice in this case, the proper course of action is to require the COMELEC to comment on the petition and to decide matters from that point.

Regina Ongsiako Reyes vs Commission on Elections and Joseph Socorro B. Tan (G.R. No. 207264); dissenting opinion: Brion, J., Carpio, J., Villarama, J., Leonen, J.