The Senate ball is now in the Supreme Court diamond.
Thursday last week, the 24-member Senate asked the country’s highest court to declare as null void for being unconstitutional the memorandum issued by President Rodrigo Duterte enjoining officials and employees of the Executive branch from appearing in hearings in aid of legislation conducted by the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee.
In a 67-page petition, the Senate headed by Senate President Vicente Sotto III also asked the SC to issue a temporary restraining order and/or a status quo ante order that would compel Executive department’s officials to attend the ongoing Senate Blue Ribbon Committee hearings on the 2020 Commission on Audit report on the alleged questionable procurement of medical supplies for COVID-19 pandemic.
Besides Sotto, other petitioners were Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, Majority Leader Miguel Zubiri, Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, and Senate Blue Ribbon Committee chairman Senator Richard Gordon.
The petitioners named Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III as respondents.
The petitioners have also asked the Court to prohibit respondent Executive Secretary and other officers of the Executive branch from issuing and implementing directives to law enforcement agencies such as the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation that would obstruct the proceedings of the Senate and withhold assistance in the enforcement of the Senate’s compulsory processes.
They also sought a prohibition against Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and other officials of the government from complying with the memorandum, issued on October 4, 2021.
The memorandum was issued by Medialdea upon the directive of the President who accused Senator Richard Gordon and some members of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee of conducting the probe not in aid legislation but for political mileage.
Duterte also assailed the propriety of conducting a prolonged inquiry.
The Senate argued the memorandum is unconstitutional because it was issued in defiance of the Court’s ruling in Senate v. Ermita which invalidated Executive Order 464 issued during the term of then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo requiring officials to secure the President’s consent before attending legislative inquiries in aid of legislation.
The SC ruling in that case also established substantive and procedural requirements before officials may invoke the proper privilege.
In their pleading, the senators noted that the Court held in the case that although “the executive branch is a co-equal branch of the legislature, it cannot frustrate the power of Congress to legislate by refusing to comply with its demands for information.”
“Here, the subject Memorandum does exactly what Senate v. Ermita said the Executive Department could not: it directed ‘all officials and employees of the Executive Department to no longer appear before or attend’ the Subject Hearings. There has been no greater, more blatant disregard of a categorical ruling of the Honorable Court in recent memory,” the petitioners stressed.
The petitioners told the Court that Duterte’s memorandum poses a threat to the Senate as it hampers the institution’s mandate and ability to obtain, in a timely and effective manner, information necessary to prevent future irregularities with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Besides, the Senate said the memorandum violated the principle of separation of powers between the three branches of government.
It said public statements of the President against the ongoing probe by the Senate clearly showed the Executive Department’s intent to interfere in –if not obstruct entirely –the hearings.
“In this light, to allow the Executive to dictate how Congress should conduct legislative queries is no different from allowing it to tell the Honorable Court how the latter must conduct its deliberations,” the Senate said.
“The Senate – as well as the House of Representatives – possesses these powers as auxiliaries to its lawmaking function. And their independence in the conduct of their powers must remain uninfringed
considering that inquiries in aid of legislation are expressly granted and guaranteed by the Constitution itself,” the senator added.
The Senate also argued that the memorandum, if not declared unconstitutional, would weaken the rule of law as it undermines the implementation of writs, processes, and warrants.
“To uphold the excuse of the Executive is to remove governmental malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance—including the prevention of a scandalous waste of public funds—from the Senate’s otherwise plenary power to prohibit via legislation. That certainly would not be an outcome consistent with the constitutional emphasis on the accountability of public officers,” the Senate said.
The anticipated SC ruling is certain to enrich Philippine jurisprudence. (ai/mtvn)