Posted by: Elmer Brabante | August 27, 2009

Dueñas vs. House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal


HENRY “JUN” DUEÑAS, JR.,    vs. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES ELECTORAL TRIBUNAL (HRET) and ANGELITO “JET” REYES

GR No. 185401

July 21, 2009

En banc

 Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodies? (But who is to guard the guardians themselves?)

Under our constitutional scheme, the Supreme Court is the ultimate guardian of the Constitution, particularly of the allocation of powers, the guarantee of individual liberties and the assurance of the people’s sovereignty. The Court has the distinguished but delicate duty of determining and defining constitutional meaning, divining constitutional intent and deciding constitutional disputes. Nonetheless, its judicial supremacy is never judicial superiority (for it is co-equal with the other branches) or judicial tyranny (for it is supposed to be the least dangerous branch). Instead, judicial supremacy is the conscious and cautious awareness and acceptance of its proper place in the overall scheme of government with the objective of asserting and promoting the supremacy of the Constitution. Thus, whenever the Court exercises its function of checking the excesses of any branch of government, it is also duty-bound to check itself. Otherwise, who will guard the guardian?

FACTS:

Petitioner Henry “Jun” Dueñas, Jr. and private respondent Angelito “Jett” P. Reyes were rival candidates for the position of congressman in the 2nd legislative district of Taguig City in the May 14, 2007 synchronized national and local elections. After the canvass of the votes, petitioner was proclaimed the winner, having garnered 28,564 votes as opposed to private respondent’s 27,107 votes.  Not conceding defeat, private respondent filed an election protest, praying for a revision/recount, alleging that he was cheated in the protested 170 of 732 precincts through insidious and well-orchestrated electoral frauds and anomalies which resulted in the systematic reduction of his votes and the corresponding increase in petitioner’s votes.

In an order dated September 25, 2008, the HRET directed the continuation of the revision and appreciation of the remaining 75% of the counter-protested precincts pursuant to Rule 88 of the HRET Rules.  Instead of complying with the order, petitioner filed an urgent motion to withdraw/abandon the remaining 75% counter-protested precincts on October 27, 2008. This was denied by the HRET, reiterating its order directing the continuation of the revision of ballots in the remaining 75% counter-protested precincts and recalling its order requiring petitioner to augment his cash deposit. The Tribunal instead ordered the use of its own funds for the revision of the remaining 75% counter-protested precincts.

On November 27, 2008, the HRET issued a resolution under Rule 88 of the HRET Rules and settled jurisprudence, ruling that it had the discretion either to dismiss the protest or counter-protest, or to continue with the revision if necessitated by reasonable and sufficient grounds affecting the validity of the election.  This was with the end in view of ascertaining the true choice of the electorate. It was the HRET’s position that the mere filing of a motion to withdraw/abandon the unrevised precincts did not automatically divest the HRET of its jurisdiction over the same. Moreover, it ruled that its task of determining the true will of the electorate was not confined to the examination of contested ballots. Under its plenary power, it could motu propio review the validity of every ballot involved in a protest or counter-protest and the same could not be frustrated by the mere expedient of filing a motion to withdraw/abandon the remaining counter-protested precincts. Convinced that it could not determine the true will of the electorate of the 2nd legislative district of Taguig City on the basis alone of the initial revision of the 100% protested precincts and the 25% counter-protested precincts, it had no other recourse but to continue the revision and appreciation of all the remaining 75% counter-protested precincts.

 ISSUE:

(1) Whether the HRET committed grave abuse of discretion, amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction, in issuing the Resolution, to continue the revision and appreciation of all the remaining 75% counter-protested precincts.

(2) Whether or not HRET’s assumption of the burden of the costs of the continued revision amounted to an illegal and unconstitutional disbursement of public funds nder Section 29 (1), Article VI of the Constitution.

HELD:  

The petition has no merit. 

So long as the Constitution grants the HRET the power to be the sole judge of all contests relating to the election, returns and qualifications of members of the House of Representatives, any final action taken by the HRET on a matter within its jurisdiction shall, as a rule, not be reviewed by this Court …. the power granted to the Electoral Tribunal x x x excludes the exercise of any authority on the part of this Court that would in any wise restrict it or curtail it or even affect the same.  Guided by this basic principle, the Court will neither assume a power that belongs exclusively to the HRET nor substitute its own judgment for that of the Tribunal.

(1) HRET’s Power to Deny the Motion to Withdraw / Abandon Counter-protest

First, there are 732 precincts in the 2nd Legislative District of Taguig City, where respondent protested the election results in 170 precincts and petitioner counter-protested 560 precincts. All in all, therefore, 730 precincts were the subject of the revision proceedings. While 100% of the protested precincts were already revised, only 25% or 140 of the counter-protested precincts (or a total of 310 precincts) were actually done. Yet, with 420 more precincts to go had the HRET only been allowed to continue its proceedings, petitioner claims that respondents were only speculating that a sufficient number of fake/spurious ballots would be discovered in the remaining 75% counter-protested precincts and that these fake/spurious ballots would overturn the result of the election.

Indeed, due regard and respect for the authority of the HRET as an independent constitutional body require that any finding of grave abuse of discretion against that body should be based on firm and convincing proof, not on shaky assumptions. Any accusation of grave abuse of discretion on the part of the HRET must be established by a clear showing of arbitrariness and improvidence. But the Court finds no evidence of such grave abuse of discretion by the HRET.

Second, the Constitution mandates that the HRET “shall be the sole judge of all contests relating to the election, returns and qualifications” of its members. By employing the word “sole,” the Constitution is emphatic that the jurisdiction of the HRET in the adjudication of election contests involving its members is exclusive and exhaustive. Its exercise of power is intended to be its own — full, complete and unimpaired.

Protective of its jurisdiction and assertive of its constitutional mandate, the Tribunal adopted Rule 7 of the HRET Rules:   The Tribunal shall have exclusive control, direction and supervision of all matters pertaining to its own functions and operation.

In this connection and in the matter of the revision of ballots, the HRET reserved for itself the discretion to continue or discontinue the process. The meaning of Rule 88 is plain. The HRET could continue or discontinue the revision proceedings ex propio motu, that is, of its own accord. Thus, even if we were to adopt petitioner’s view that he ought to have been allowed by HRET to withdraw his counter-protest, there was nothing to prevent the HRET from continuing the revision of its own accord by authority of Rule 88.

The only prerequisite to the exercise by the HRET of its prerogative under Rule 88 was its own determination that the evidence thus far presented could affect the officially proclaimed results. Much like the appreciation of contested ballots and election documents, the determination of whether the evidence could influence the officially proclaimed results was a highly technical undertaking, a function best left to the specialized expertise of the HRET. 

At the risk of unduly encroaching on the exclusive prerogative of the HRET as the sole judge of election contests involving its members, the Court cannot substitute its own sense or judgment for that of the HRET on the issues of whether the evidence presented during the initial revision could affect the officially proclaimed results and whether the continuation of the revision proceedings could lead to a determination of the true will of the electorate. TheCourt should merely test whether or not the governmental branch or agency has gone beyond the constitutional limits of its jurisdiction, not that it erred or had a different view.   If the Court will dictate to the HRET on how to proceed with these election protest proceedings, the Tribunal will no longer have “exclusive control, direction and supervision of all matters pertaining to its own functions and operation.” It will constitute an intrusion into the HRET’s domain and a curtailment of the HRET’s power to act of its own accord on its own evaluation of the evidentiary weight and effect of the result of the initial revision.

Finally, it is hornbook doctrine that jurisdiction, once acquired, is not lost at the instance of the parties but continues until the case is terminated. Thus, in Robles v. HRET, the Court ruled: The mere filing of the motion to withdraw protest on the remaining uncontested precincts, without any action on the part of respondent tribunal, does not by itself divest the tribunal of its jurisdiction over the case. Jurisdiction, once acquired, is not lost upon the instance of the parties but continues until the case is terminated.   Certainly, the Tribunal retains the authority to grant or deny the Motion, and the withdrawal becomes effective only when the Motion is granted. To hold otherwise would permit a party to deprive the Tribunal of jurisdiction already acquired.

Where the court has jurisdiction over the subject matter, its orders upon all questions pertaining to the cause are orders within its jurisdiction, and however erroneous they may be, they cannot be corrected by certiorari. This rule more appropriately applies to respondent HRET whose independence as a constitutional body has time and again been upheld by Us in many cases. As explained in the case of Lazatin v. The House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal and Timbol, G.R. No. 84297, December 8, 1988, thus:

The use of the word ‘sole’ emphasizes the exclusive character of the jurisdiction conferred [Angara v. Electoral Commission, supra, at 162]. The exercise of the Power by the Electoral Commission under the 1935 Constitution has been described as `intended to be complete and unimpaired as if it had remained originally in the legislature’ [Id. at 175]. Earlier, this grant of power to the legislature was characterized by Justice Malcolm as ‘full, clear and complete’ [Veloso v. Board of Canvassers of Leyte and Samar, 39 Phil. 886 (1919)]. Under the amended 1935 Constitution, the power was unqualifiedly reposed upon the Electoral Tribunal [Suanes v. Chief Accountant of the Senate, 81 Phil. 818 (1948)] and it remained as full, clear and complete as that previously granted the legislature and the Electoral Commission [Lachica v. Yap, G.R. No. L-25379, September 25, 1968, 25 SCRA 140]. The same may be said with regard to the jurisdiction of the Electoral Tribunals under the 1987 Constitution. Thus, ‘judicial review of decisions or final resolutions of the House Electoral Tribunal is (thus) possible only in the exercise of this Court’s so-called extraordinary jurisdiction, . . . upon a determination that the tribunal’s decision or resolution was rendered without or in excess of its jurisdiction, or with grave abuse of discretion or, paraphrasing Morrera, upon a clear showing of such arbitrary and improvident use by the Tribunal of its power as constitutes a denial of due process of law, or upon a demonstration of a very clear unmitigated ERROR, manifestly constituting such a GRAVE ABUSE OF DISCRETION that there has to be a remedy for such abuse. (emphasis supplied)

(2) HRET’s Discretion to Use Its Own Funds in Revision Proceedings

When  jurisdiction  is  conferred  by  law  on  a  court  or tribunal, that court or tribunal, unless otherwise provided by law, is deemed to have the authority to employ all writs, processes and other means to make its power effective. Where a general power is conferred or duty enjoined, every particular power necessary for the exercise of one or the performance of the other is also conferred. Since the HRET possessed the authority to motu propio continue a revision of ballots, it also had the wherewithal to carry it out. It thus ordered the disbursement of its own funds for the revision of the ballots in the remaining counter-protested precincts. We hark back to Rule 7 of the HRET Rules which provides that the HRET has exclusive control, direction and supervision of its functions. The HRET’s order was but one aspect of its power.

Moreover, Rule 8 of the HRET Rules provides that the Tribunal shall have and exercise all such powers as are vested in it by the Constitution or by law, and such other powers as are necessary or incidental to the accomplishment of its purposes and functions as set forth in the Constitution or as may be provided by law. (emphasis supplied)

Certainly, the HRET’s order that its own funds be used for the revision of the ballots from the 75% counter-protested precincts was an exercise of a power necessary or incidental to the accomplishment of its primary function as sole judge of election protest cases involving its members. 

First, if petitioner hypothetically admits that the HRET has the power to order the continuation of the revision of the 75% remaining counter-protested precincts, then he should also necessarily concede that there is nothing to prevent the HRET from using its own funds to carry out such objective. Otherwise, the existence of such power on the part of the HRET becomes useless and meaningless.

Second,  Section 1, Chapter 1 of RA 9498 provides that the HRET has an allotted budget for the “Adjudication of Electoral Contests Involving Members of the House of Representatives.” The provision is general and encompassing enough to authorize the use of the HRET’s funds for the revision of ballots, whether in a protest or counter-protest. Being allowed by law, the use of HRET funds for the revision of the remaining 75% counter-protested precincts was not illegal, much less violative of Article 220 of the Revised Penal Code.  To reiterate, the law (particularly RA 9498) itself has appropriated funds for adjudicating election contests in the HRET. As an independent constitutional body, and having received the proper appropriation for that purpose, the HRET had wide discretion in the disbursement and allocation of such funds.

Third, HRET ha[s] the inherent power to suspend its own rules and disburse its funds for any lawful purpose it deemed best. This is specially significant in election contests such as this where what is at stake is the vital public interest in determining the true will of the electorate. In any event, nothing prevented the HRET from ordering any of the parties to make the additional required deposit(s) to cover costs, as respondent in fact manifested in the HRET.   Such disbursement could not be deemed a giving of unwarranted benefit, advantage or preference to a party since the benefit would actually redound to the electorate whose true will must be determined. Suffrage is a matter of public, not private, interest. The Court declared in Aruelo, Jr. v. Court of Appeals that “[o]ver and above the desire of the candidates to win, is the deep public interest to determine the true choice of the people.” Thus, in an election protest, any benefit to a party would simply be incidental.

All told, it should be borne in mind that the present petition is a petition for certiorari under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court. It alleges that the HRET committed grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction when it promulgated Resolution No. 08-353 dated November 27, 2008. But what is “grave abuse of discretion?” It is such capricious and whimsical exercise of judgment which is tantamount to lack of jurisdiction. Ordinary abuse of discretion is insufficient. The abuse of discretion must be grave, that is, the power is exercised in an arbitrary or despotic manner by reason of passion or personal hostility. It must be so patent and gross as to amount to evasion of positive duty or to a virtual refusal to perform the duty enjoined by or to act at all in contemplation of the law. In other words, for a petition for certiorari to prosper, there must be a clear showing of caprice and arbitrariness in the exercise of discretion. There is also grave abuse of discretion when there is a contravention of the Constitution, the law or existing jurisprudence. Using the foregoing as yardstick, the Court finds that petitioner miserably failed to discharge the onus probandi imposed on him.

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