The Key Issue Presented
The key issue in this case is whether or not the House Justice Committee’s findings that the two complaints against Ombudsman Gutierrez are sufficient in form and substance violate Section 3(5), Article XI of the 1987 Constitution which provides that no impeachment proceedings shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a year.
The impeachment of public officials has been established for removing otherwise constitutionally tenured and independent public officials—the President, the Vice-President, the Members of the Supreme Court, the Members of the Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman—for culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust. The power to initiate impeachment cases rests with the House while the power to try the same rests with the Senate.
The pertinent provisions of Section 3, Article XI of the 1987 Constitution summarizes the steps that lead to the impeachment of the above public officials:
Sec. 3. x x x
(2) A verified complaint may be filed by any Member of the House of Representatives or by any citizen upon a resolution of endorsement by any Member thereof, which shall be included in the Order of Business within ten session days, and referred to the proper Committee within three session days thereafter. The Committee, after hearing, and by a majority vote of all its Members, shall submit its report to the House within sixty session days from such referral, together with the corresponding resolution. The resolution shall be calendared for consideration by the House within ten session days from receipt thereof.
(3) A vote of at least one‑third of all the Members of the House shall be necessary either to affirm a favorable resolution with the Articles of Impeachment of the Committee, or override its contrary resolution. The vote of each Member shall be recorded.
(4) In case the verified complaint or resolution of impeachment is filed by at least one‑third of all the Members of the House, the same shall constitute the Articles of Impeachment, and trial by the Senate shall forthwith proceed.
(5) No impeachment proceedings shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a period of one year.
(6) The Senate shall have the sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment. When sitting for that purpose, the Senators shall be on oath or affirmation. When the President of the Philippines is on trial, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court shall preside, but shall not vote. No person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two-thirds of all the Members of the Senate.
To sum up the various steps leading to the impeachment of a public official are:
One. A verified complaint for impeachment is filed by a member of the House or endorsed by him;
Two. The complaint is included in the order of business of the House.
Three. The House refers the complaint to the proper Committee;
Four. The Committee holds a hearing, approves the resolution calling for impeachment, and submits the same to the House.
Five. The House considers the resolution and votes to approve it by at least one‑third of all its members, which resolution becomes the article of impeachment to be filed with the Senate when approved; and
Six. The Senate tries the public official under the article.
The root of the present problem is that the impeachment of a public official may be said to be “initiated” in two ways under the above steps. The first is the complaint “initiated” in the House under Step One. Section 3 (1) of Article XI provides that the House of Representatives shall have the exclusive power to “initiate” all cases of impeachment. The second is the article of impeachment “initiated” in the Senate under Step Five following a favorable vote in the House.
Ombudsman Gutierrez’s view is that there is just one impeachment proceeding and this covers the actions of both the House and the Senate in one unified process. She infers from this that it is actually the filing of the complaint in the House that initiates the one “impeachment proceeding” and this bars a second one filed within the year. In the Francisco case, the Court interpreted the term “to initiate” under Section 3(5) as the filing of the impeachment complaint coupled with Congress’ taking initial action of said complaint. Such initial action consists of the referral or endorsement of the impeachment complaint to the Committee.
As amicus curiae, Fr. Bernas said in the Francisco case that “the Constitution is ratified by the people, both ordinary and sophisticated, as they understand it; and that ordinary people read ordinary meaning into ordinary words and not abstruse meaning, they ratify words as they understand it and not as sophisticated lawyers confuse it.”
Based on common usage in this jurisdiction, a “proceeding” described in the terms of an initiated action refers to a proceeding filed before the court, body, or tribunal that ultimately has the jurisdiction to hear and decide such action. For example, an “expropriation proceeding” is one instituted in the court that can hear and decide it, namely, the Regional Trial Court. It is the same with an “escheat or reversion proceeding,” an “ejectment proceeding,” an “estate proceeding,” or an “adoption proceeding.” Each of these proceedings or actions is lodged in the body or tribunal in which the law ultimately vests the power to hear and decide it.
Thus, when the Constitution speaks of “impeachment proceedings” it should be understood to refer to the action or case instituted in the Senate in which the power to hear and decide such proceedings is ultimately lodged. In this jurisdiction, the terms “case” and “proceeding” are often interchangeably used. A “case” is a legal action or suit. “Proceeding” means the carrying on of an action or course of action. The Constitution does not appear to draw any distinction between these two terms. At any rate, the power that the Constitution gives the House is only the power to initiate all cases of impeachment, not the ultimate power to hear and decide such cases. Thus:
Sec. 3. (1) The House of Representatives shall have the exclusive power to initiate all cases of impeachment.
For the above reason, it cannot be said that it is the party who files a verified complaint against the public official that initiates an impeachment case or proceeding. It is the House that does. Actually, the House exercises this power of initiation by filing the article of impeachment with the Senate. The power to initiate belongs to the House, not to any of its committees, provided the House is able to muster at least one-third vote of all its members in session assembled as the Constitution requires when the impeachment resolution is taken up.
The initiation of an impeachment case by the House of course follows a process: the filing of the complaint, the referral to the Justice Committee, the hearing by such committee, the committee voting over its resolution, the submission of the committee report to the plenary, and the vote to initiate an impeachment case. But this process should be correctly characterized as the House “initiation proceeding,” not the “impeachment proceeding” itself.
Besides, one needs to be guided only by the purpose of this constitutional provision. The initiation of the impeachment proceeding in the House is intended to be a preliminary step for the determination of the sufficiency of the allegations against the impeachable public official. It is akin to a preliminary investigation in a criminal case where probable cause is determined against the accused. If there is probable cause to indict the impeachable public official, then the Articles of Impeachment is transmitted to the Senate. In a criminal case, a criminal complaint or information is then filed in court against the accused.
It is a settled principle that once the policy or purpose of the law has been ascertained, effect should be given to it by the judiciary. While the one year bar was provided to ensure that the public official is not subjected to considerable harassment and to allow the legislature to do its principal task of legislation, the constitutional provision on impeachment must be viewed, foremost, as a means to protect the State and the people from erring and abusive high ranking public officials. To interpret the one year bar to commence from the disposition by the vote of at least one-third of all the members of the House gives the constitutional provision on impeachment more meaning and effectiveness. It affords more protection to the public interests since the initiation of impeachment complaints would no longer be a race against time. A slippery impeachable public official would not be able to pre-empt the filing within the year of a meritorious impeachment complaint against him by the simple expedience of colluding with someone to file first a baseless impeachment complaint against him.
In the end, the protection of the vast majority must be of paramount importance over and above any perceived inconvenience on the part of any impeachable public official.
At any rate, the issue of whether or not a case of impeachment initiated in the Senate can embody multiple of unrelated charges is not before this Court. I reserve my view on such issue when it arises.