In the instant case, the petitioner has utterly failed to show to the Court that the COMELEC, in issuing the assailed resolutions, acted capriciously, whimsically and arbitrarily, such that its act is annullable by the extraordinary writ of certiorari.
The nullification by the COMELEC of the RTC’s orders and the consequent dismissal of Election Case No. 1-2007 are in accordance with the express mandate of the Rules of Procedure in Election Contests Before the Courts Involving Elective Municipal and Barangay Officials (A.M. No. 07-4-15-SC), Rule 9, Sections 4, 5 and 6 of which provide as follows:
SEC. 4. Preliminary conference brief.—The parties shall file with the court and serve on the adverse party, in such manner as shall ensure their receipt at least one day before the date of the preliminary conference, their respective briefs which shall contain the following:
- A summary of admitted facts and proposed stipulation of facts;
- The issues to be tried or resolved;
- The pre-marked documents or exhibits to be presented, stating their purpose;
- A manifestation of their having availed or their intention to avail themselves of discovery procedures or referral to commissioners;
- The number and names of the witnesses, their addresses, and the substance of their respective testimonies. The testimonies of the witnesses shall be by affidavits in question and answer form as their direct testimonies, subject to oral cross examination;
- A manifestation of withdrawal of certain protested or counter-protested precincts, if such is the case;
- The proposed number of revision committees and names of their revisors and alternate revisors; and
- In case the election protest or counter-protest seeks the examination, verification or re-tabulation of election returns, the procedure to be followed.
SEC. 5. Failure to file brief.— Failure to file the brief or to comply with its required contents shall have the same effect as failure to appear at the preliminary conference.
SEC. 6. Effect of failure to appear.—The failure of the protestant or counsel to appear at the preliminary conference shall be cause for dismissal, motu proprio, of the protest or counter-protest. The failure of the protestee or counsel to appear at the preliminary conference shall have the same effect as provided in Section 4(c), Rule 4 of these Rules, that is, the court may allow the protestant to present evidence ex parte and render judgment based on the evidence presented.
Clearly, the said Rules command, in no uncertain terms, the filing of the preliminary conference brief and compliance with the required contents of the said brief. By the Rules’ express language, the failure to comply therewith shall have the same effect as failure to appear at the preliminary conference which, in turn, shall be a sufficient cause for the dismissal of the protest.
As the petitioner himself admitted, his preliminary conference brief did not contain essential statements required by the Rules, namely: a manifestation of his having availed or intention to avail of discovery procedures or referral to commissioners; a manifestation of withdrawal of certain protested or counter-protested precincts, if such is the case; and, in the event the protest or counter-protest seeks the examination, verification or re-tabulation of election returns, the procedure to be followed. The petitioner’s abject disregard of the express mandate of the Rules must bear dire consequences, for, following the aforesaid Rules, his protest must now be dismissed. We, therefore, find no abuse of discretion, much more a grave one, on the part of the COMELEC, when it imposed the sanction prescribed in the Rules.
Petitioner seeks to justify his failure to comply with the Rules by contending that after all, he will not avail of discovery procedures or referral to commissioners; he does not intend to withdraw protested precincts; and he does not seek the examination, verification or re-tabulation of election returns. Thus, petitioner argues that the absence in his preliminary conference brief of any statement on these specific content items may be interpreted as an expression of “no intent,” i.e., that he does not intend to avail of the options open to him under each item. In that sense, then there would be no real imperative for the petitioner to manifest his response to the query posed by each content item. Accordingly, petitioner concludes, the omission of these items from his preliminary conference brief is of no moment.
The Court, however, observes that these proffered excuses are contradicted by the petitioner’s preliminary conference brief itself, which contains the following assertions: (1) protestant is to present 22 witnesses to testify on alleged irregularities in the voting and counting in 22 precincts; (2) the witnesses will further testify that votes for the protestant were not entered in the election returns; and (3) protestant shall also present as documentary evidence the election returns.
The petitioner’s commitment that he does not seek the examination, verification or re-tabulation of election returns is belied by the preliminary conference brief’s statement that the protestant shall present the election returns as documentary evidence, and that he will present witnesses who will testify that the entries thereon are erroneous. Clearly, the testimonies of these witnesses will entail the examination or verification of the election returns. Likewise, the petitioner’s undertaking that he does not intend to withdraw any of the protested precincts appears inconsistent with the allegation in the preliminary conference brief that protestant will present 22 witnesses (who served as watchers) to give evidence on alleged irregularities in the voting and counting in 22 precincts. Considering that there is a total of 142 precincts in the locality, and in fact, the ballots in 88 precincts had already been revised by the trial court, the probability is great that petitioner may have to withdraw some precincts from his protest.
The Rules should not be taken lightly. The Court has painstakingly crafted A.M. No. 07-4-15-SC precisely to curb the pernicious practice of prolonging election protests, a sizable number of which, in the past, were finally resolved only when the term of office was about to expire, or worse, had already expired. These Rules were purposely adopted to provide an expeditious and inexpensive procedure for the just determination of election cases before the courts. Thus, we emphasize that the preliminary conference and its governing rules are not mere technicalities which the parties may blithely ignore or trifle with. They are tools meant to expedite the disposition of election cases and must, perforce, be obeyed.