Senate brings Duterte ban on officials attending Blue Ribbon hearings to SC

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Senate brings Duterte ban on officials attending Blue Ribbon hearings to SC
President Rodrigo Roa Duterte presides over a meeting with the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) core members prior to his talk to the people at the Malacañang Palace on September 30, 2021.
Presidential photo / Arman Baylon

MANILA, Philippines — Senators on Thursday challenged before the Supreme Court President Rodrigo Duterte’s order barring officials and staff of the executive branch from attending Senate Blue Ribbon Committee hearings into pandemic spending.

Senators filed a Petition for Certiorari asking the SC to declare as null and void as unconstitutional Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea’s memoradum dated October 4, which contained Duterte’s directive.

They also asked the SC to issue a temporary restraining order or status quo ante order to stop the implementation of the assailed directive.

"[T]he issuance and implementation of the Subject Memorandum infringes on the Senate’s prerogatives, prevents it and one of its organs from exercising its constitutional power to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation, and impedes the full exercise of the Senate’s plenary legislative power," the petition read.

Named as petitioners are Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, Senate Majority Floor Leader Miguel Zubiri, Senate Minority Floor Leader Franklin Drilon and the Senate Blue Ribbon committee chair Sen. Richard Gordon.

The Medialdea memo specifically covers Senate Blue Ribbon legislative inquiries spurred by Commission on Audit reports flagging multibillion-peso 'deficiencies' in pandemic spending. Deficiencies flagged by auditors do not automatically mean corruption.

The hearings have since spanned to close in on Duterte’s appointees and other individuals linked to him, and have been ongoing for the past two months.

Senate v. Ermita

The senators stressed that the country is in its second year of the pandemic and that Congress has the duty to craft an improved, cost-efficient response that it can only do if it knows "what exactly has gone wrong."

The memorandum that directs executive officials and staff not to appear before the committee hearings "deprives the Senate of the information held by such individuals and ultimately jeopardizes its lawmaking function."

The senators told the SC that the memorandum "demeans" the Judiciary, noting that the court had already ruled in Senate v. Ermita where they invalidated Executive Order 464 of then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and "any means" where officials are required to secure the chief executive’s consent before attending legislative inquiries.

"The Executive cannot be unaware of Senate v. Ermita and what the Honorable Court ruled therein. It just chose to ignore it the same way it now orders officials and even law enforcement to ignore the Senate," it added.

Part of the ruling read: "When Congress exercises its power of inquiry, the only way for department heads to exempt themselves therefrom is by a valid claim of privilege. They are not exempt by the mere fact that they are department heads. Only one executive official may be exempted from this power — the President on whom executive power is vested."

The petitioners told the SC that the Medialdea memorandum "does exactly what Senate v. Ermita said the Executive Department court not" by telling officials they can no longer attend the hearings.

"There has been no greater, more blatant disregard of a categorical ruling of the Honorable Court in recent memory.”

They also noted that the memorandum cited the "manner" by which the inquiry is being conducted as anchor of the directive, as also seen in Duterte’s pronouncements.

"Insofar as the said directive ‘protests’ this supposed ‘manner’ and seeks to influence the Senate to adjust the conduct of its investigations to the Executive’s liking — whatever that may be — the Subject Memorandum is an impermissible interference by the Executive into the Senate’s processes and is unconstitutional for violating the separation of powers," the petition read.

Senate inquiry

The lawmakers explained that the subject legislative inquiry was preceded by the release of a 2020 Commission on Audit report that flagged government spending during the pandemic.

The COA also earned tongue-lashing from Duterte due to its report.

They said that this is the backdrop of the legislative inquiry, as they also stressed that the COA’s mandate has to be respected as it checks corruption and excesses in government.

The senators told the SC: “The petitioners thus ask the Honorable Court to lay those great landmarks again by upholding the constitutional prerogatives of the Senate, its co-equal branch, as well as the Honorable Court’s own power to say— conclusively — what the law is.”

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