Speaker leaves Arroyo suspension up to Congress

By RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 18 2014 03:06 PM | Updated as of Jul 18 2014 11:06 PM

MANILA - The House of Representatives has yet to implement the Sandiganbayan's 90-day suspension order against former President and now Pampanga Congresswoman Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Arroyo was ordered suspended by the anti-graft court on July 1 over the graft case filed against her in connection with the botched NBN-ZTE deal.

Asked about Arroyo's suspension, House Speaker Sonny Belmonte said: "Not yet. We're about to convene anyway. Will toss it to the body. Anyway she’s virtually suspended by being under hospital detention."

Belmonte explained that the precedent is that only those who volunteered to be suspended were suspended.

Congressmen and senators are not privileged from arrest for cases carrying penalties of over 6 years in jail.

Aside from the NBN-ZTE case, Arroyo is being detained pending trial for plunder of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) intelligence funds. She was previously allowed to post bail for electoral sabotage.

For his part, Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr. cited two established precedents where the Supreme Court upheld the anti-graft court's mandate to preventively suspend lawmakers despite the claim of some lawmakers that only Congress has the sole power to discipline its members.

"The Sandiganbayan's order to suspend legislators is solidly backed by jurisprudence which explicitly delineates such power and underscored its distinction from Congress’ constitutional authority to discipline its members either through suspension, expulsion or a simple reprimand,” said the congressman, a veteran lawyer.

Barzaga cited two cases – Ceferino S. Paredes, Jr. vs. Sandiganbayan and Miriam Santiago vs. Sandiganbayan, et. al – wherein the High Court maintained the judiciary’s authority to suspend members of the legislative.

"These two cases prove that Congress is powerless to stop a suspension order of the judiciary which has the exclusive constitutional power to try graft cases," he said.

In 1997, the anti-graft court ordered the 90-day suspension of then Agusan del Sur Rep. Ceferino Paredes Jr. following the graft case filed against him for acts he allegedly committed when he was still governor of the province.

The Tribunal later affirmed the Sandiganbayan's order but the leadership of the House of Representatives headed by then Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. stood behind the congressman and even protested the suspension by invoking the constitutional principle on separation of powers.

De Venecia told the court that he could only suspend a House member upon the order of the House, citing its own rules.

According to a report by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), De Venecia had even threatened to reduce the budgets of the Office of the Ombudsman and the judiciary to P1 a year.

In a separate petition, the Speaker asked the SC to nullify the Sandiganbayan First Division’s August 19, 1997 order directing him to implement the preventive suspension and another resolution dated August 29, 1997 which cited him in contempt of court for refusing to implement the preventive suspension order.

However, in a resolution dated February 5, 2002, the High Court sitting en banc, stuck to its earlier decision upholding the Sandiganbayan’s power to order Paredes’ suspension.

The High Court ruled that the suspension provided for in the Anti-Graft law (R.A. 3019) “is mandatory and is of different nature and purpose.”

“It is imposed by the court, not as a penalty, but as a precautionary measure resorted to upon the filing of a valid information. Its purpose is to prevent the accused public officer from frustrating his prosecution by influencing witnesses or tampering with documentary evidence and from committing further acts of malfeasance while in office. It is thus an incident to the criminal proceedings before the court,” it said.

On the other hand, the Supreme Court said the suspension or expulsion “contemplated in the Constitution is a House-imposed sanction against its members.”

“It is, therefore, a penalty for disorderly behavior to enforce discipline, maintain order in its proceedings, or vindicate its honor and integrity,” the Tribunal said.

In the same ruling, the SC cited Santiago v. Sandiganbayan, et al., then a recently decided case. In that case, the High Court ruled that “the doctrine of separation of powers does not exclude the members of Congress from the mandate of R.A. 3019.”

The case stemmed from the Sandiganbayan’s June 25, 1996 90-day suspension order against then Sen. Miriam Santiago in connection with a graft case filed against her when she was the head of the Bureau of Immigration.

In the same case, then Senate President Edgardo Angara maintained that legislators are only subject to disciplinary actions by both Chambers of Congress.

The SC however ruled that order of suspension prescribed by Republic Act No. 3019 “is distinct from the power of Congress to discipline its own ranks under the Constitution.”

The High Court said the suspension contemplated in the constitutional provision “is a punitive measure that is imposed upon a determination by the Senate or the House of Representatives, as the case may be, upon an erring member.”

“The doctrine of separation of powers by itself may not be deemed to have effectively excluded members of Congress from Republic Act No. 3019 nor from its sanctions. The maxim simply recognizes each of the three co-equal and independent, albeit coordinate, branches of the government — the Legislative, the Executive and the Judiciary — has exclusive prerogatives and cognizance within its own sphere of influence and effectively prevents one branch from unduly intruding into the internal affairs of either branch,” the Supreme Court said.