SC upholds HRET rule requiring magistrate's presence to call quorum

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 31 2018 07:11 PM

MANILA - The Supreme Court en banc has upheld the constitutionality of the 2015 Revised Rules of the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET), particularly the provision requiring the presence of a Supreme Court justice to constitute a quorum.

The HRET is the sole judge of all contests relating to the election, returns and qualifications of members of the House of Representatives.

In an October 16 decision penned by Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, the high tribunal dismissed the petition filed by former Marinduque Rep. Regina Reyes who challenged the constitutionality of several provisions of the HRET rules.

Reyes claimed that the requirement under Rule 6 of the HRET rules - that at least one SC justice should be present to constitute a quorum - violates the equal protection clause of the 1987 Constitution and gives undue power to justices over legislators.

But the Court said such provision does not grant additional powers to SC justices. Rather, it is intended to maintain the balance of power between the judicial and legislative departments.

“The presence of the three justices is meant to tone down the political nature of the cases involved and do away with the impression that party interests play a part in the decision-making process.”

The HRET is composed of 3 justices and 6 legislators. A quorum requires 5 members.

According to the Court, without this rule, it is possible for the 5 members to all come from the House of Representatives.

“This would render ineffective the rationale contemplated by the framers of the 1935 and 1987 Constitutions for placing the justices as members of the HRET,” it said.

In contrast, if all 3 justices are present, a quorum would still require the presence of 2 House members, making both members from the judicial and legislative departments “indispensable.”

“Rule 6(a) of the 2015 HRET Rules does not make the Justices indispensable members to constitute a quorum but ensures that representatives from both the judicial and legislative departments are present to constitute a quorum,” it pointed out.

The Court also rejected the claim that the provision violates the due process clause.

“[T]here is a substantial distinction between the justices of the Supreme Court and the members of the House of Representatives,” the Court said.

“There are only three justice-members while there are six legislator-members of the HRET. Hence, there is a valid classification. The classification is justified because it was placed to ensure the presence of members from both the Judicial and Legislative branches of the government to constitute a quorum. There is no violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution,” it explained.

Based on cases decided by the SC, the equal protection clause requires that all persons or things similarly situated should be treated alike, both as to rights conferred and responsibilities imposed.

A constitutional challenge on this ground can be overcome if it is shown, among others, that the difference in treatment is reasonable and based on substantial distinction.

In the same decision, the SC clarified the alleged ambiguity between two provisions in the HRET rules, which Reyes claimed will lead to a situation where a disqualified member or one who has inhibited from the case will be required to sit in HRET’s deliberations to form a quorum.

The Court said this situation will not happen because once a member inhibits or is disqualified, the SC and the House of Representatives can designate a special member or members who could act as temporary replacement.

The high court also dispelled Reyes’ contention that the HRET rules will allow the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to assume jurisdiction over cases between the time of election and within 15 days from June 30 of the election year or the date of actual assumption into office.

“There is no room for the Comelec to assume jurisdiction because HRET’s jurisdiction is constitutionally mandated,” it said.

It noted that the HRET has amended its own rules in September 2018 to clarify when an election protest or a quo warranto petition, which questions a person's legal right to hold public office, is filed. 

According to the HRET rules, these should be filed “within fifteen (15) days from June 30 of the election year if the winning candidate was proclaimed on or before said date. However, if the winning candidate was proclaimed after June 30 of the election year, ...within fifteen (15) days from the date of promulgation.”