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COMMENTARY

A legal conundrum

05:05 AM February 21, 2018

The controversy generated by the decision of the Ombudsman to oust a sitting congresswoman from her position upon a finding of guilt over the procurement of a real property when she was a governor presents a legal conundrum that might yet reach the Supreme Court.

The decision proceeds from the jurisprudential doctrine stating that once jurisdiction is acquired over a case by a judicial or quasijudicial body or tribunal, such jurisdiction subsists until the logical end or termination of the case. The logical end would be the rendition of the decision and the consequential execution of judgment.

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Jurisdiction simply means the authority to hear and decide a case and implement a decision. In procedural law, jurisdiction has three aspects — over the subject matter of the case, over the person of a party litigant, and over the res. The third refers to jurisdiction over the thing, or object, of the case, usually a real property, which is the subject of an in rem proceeding, or a suit that is binding against the whole world.

Republic Act No. 6770, or the Ombudsman Act of 1989, confers upon the Ombudsman the disciplinary jurisdiction over all elective and appointive officials of the government and its subdivisions, instrumentalities and agencies, including members of the Cabinet, of local governments, and of government-owned or -controlled corporations and their subsidiaries, except over officials who may be removed only by impeachment or over members of Congress and the judiciary.

The disciplinary jurisdiction of the Ombudsman is plenary in the sense that she can impose a penalty from admonition to dismissal from the service plus the accessory penalty of forfeiture of employment benefits, or perpetual disqualification from public office. Thus, a sitting congresswoman charged with an administrative infraction arising from acts as governor can be meted the penalty of dismissal with an accessory penalty of perpetual disqualification from public office.

A senator or congressperson is subject to the exclusive disciplinary jurisdiction of the respective ethics committees of both chambers, and only for acts committed by him or her during his or her tenure as member of Congress. Understandably, the ethics committee will not take cognizance of a complaint against an incumbent member of Congress arising from an action when he or she was not yet a legislator. Here lies the conundrum where an incumbent legislator faces a disciplinary case arising from an act committed in another public office before becoming a legislator.

Also, the Senate president or speaker can refuse to implement any dismissal order issued by the Ombudsman against an incumbent legislator for acts committed by him or her prior to his or her election as member of Congress because the Senate president or speaker has no duty to implement a dismissal order other than that recommended by the Senate or the House ethics committee as approved in plenary session. This dynamics would be well within the doctrine of separation of powers between the legislature and the Office of the Ombudsman, wherein the respective legislative chamber would not be bound by the decision of the Ombudsman, especially so that RA 6770 excludes members of Congress from the Ombudsman’s disciplinary authority.

While the adverse decision of the Ombudsman against a sitting congresswoman may not be implemented because of the respondent’s position, such a decision may not be conveniently disregarded. Once the decision attains finality, the accessory penalty imposed will also attain finality. It could be used as basis for the disqualification of the guilty respondent in future elections.

In Santiago vs Garchitorena (2001), the Supreme Court upheld the preventive suspension of a sitting senator imposed by the Sandiganbayan pursuant to RA 3019, or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, which provides for the preventive suspension of an accused for graft or corruption pending litigation.

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Frank E. Lobrigo practiced law for 20 years. He is a law lecturer and JSD student at San Beda College Graduate School of Law in Manila.

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TAGS: congress, Frank E. Lobrigo, Inquirer Commentary, jurisdiction, Office of the Ombudsman
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