SC's hot topic in Baguio: Powers of Ombudsman, Binay

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Supreme Court (SC) brings Manila’s political heat to the country's summer capital as it holds on Tuesday afternoon, April 14, oral arguments on the powers of the Office of the Ombudsman to administratively suspend an elected official over graft complaints.

The main question is: Can the Court of Appeals stop a suspension order from the Ombudsman, effectively defanging the constitutional body? 

It’s an otherwise purely legal issue except that it involves the son of the frontrunner in the 2016 presidential elections, Vice President Jejomar Binay, and his presumptive rival, Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, who implemented the suspension order.

Binays' seat of power

Mayor Jejomar Erwin "Junjun" Binay Jr is fighting to keep his post as mayor of Makati City, the country's financial district which has served as the seat of power for the Binay political dynasty for decades.

The previous Arroyo government tried to take Makati from them but failed. The family is not going to give it up now that its patriarch, Vice President Jejomar Binay, is gearing for Malacañang. 

Mayor Binay fought the Ombudsman's suspension order by running to the Court of Appeals, which was quick to issue a TRO (temporary restraining order).

But Makati Vice Mayor Romulo Peña – backed by Roxas – was quicker to take his oath to replace Binay. Two mayors now run the local government, and this is causing chaos in city hall. (READ: The loyal supporters of Binay)

The Ombudsman's investigation is connected to the ongoing Senate hearing over an allegedly overpriced carpark building, the issue that pulled down the survey numbers of the vice president.

Ombudsman's stand

Determined to impose the suspension order, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales ran to the High Court to preserve powers that she said belongs to her office.

A former SC associate justice herself, Morales helped bring down a former Supreme Court chief justice when she faced a Senate impeachment court in 2012 to show that her office can get around the bank secrecy law to expose the dollar accounts of Renato Corona. She cannot accept that the Court of Appeals can clip her vast powers.

Morales filed a petition for certiorari and prohibition to ask her former colleagues to stop the Court of Appeals from intervening and eventally annul its resolutions favoring Binay. She said the appelate court committed grave abuse of discretion and its resolutions are illegal.

"The questioned resolutions issued by the respondent Court of Appeals will create a dangerous precedent for other public officials and employees under investigation or prosecution to thwart or delay such investigation or prosecution," the Ombudsman told the Court in her petition.

Question of jurisdiction

In response, Mayor Binay asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the Ombudsman's petition for "lack of merit."

Citing Fabian vs Desierto, Binay upheld the power of the Court of Appeals to issue a TRO to stop the Ombudsman's suspension order.

"It has been settled that the Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over orders and findings of the Office of the Ombudsman in administrative cases," read Binay's comment.

He said it was wrong for the Ombudsman to immediately run to the High Court for relief. She should have first gone to the Court of Appeals to file a motion for reconsideration, he said.

Eyes on Jardeleza

The Supreme Court will have the last say. On Tuesday, April 14, both camps will argue their way.

How will the justices behave in light of the case's political repercusions? And will they favor a former colleague, the Ombudsman?

Will Justice Francis Jardeleza go easy on his successor, Acting Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, who will argue for the Ombudsman? It will be Jardeleza's first time to participate in oral arguments since he joined the Court. He previously inhibited from cases he had handled as solicitor general.

And will Jardeleza uphold or clip the powers of the office he previously served? He served as Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon from 2010 to 2012.

At least 3 justices will not participate in Tuesday's oral arguments, based on a notice issued by the Court a day before the oral arguments. They are justices Diosdao Peralta (recusal), Martin Villarama, and Estela Perlas-Bernabe (on leave). (Update: Justice Perlas-Bernabe was present during the oral arguments in Baguio. The other justice who did not take part was Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro.)

11 issues

Aside from the TRO on Binay's suspension order, the Court of Appeals also entertained contempt charges that Mayor Binay filed against the Ombudsman and Roxas over their refusal to recognize the CA's ruling.

Morales said this is also illegal, a position that Mayor Binay also opposed.

Based on the two resolutions of the Court of Appeals, the High Court enumerated 11 issues that will be covered during the oral arguments: 

a. Whether or not the Court of Appeals committed grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction when it issued the first questioned resolution considering the constitutionally guaranteed independence of the office of the Ombudsman and Section 14 of Republic Act No. 6770. 

b. Whether or not the Ombudsman, as an impeachable official, can be subject of contempt proceedings by respondent Court of Appeals in the discharge of her functions and duties as the present Ombudsman.

c. Whether or not the Office of the Ombudsman’s Petition for certiorari under Rule 65 raises errors of judgments and not errors of jurisdiction contrary to the requirements of the Rules of Court.

d. Whether or not Section 14 of the Ombudsman Act defeats the power of the Supreme Court and/or Court of Appeals to exercise original jurisdiction over petitions for certiorari and prohibition seeking to question acts of the Ombudsman.

e. Whether or not Section 14 prohibits the determination by the Supreme Court and/or Court of Appeals, in the exercise of its original jurisdiction over petitions for certiorari and prohibition, of grave abuse of discretion on the part of the Office of the Ombudsman relating to its issuance of a preventive suspension order, including its appreciation of (1) the strength of the evidence; (2) the length or period of suspension; and (3) the applicability of certain defenses.

f. Whether or not Section 14 completely removes from the Supreme Court and/or the Court of Appeals the power to issue ancillary injunctive writs in relation to the Office of the Ombudsman’s conduct of an investigation.

g. Whether or not the Office of the Ombudsman’s determination that the preventive suspension of a respondent in an administrative disciplinary case is “timely, proper and necessary” a finding of fact, or of law, or a mixture of both.

h. Whether or not a determination of the Ombudsman, under issue G, is conclusive on the courts, such as that a contrary view from the courts will only “delay and interfere” with the ongoing investigation.

i. Whether or not the Court of Appeals should be allowed to first address, in Rule 65 proceedings, all questions raised over the Office of the Ombudsman’s issuance of a preventive suspension order.

j. Whether or not the Office of the Ombudsman’s petition for certiorari and prohibition is plain, speedy and adequate remedy to assail the Court of Appeal’s Resolution in the Petition for Contempt. 

k. Whether or not this Court should issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) to prohibit the Court of Appeals from conducting further proceedings in the consolidated cases and to stop the implementation of the two assailed resolutions.

Both sides will not be asked to make their oral presentations; they already submitted their papers. The justices will immediately proceed to their questions. – Rappler.com