Senators defend inherent contempt power of Senate

Published September 19, 2019, 6:35 PM

by Rica Arevalo

By Vanne Elaine Terrazola

Senators asserted on Thursday that the Upper Chamber has the right to detain three Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) officials for refusing to cooperate in its investigation on the “GCTA for Sale” controversy.

Senate of the Philippines (MANILA BULLETIN FILE PHOTO)
Senate of the Philippines (MANILA BULLETIN FILE PHOTO)

The senators cited a Supreme Court decision which recognized the utmost importance of the Senate’s inherent power of contempt in legislation.

At the continuation of the Senate justice and human rights committee’s hearing on the abuse of the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) law, Senate President Vicente Sotto III informed the panel that he received a notice from the Court of Appeals (CA) asking him to answer the petition filed by BuCor officials currently detained for contempt.

BuCor legal division chief Fredric Santos, documents division chief Ramoncito “Chito” Roque, and New Bilibid Prison (NBP) hospital doctor Ursicio Cenas on Wednesday filed a petition of writ of habeas corpus over their detention at the Senate. They were cited in contempt last September 12 by the Blue Ribbon Committee for supposedly lying about their involvement in the “GCTA for Sale” scheme in the NBP.

Aside from Sotto, Blue Ribbon Committee Chairman Senator Richard Gordon is also a respondent.

“May I inform the body that there is already an existing Supreme Court decision on this matter when it comes to the contempt powers of the Senate,” Sotto said.

He was referring to the SC ruling in 2018 on the petition filed by fraternity leader and murder suspect Arvin Balag who was detained for contempt during the Senate’s inquiry into the death of University of Santo Tomas law student Horacio “Atio” Castillo III due to hazing.

The SC decision, cited by Sotto, states that the Senate’s “inherent power of contempt is of utmost importance” in legislation and that “some means of compulsion is essential to obtain what is needed….during legislative inquiry.”

Gordon also pointed out the High Court decision, saying the contempt power stays until a legislative inquiry ends.

“That’s the way it is, we have to protect the Senate from that (evasiveness),” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, who previously led the chamber, backed his colleagues.

“I agree that we have the power to declare in contempt a person who refuses to answer questions because… if we do not have that power, we can never get the needed data and information for us to be able to craft the correct policy. So that being evasive, or not responding to questions, would result in the Senate not being able to perform its job,” Drilon said.

In a text message, Senator Panfilo Lacson said he respects the BuCor officials’ right to file a petition, but said the Senate is ready to defend its contempt power based on the jurisprudence.