Senate asks SC to declare unconstitutional ban on Executive officials from Senate hearings

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court (SC) was asked on Thursday, Nov. 11, to declare unconstitutional Executive Secretary Salvador C. Medialdea’s memorandum which prevents officials and employees of the Executive Department from appearing in hearings being conducted by the Senate’s Blue Ribbon Committee.

In a petition, the SC was also asked to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) that would stop immediately the implementation of Medialdea’s memorandum issued last Oct. 4.

The Senate’s Blue Ribbon Committee which is chaired by Sen. Richard J. Gordon, one of the petitioners, has been investigating the multi-billion-peso transactions made by the government with Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corporation on medical purchases for COVID-19 based on a report by the Commission on Audit (COA).

The investigation spawned verbal tussles between President Duterte and Gordon. The President had verbally prevented members of the Cabinet and officials and employees of the Executive Department from attending the Senate hearings.

The verbal directive of the President was enforced through a memorandum issued by Medialdea.

The Senate said the memorandum violates the principle of separation of powers among the three branches of government – Executive, Legislative, Judiciary.

It said the public statements of the President against the Senate’s investigation shows clearly the Executive Department’s intent to interfere, if not obstruct entirely, the hearings.

“In this light, to allow the Executive to dictate how Congress should conduct legislative inquiries is no different from allowing it to tell the Honorable Court how the latter must conduct its deliberations,” it added.

Aside from the TRO against the memorandum, the Senate asked the SC to stop Medialdea and other officials of the Executive Department from directing law enforcement agencies, including the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation, from “obstructing the proceedings of the Senate or withholding assistance in the enforcement of the Senate’s compulsory processes.”

It also asked to stop “Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, other officials of the Executive, and any and all other persons acting for and on their behalf or interest or under their direction, from complying with the Memorandum of the Executive Secretary dated 04 October 2021.”

Specifically, the Senate said “the issuance and implementation of the Subject Memorandum infringes on the Senate’s prerogatives, prevents it and one of its organs from exercising its constitutional power to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation, and impedes the full exercise of the Senate’s plenary legislative power.”

The petition also stated:

“In this light, the Subject Memorandum impairs the ability of the members of Congress to access information crucial to legislation and, consequently, the Senate’s principal lawmaking function. Their main legislative prerogatives having been obstructed by the Executive Department’s actions, the petitioners necessarily are proper parties to assail the constitutionality of the Subject Memorandum.

“The Honorable Court has articulated that as a legislative body, the Senate cannot “legislate wisely or effectively in the absence of information respecting the conditions which the legislation is intended to effect or change.

“The country is in the middle of the second year of a global pandemic, caused by the COVID-19 virus. Whereas other countries have reopened, the national response has lagged.

“As Congress is the principal policy-setting authority and the holder of the public purse, it is the Senate’s business to craft an improved, cost-efficient response.

“But it cannot do so without knowing what exactly has gone wrong. As the Senate has the authority to inquire into the use of the funds and the exceptional authority it has given to the Executive Branch, the Subject Memorandum, by directing the nonappearance of Executive officials and employees before the Subject Hearings, deprives the Senate of the information held by such individuals and ultimately jeopardizes its lawmaking function.

“Because ‘the judicial department is the only constitutional organ which can be called upon to determine the proper allocation of powers between the several departments,’ the Executive’s attempt to render inutile a co-equal branch of government warrants judicial scrutiny. Its immediacy, in turn, warrants direct recourse to the Honorable Court.

“It bears restating that the Senate has authorized the disbursement of an unprecedented level of public appropriations to address the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020 alone, Congress appropriated more than PHP 77 Billion to the DOH alone for measures specific to the COVID-19 pandemic through Republic Act No. 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (“Bayanihan 1 Act”) and R.A. 11494 or the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (“Bayanihan 2 Act”).

“The Senate is also deliberating the repeated and additional requests for funding within the 2022 National Expenditure Program in relation to the 2022 General Appropriations Act.

“These are over and above other introduced legislative proposals, including the power to bypass procurement laws for certain government purchases under the Bayanihan to Arise as One Act (‘Bayanihan 3 Bill’), which has just been passed by the House of Representatives and, if passed by the Senate, would approve more than an additional PHP 400 Billion in public spending.

“The SBRC is also conducting the Subject Hearings in response to the 2020 COA Report’s findings concerning the DOH expenditures, especially those related to the fight against COVID-19, precisely so that the Senate may write laws that address ‘recurrent issues’ and ‘persistent faults’ that ‘give rise to wastage.’

“Having authorized the allocation and release of billions of pesos, and now being asked for more, the Senate is well within its legislative prerogatives to require information on these appropriations and how they were spent under the powers requested by the Executive.”

Aside from Gordon, the other petitioners are Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph G. Recto, Senate Majority floor Leader Juan Miguel F. Subiri, and Senate Minority Floor Leader Franklin M. Drilon.

Medialdea and Duque were named respondents.