The case of Senator Joel Villanueva is of first impression, if only because it no longer involves just a question of preventive suspension, but of removal from public office of a sitting legislator as an administrative penalty.
The Supreme Court has ruled in a long line of cases that preventive suspension arising out of an administrative proceeding is not a penalty. In The Board of GSIS vs. Velasco, the High Court ruled that a preventive suspension “is a measure intended to enable the disciplining authority to investigate charges against respondent by preventing the latter from intimidating or in any way influencing witnesses against him. If the investigation is not finished and a decision is not rendered within that period, the suspension will be lifted and the respondent will automatically be reinstated.”
But the Ombudsman’s holding in Senator Villanueva’s case is not a question of preventive suspension but one of an order by a constitutional body to the legislature – in this case the Senate – to remove and dismiss a member of the Upper House.
Senator Villanueva, so the Ombudsman holds, is being punished for his participation in a ₱10-million scam involving the use of his pork barrel when he was a party-list congressman.
Hence, the question arises: may the Ombudsman, in fact, order the Senate to do so?
There is, at the very least, an apparent conflict between the Ombudsman’s dismissal order and Section 16(3), Article VI of the1987 of the Constitution, which provides the manner in which members of the Senate may be disciplined, suspended or expelled. It states:
Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly behavior, and with the concurrence of two-thirds of all its Members, suspend or expel a Member. A penalty of suspension, when imposed, shall not exceed sixty days.
The provision is clear: only the Senate has the power to determine the fitness to hold office of any of its members.
What this means is that the Ombudsman’s dismissal order will still go through a vote by all the members of the Senate to be implemented. And the threshold for an affirmative vote is two-thirds of all of its members.
As in any legal controversy, the final say will have to come from the Supreme Court, the final interpreter of what the law means.
If and when the matter is brought up to the High Court, this will certainly be an opportunity for it to further clarify the metes and bounds of the powers of our Office of the Ombudsman as a constitutional body.
a case in which a question of interpretation of law is presented which has never arisen before in any reported case.