MANILA,  JUNE 8, 2004
(STAR) By Aurea Calica  -  The Supreme Court has no business interfering in internal rules of Congress, a co-equal branch of government, in the canvassing of votes for president and vice president, congressional leaders said yesterday.

This was the main argument in separate written comments submitted to the Supreme Court yesterday by Senate President Franklin Drilon and Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. together with Solicitor General Alfredo Benipayo.

The three asked the high court to dismiss a petition asking the tribunal to declare unconstitutional Congress’ ongoing canvassing by a 22-member bicameral committee.

They said the case might delay the legislature from determining the winner of the presidential race as well as infringe on Congress’ authority as a co-equal branch of government.

Last week, opposition Rep. Ruy Elias Lopez filed a petition seeking a temporary injunction on the congressional canvass.

He questioned the legality of having a joint congressional committee rather than the entire Congress conduct the canvassing.

Drilon, De Venecia and Benipayo were given until yesterday noon to submit their comments. Oral court arguments are expected to be held this week.

"The petition has no constitutional basis and therefore should be dismissed outright. We urge the Supreme Court to decide within this week the petition filed. We will abide by whatever decision the Supreme Court promulgates," Drilon later told a press briefing.

Benipayo, De Venecia and Drilon pointed out that a joint House of Representatives-Senate committee had conducted the count in past presidential elections.

Drilon, in his written comment to the court, said Lopez’s petition "is yet another threat to wreak havoc to our constitutional order."

"The candidates and their counsels in this year’s electoral exercise are presumed to know that the procedure of canvassing in previous elections were through a joint committee. Would it not be anomalous if this Congress change the procedure of canvassing and do away with a joint committee? Would it not be tantamount to changing the rules in its last stage of canvassing and proclamation?" he asked.

De Venecia and Benipayo said although the Constitution did not expressly provide for the creation of a joint congressional committee to conduct the canvass, they quoted legal expert Dean Andres Bautista as saying that the past elections validated the practice.

De Venecia also used the argument of Fr. Joaquin Bernas, a legal expert and one of the framers of the Constitution, who said "the creation of a bicameral conference committee has no textual foundation in the Constitution, but its use has been considered legitimate for a long time on the basis of practicality and wisdom."

Beyond Judicial Review

Drilon, De Venecia and Benipayo argued the Supreme Court cannot declare an act of the "legislature void on account merely of non-compliance with rules of procedure made by itself."

They said the Constitution granted Congress the power to enact its own rules in canvassing the votes in presidential elections.

Article 7, Section 4 of the Constitution states: "The Congress shall promulgate its rules for the canvassing of the certificates."

Congress’ decision to form the 22-member joint committee was in accordance with the constitutional provision "subject to no limitation and outside the scope of judicial review."

"To determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of government, with all due respect, will find no application in the case at bar," Drilon said.

Benipayo argued that a "power definitely assigned by the Constitution to one department can neither be surrendered nor delegated by that department, nor vested by statute in another department or agency."

"Petitioner wrongly considers this Honorable Court as having supervisory power over the Congress. Petitioner’s assertion of standing as a member of Congress buttresses the conclusion that this case really involves a political and non-justiciable question," he said.

Wrong Venue

Drilon said Lopez’s petition should also be junked because it was meant to enable himself and his political allies to support or lawyer for a certain presidential candidate — in this case, opposition-frontrunner Fernando Poe Jr.

"If petitioner’s stand is given credence, the canvassing in Congress will virtually be transformed into an electoral protest, and render nugatory the entire canvassing process," Drilon said.

Lopez’s claim that there was "widespread electoral fraud" and "allegations of railroading the canvassing of votes" would only be proper to be raised to the Supreme Court, sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, after the winners have been proclaimed by Congress.

"No less than the Constitution explicitly requires that the Supreme Court, sitting en banc, shall be the sole judge of all contests relating to the election, returns and qualification of the president and vice president, and may promulgate its rules for the purpose," Drilon said.

"Surely, this Honorable Court is no stranger to a situation where it must hold paramount the national interest above all else, by dissipating at the soonest possible time any aura of uncertainty as to the results of the presidential election."

In a press briefing later in the day, Drilon stressed that the joint committee "has no power to make any final decision and its decisions are subject to approval by Congress, which has the sole power to proclaim the president and vice president."

Once the committee completes the canvass, the whole Congress will approve the results and proclaim the winners.

With that, Congress "continues to perform its duty to act as the National Board of Canvassers for the election of president and vice president," Drilon said.

Administration allies suspect the opposition is trying to delay the count and is planning to proclaim Poe the winner via massive street protests. The Constitution stipulates that the next president should assume office on June 30.

Malacañang has earlier warned that the government would use force to quell mob rule. The military is on alert for any disturbance.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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