MANILA,  JUNE 9, 2004
By Aurea Calica  -  The Supreme Court (SC) rejected yesterday the petition of the opposition Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) to stop a joint committee of Congress from canvassing the votes for president and vice president.

Voting 14-0, the SC said it found no merit in the petition filed by Davao City Rep. Ruy Elias Lopez, representing the KNP, which claimed the canvassing of votes by a committee violated the Constitution.

The decision came four days after the high tribunal turned down the petition for a temporary restraining order against Congress to continue with the canvass.

But the issue was left hanging until yesterday after the SC required the respondents — Senate President Franklin Drilon, Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. and the Office of the Solicitor General — to submit their comments on the KNP petition.

The SC stressed that it had jurisdiction over "the subject matter of this controversy, because the petition contains sufficient allegations claiming violations of the Constitution."

The court, in dismissing the respondents’ arguments that the high tribunal should not interfere, cited the separation of powers among co-equal branches of government.

After deliberations, the court resolved to dismiss the KNP petition, giving credence to the legal arguments made by the respondents, who pointed out the power of Congress "to promulgate its rules for the canvassing of the certificates" under Article 7, Section 4 of the 1987 Constitution.

Citing legal doctrine and past cases, the SC in its two-page en banc resolution said that "under the doctrine of separation of powers, (the court) has ‘no authority to interfere’ in the ‘exclusive realm’ of a co-equal branch, absent showing of a grave abuse of discretion."

The court said Lopez, as petitioner, failed to show that Congress exercised grave abuse of discretion when it created and appointed the 22 members of the joint committee to canvass the votes for the two highest elected positions of the land.

"The Court has no authority to restrict or limit the exercise of congressional prerogatives granted by the Constitution," the resolution stated.

The SC said the creation of the joint canvassing committee did not deprive the Lopez and other members of Congress of their prerogatives.

The court noted the decisions and final reports of the committee will be subject to the approval of the joint plenary session of Congress, which will vote separately.

Supreme Court spokesman Ismael Khan said the petitioners could still file for a motion for reconsideration within 15 days. But with the unanimous decision, he added it might be difficult to overturn the ruling.

Khan said the magistrates have put the issue in the "highest priority of its agenda" because "time is of the essence and Congress has to beat a June 30 deadline."

He said the separate opinions written by the justices were very clear and concise, which would dispel all doubts that the decision was done hastily to favor the administration.

Lopez led the KNP in filing a petition before the Supreme Court last week to stop the count and have the joint committee tasked with canvassing the votes declared unconstitutional.

Supporters of KNP standard-bearer Fernando Poe Jr. wanted the entire legislature and not a committee to conduct the count.

They said the legislature’s decision to delegate the process of authenticating and tallying the certificates of canvass to a mere committee was illegal.

Lopez wanted the Supreme Court to compel Congress to allow all its members to take part in the counting to prevent allies of President Arroyo, who make up a majority in both chambers of Congress and in the joint committee, from railroading her proclamation.

No More Excuses

"Nothing can stop the counting now," Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. told reporters after receiving word of the SC decision.

Despite the ruling, De Venecia said Congress would still allow the opposition and allies of Poe to "exhaust all arguments imaginable."

"But at a certain point in time, maybe (today) or the day after, the ruling of both chairs will now be decisive in not permitting further delay," De Venecia said, referring to the majority leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives who were co-chairing the tabulation.

Mrs. Arroyo is believed to have won the election, according to exit polls and preliminary results, but only a joint session of Congress — sitting as the National Board of Canvassers — can formally declare the winners of the presidential and vice presidential race.

Opposition members have been filibustering by raising technicalities, creating a potential constitutional crisis if no president is proclaimed by the end of the month, when Mrs. Arroyo’s term ends on June 30.

De Venecia believes the final tally would be finished in two weeks.

He said the final report of the joint canvassing committee will then be presented before the plenary session of Congress.

"And this will take another one or two days and then the new president and vice president would be proclaimed," he said. "This would be way before the constitutional deadline of June 30."

De Venecia said the Supreme Court ruling added to the public clamor for the joint committee to work faster. He said this does not necessarily mean that the majority railroaded the canvassing.

"The whole nation is a witness, the entire world is a witness to the democratic space that reigns in our electoral process," De Venecia said.

Malacañang also hailed the ruling yesterday even before an official copy of the decision was released.

"We hope the resolution of this case will lead to a more expeditious canvassing process in Congress, so that our people’s wish for the affirmation of their choice for stable leadership in the future shall at last be fulfilled," Presidential Deputy Spokesman Ricardo Saludo said.

'No Excuse To Stall’

Administration lawmakers, for their part, said the decision left the opposition with no excuse to stall.

Pampanga Rep. Oscar Rodriguez and Baguio City Rep. Mauricio Domogan, both alternate members of the joint canvassing committee, said the Supreme Court has shown its reliability in resolving the constitutional issue.

Rodriguez said the opposition should respect the court’s decision and focus on their duty to timely proclaim the president and vice president.

"The opposition is doing everything to derail the proclamation of the elected winners, to the point of dragging the court to its issue," Rodriguez said.

For his part, Domogan said the congressional practice of working in bicameral committees has been accepted and established. "As Speaker Jose de Venecia pointed out it has been considered legitimate for a long time on the basis of practicality and wisdom," he said.

On Monday, De Venecia, Drilon and Solicitor General Alfredo Benipayo, representing the government, filed separate written comments pointing out the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over the internal rules of Congress in the canvassing of votes for president and vice president, being a co-equal branch of government.

The three asked the high court to dismiss a petition filed by Lopez and the KNP, which asked to declare unconstitutional Congress’ ongoing canvassing by a 22-member bicameral committee.

They argued the petition will delay the legislature from its constitutional mandate of determining the winner of the presidential race. - With Paolo Romero, Marichu Villanueva, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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