No such thing as a constitutional crisis

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I have been asked in interviews repeatedly whether I saw a constitutional crisis looming in the stand-off between the Court of Appeals and the congressional committee that ordered LGU officials of Ilocos Norte detained.  There is no such thing as a constitutional crisis—if by that is meant some kind of impasse brought about constitutional provisions.  What there can very well be is the refusal of one or the other branch of government to comply with provisions of law.

 

On the one hand, the House of Representatives asserts its right to inquire in aid of legislation, and to cite for contempt those who disregard its summons or refuse to answer its queries.  On the other hand, the Ilocos Norte officials who have been held in detention for some time now claim a violation of their fundamental liberty and have sought the relief made available by the Rules of Court.

The Lower House says that it does not recognize the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals over it.  The question really is whether or not the Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over a petition for a writ of habeas corpus—and without a doubt, it has.  And since the writ is directed at anyone holding another under restraint or detention, then the force of the writ applies to the Committee of Congress that has ordered the detention of those it believes to be in contempt of its powers.  I do not think that the proposition that only the Supreme Court can issue writs of habeas corpus against Congress when it orders the detention of a recalcitrant witness will find much support in constitutional theory or in jurisprudence.

Were it a question of the Court of Appeals enjoining a strictly legislative act such as the sessions of Congress for the passage of a law, or the conduct of committee hearings in aid of legislation, or the canvass of returns for elections to the office of president or vice president, it would be easier to be partial to Congress’ protests against encroachments by the Court of Appeals.  But the writ of habeas corpus is a writ of liberty—it is issued to safeguard a fundamental right that outweighs whatever interest Congress my have in detaining the witnesses.

If, however, the Lower House persists in the belief that the Court of Appeals is bereft of jurisdiction to issue a writ of habeas corpus against it, then that is exactly what the office of certiorari is for—the prerogative writ by which is questioned the exercise of jurisdiction: its lack, its excess or the arbitrariness and despotism with which it is exercised.  There will be no constitutional crisis were the Lower House to take the legal step of filing with the Supreme Court a petition for certiorari, questioning the Court of Appeals’ actions in regard to the petitioners’ prayer for relief by way of habeas corpus.  Snubbing the Court of Appeals surely triggers a dangerous stand-off, but clearly, the Court of Appeals is not to blame—because a legal avenue is open by which to question its acts.

And lest it be forgotten, the power to cite for contempt can itself be abused.  The House Committee has warned the detainees that they will continue to languish in detention unless they tell the truth.  Does this mean that the Committee knows the truth and demands of the witnesses that they echo what they think they know?  That would be a very dangerous notion of contempt, because it would demand prescience if not clairvoyance on the part of witnesses.  Will they be free of the pall of contempt if they indict Imee Marcos?  When a witness answers: “I do not know”, “I was not privy to the transaction”, “I am not sure of the answer”, are these not answers?  I do not know of any rule of evidence that characterizes these as being irresponsive to a contemptuous degree.

No, there is no such thing as a constitutional crisis. What there can be are high officials of the land overtaken by a sense of the augustness of their positions who will not submit to any arbiter of norms higher than themselves.

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