Will the Tupas committee rise to the challenge?

Among the hundreds of “tweets” that rolled across my Twitter feed yesterday, there was one that changed the complexion of the loud debate about the abuses of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and gave a clue as to where the impeachment cases filed against her before the House of Representatives (HOR) Justice Committee will be headed in the coming days.

UP law professor Ibarra Gutierrez III, through his @barrygutierrez Twitter account said: “Prepping new motion for SC to dismiss case filed by Merci Gutierrez so that impeachment can push thru. We’ve had enough of her, right?”
Gutierrez, obviously not related to the Ombudsman,  is the lead counsel for a group of complainants that includes former Akbayan party list Rep. Risa Hontiveros.
With this motion expected to be filed this week before the Supreme Court, supporters of the impeachment move felt renewed confidence the proceedings before the House justice committee under its chairman, Iloilo 5th District Rep. Niel “Junjun” Tupas Jr., can pick up where it left off on the cases four months ago. Tupas, according to sources, has been given the green light by Malacanang to go full throttle on the impeachment. President Noynoy Aquino is aware his campaign to prosecute corrupt officials of the Arroyo administration will get nowhere for as long as Gutierrez stays in office, the sources said. The necessary first step to achieve his goals is the impeachment of Gutierrez.
The Tupas committee has shown every courtesy to the Supreme Court by suspending its impeachment hearings after making a finding of suffiency in form and substance of the charges filed against Gutierrez. Tupas had wanted to ignore the status quo ante order handed down by the High Court. He relented as an accommodation to House Speaker Feliciano “Sonny” Belmonte Jr. who didn’t want to force the issue and avert a possible constitutional crisis. But the delay of four months is taxing the patience of President Aquino, sources say. Every single day that goes by translates to a creeping victory for Ombudsman Gutierrez, and the proceedings must have to go on.
The filing of this motion to dismiss the case before the Supreme Court could be a tactical move to show one last gesture of respect and courtesy to the judiciary. A few days ago, SC spokesman Midas Marquez said the high tribunal has set another round of deliberations in three weeks. Marquez reiterated that the status quo ante order issued by the SC remains in effect. That will set back the timetable further back, and only fuel the growing frustration of the people. If the Supreme Court continues to dilly-dally, the Tupas committee might just release the parking brake lever and get on with urgent business. It could tell the tribunal, “we’ve given you enough time on this and we can’t wait any further.”
Rep. Tupas knows how important this matter is, and he has given every indication he will not run away from a good fight. He is determined to fulfill a mission for his nation and pave the way for the “matuwid na landas” advocacy of President Aquino to become reality.

Showdown at Merci’s corral

The Supreme Court reigns supreme when it comes to questions of law. As Fr. Joaquin Bernas put it, it is supreme even in its own errors. This supremacy will now face an acid test in a potential clash with a co-equal branch of government, the Congress, after the high court issued a status quo ante order to stop the House committee on justice from pursuing two impeachment complaints against Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez on Tuesday, Sept. 14. It certainly caught the HOR justice committee chairman, Iloilo Rep. Niel “JunJun” Tupas Jr. by surprise and he is contemplating options that might force a showdown. This can result in a constitutional crisis.

What is more surprising is that swiftness with which the Supreme Court tackled the petition of the Ombudsman to stop the impeachment proceedings. In the past, we’ve seen the Supreme Court take days, even weeks, before it deemed it appropriate to address burning issues which definitely appeared more urgent than the Ombudsman’s plea. But then, the actions of the Supreme Court are shrouded in mystery. Nobody can really tell what transpires in their sacred chambers. In a matter of 24 hours, the high tribunal convened an en banc session to deliberate on the petition and issued this controversial order.

It definitely isn’t a life-or-death issue. It’s not as if Gutierrez faced the risk of losing her job the next day. The next hearing of the HOR justice committee is a good two weeks away. In that haste, people are reading signals that a replay of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s “hello Garci” could have taken place. Arroyo is committed to defending Gutierrez. The latter’s downfall could open the floodgates for investigations into the previous administration’s plunder sins. Besides, Arroyo will need to demonstrate steadfastness in defending loyal subalterns to prevent allies from defecting into the other side and testify against her. This is speculation, but then in the absence of clear facts, ordinary mortals can’t be prevented from speculating.

So what will happen if the House of Representatives simply brushes aside this status quo ante order and proceed with the hearings? Rep. Tupas said Congress draws its power to carry out such an impeachment investigation from the 1987 Constitution. He believes not even the Supreme Court can remove that power. When two behemoths collide, the people have to scramble for safety. A constitutional crisis will put the entire nation into a state of suspended animation. Whose power will prevail? Who will referee the conflict? If the congressmen proceed with the next hearing, can the Supreme Court cite them in contempt? Who will physically stop the congressmen? In the mind of Rep. Tupas, Congress is merely performing its job. If a constitutional crisis ensues, the provocation didn’t come from the legislature, he maintains.

Rep. Tupas is worried this could derail the mandate of Congress which is given just 60 session days to dispose of an impeachment complaint. The issuance of the status quo ante order will not stop the clock from ticking. As nobody can dictate upon the Supreme Court on how fast to deal with the issue, Congress can find itself running out of time, thereby saving Gutierrez from trouble at least for another year.  This will frustrate the Filipino people’s desire to see reforms in the justice system. The SC order could be the monkey wrench that Gloria Arroyo has taken from the tool box to stall efforts to undo the damage Gutierrez has caused to the nation.