THE Supreme Court (SC) junked the petition filed by the Senate in 2021 seeking to declare as null void for being unconstitutional the memorandum issued by then President Rodrigo Duterte, barring officials and employees of the Executive branch from appearing before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee’s (SBRC) probe into alleged anomalies in the disbursement of P67.3-billion Covid-19 funds.
In a 21-page decision penned by Associate Justice Amy Lazaro-Javier, the Court en banc held that it “is constrained to dismiss the petition for having been prematurely filed.”
The Court explained that the assailed memorandum issued by Duterte raised jurisdictional challenge, whether the subject inquiry of the SBRC properly falls within its jurisdiction or within the jurisdiction of the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee (JCOC) created under the Bayanihan Acts, which should have been resolved first by the Senate before seeking relief from the SC.
“Notably, the forum to address such jurisdictional claim is the Senate and its committees themselves. This recognition is meant to accord the highest respect for the Senate’s own Rules of Procedure Governing Inquiries in Aid of Legislation,” the SC declared.
The SC noted that Section 3 of Senate Rules states: “If the jurisdiction of the Committee is challenged on any ground, the said issue must first be resolved by the Committee before proceeding with the inquiry.”
Ruling on the petition filed by the Senate, according to the Court, would violate the principle of separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government.
It can be recalled that in 2021, the SBRC started an investigation into the budget utilization of the Department of Health (DOH) following a report from the Commission on Audit (COA) that there was a deficiency of P67,322,186,570.57 in public funds intended for the government’s Covid-19 response.
The SBRC then conducted hearings on the following matters: (1) the DOH’s underutilization of its 2020 budget; (2) the procurement of Covid-19 vaccines by local government units; (3) unspent funds, misstatements, irregularities, and deficiencies of the DOH, as found by COA; and (4) payment claims issues between the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation and private hospitals.
The hearings were attended by concerned officials from the Executive Department, including then DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III.
However, executive officials stopped attending the hearings after then President Duterte, through Executive Secretary Salvador C. Medialdea, issued a memorandum dated October 4, 2021 directing all officials and employees of the Executive department to cease from attending the SBRC hearings on the government’s disbursement of the Covid-19 funds.
Image credits: Mike Gonzalez via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0