G. R. No. 163302 - July 23, 2004
ROBERTO ALBAÑA, KATHERINE BELO, GENEROSO DERRAMAS, VICENTE DURAN, RICARDO ARAQUE, LILIA ARANAS, MERLINDA DEGALA, GABRIEL ARANAS, ERNESTO BITO-ON AND JUVIC DESLATE, Petitioners, vs. COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS, PIO JUDE S. BELO, RODOLFO DEOCAMPO AND LORENCITO B. DIAZ, Respondents.
D E C I S I O N
CALLEJO, SR., J.:
Before us is a Petition for Certiorari and Prohibition for the nullification of the Resolution of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), First Division, dated October 21, 2003 annulling the proclamation of the petitioners as the duly-elected municipal officials of Panitan, Capiz, during the May 14, 2001 elections, and the Resolution of the COMELEC En Banc dated May 5, 2004, denying their motion for reconsideration. The petitioners aver that the public respondent committed grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction in issuing the assailed resolutions.
During the May 14, 2001 elections, the petitioners and private respondents ran for the positions of Mayor, Vice-Mayor and Members of the Sangguniang Bayan in the Municipality of Panitan, Capiz. On May 18, 2001, the petitioners were duly elected and proclaimed winners to the following positions:
On June 23, 2001, the private respondents filed a complaint against the petitioners with the COMELEC Law Department, alleging that the latter committed acts of terrorism punishable by Section 261(e)2 of the Omnibus Election Code, and engaged in vote-buying, punishable under Section 261(a)3 of the Omnibus Election Code. The private respondents prayed that the petitioners be charged of the said crimes and disqualified from holding office under Section 684 of the said Code, and Section 65 of Republic Act No. 6646. The case was docketed as Election Offense Case No. 01-111.
The Law Department of the COMELEC found a prima facie case and issued a Resolution on January 15, 2002, recommending the filing of an Information against the petitioners for violation of Section 261(e) of the Omnibus Election Code, in relation to Section 28 of Republic Act No. 6648. It, likewise, recommended the disqualification of all the petitioners from further holding office, and the reconvening of the Municipal Board of Canvassers (MBC) in order to proclaim the qualified candidates who obtained the highest number of votes.6
Acting on the said resolution, the COMELEC En Banc issued, on February 28, 2003, a Resolution directing its Law Department to file the appropriate Information against the petitioners for violation of Section 261(e) of the Omnibus Election Code and directing the Clerk of the Commission to docket the electoral aspect of the complaint as a disqualification case. The dispositive portion reads:
The petitioners filed a motion for reconsideration8 thereon, alleging that the COMELEC did not make any findings of fact in its resolution, and that there was even no disquisition as to the merits of the affidavits of their witnesses and the evidence presented by them. The petitioners also alleged that the COMELEC erred in ordering the docketing of the electoral aspect of the complaint, in light of Section 2 of COMELEC Resolution No. 2050.
On June 3, 2003, the COMELEC issued a Resolution9 denying the said motion for lack of merit and for having been filed out of time. The Clerk of the Commission docketed the disqualification case against the petitioners as SPA No. 03-006.
On October 21, 2003, the COMELEC First Division rendered the assailed resolution in SPA No. 03-006 annulling the petitioners' proclamation on the ground that they violated Section 261(a) and (e) of the Omnibus Election Code, and directing the election officer of Panitan to constitute a new municipal board of canvassers, thus:
The petitioners' motion for reconsideration and supplement to the motion for reconsideration were denied by the COMELEC En Banc in the Resolution of May 5, 2004, declaring that the disqualification case was the result of the findings of the Commission En Banc. It also held that as an aftermath of petitioners' violation of Section 261(e) in relation to Section 68 of the Omnibus Election Code, they are considered disqualified candidates and, therefore, the votes they received are deemed stray votes.11 Commissioners Mehol K. Sadain and Florentino A. Tuason, Jr. filed separate dissenting opinions.
On the same day, the private respondents moved for the execution pending appeal of the assailed resolutions on the ground that decisions on election contests rendered by the COMELEC may be executed pending appeal for good reasons. They contended that a good reason existed in this case, considering that their terms of office were about to expire.12
The Present Petition
On May 13, 2004, the petitioners filed this Petition for Certiorari and Prohibition with Application for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) or a Writ of Preliminary Injunction seeking to nullify the two Resolutions dated October 21, 2003 and May 5, 2004. Since the Court did not issue a temporary restraining order, the COMELEC declared the assailed Resolutions as final and executory and directed the Regional Election Director to implement the same in an Order dated May 27, 2004.13
On June 1, 2004, the Municipal Election Officer issued a Notice to the Members of the Municipal Board of Canvassers informing them that the Board shall convene on June 8, 2004.14 On June 10, 2004, the Municipal Board of Canvassers proclaimed the private respondents as the winners in the May 14, 2001 elections, with Pio Jude S. Belo as Mayor, Rodolfo Deocampo as Vice-Mayor and Lorencito B. Diaz as a Member of the Sangguniang Bayan.15
The threshold issues raised by the parties in this case are the following: (a) whether the petition was mooted by the election and proclamation of the new set of municipal officials after the May 10, 2004 elections; and, (b) if in the negative, whether the COMELEC committed a grave abuse of discretion amounting to excess or lack of jurisdiction in issuing the assailed resolutions.
The Ruling of the Court
On the first issue, we agree with the COMELEC that the petition for the nullification of its October 21, 2003 and May 5, 2004 Resolutions and the proclamation of the private respondents on June 10, 2004 was mooted by the election and proclamation of a new set of municipal officials after the May 10, 2004 elections. In fact, the records show that petitioner Katherine Belo was elected as Mayor, petitioner Generoso Derramas as Vice-Mayor, and petitioners Ricardo Araque and Ernesto Bito-on as members of the Sangguniang Bayan. The expiration of the challenged term of the offices renders the corresponding petition moot and academic.16
Where the issues have become moot and academic, there is no justiciable controversy, thereby rendering the resolution of the same of no practical use or value.17 Nonetheless, courts will decide a question otherwise moot and academic if it is capable of repetition, yet evading review.18 In this case, we find it necessary to resolve the issues raised in the petition in order to prevent a repetition thereof and, thus, enhance free, orderly, and peaceful elections. For this reason, we resolve to grant the petition.
On the second issue, the petitioners aver that since they were already proclaimed the duly-elected municipal officials of Panitan, Capiz, on May 18, 2001, the COMELEC should have dismissed the complaint for their disqualification which the private respondents filed only on June 23, 2001, more than a month after such proclamation. They aver that such dismissal was mandated by Section 2 of COMELEC Resolution No. 2050, adopted on November 3, 1988, which reads:
The petitioners cite the ruling of this Court in Bagatsing vs. COMELEC,19 and the dissenting opinion of Commissioner Mehol Sadain, that after the COMELEC directed its Law Department on February 28, 2003 to file the appropriate Informations against the petitioners for violations of Section 261(a) and (e) of the Omnibus Election Code, it should have refrained from making a finding of disqualification before the petitioners' conviction by final judgment, since by so doing, the COMELEC preempted the decision of the trial court.
The Office of the Solicitor General, for its part, asserts that the petition at bar, considering the petitioners' plea for a writ of preliminary injunction, was designed to eschew criminal prosecution for violation of Section 261(a)(e) of the Omnibus Election Code.
We rule for the petitioners.
Section 2 of COMELEC Resolution No. 2050 is as clear as day: the COMELEC is mandated to dismiss a complaint for the disqualification of a candidate who has been charged with an election offense but who has already been proclaimed as winner by the Municipal Board of Canvassers. COMELEC Resolution No. 2050 specifically mandates a definite policy and procedure for disqualification cases;20 hence, should be applied and given effect. In Bagatsing vs. Commission on Election,21 this Court ruled that a complaint for disqualification filed after the election against a candidate before or after his proclamation as winner shall be dismissed by the COMELEC, viz:
It bears stressing that Resolution No. 2050 was approved precisely because of the variance in opinions of the members of the respondent COMELEC on matters of procedure in dealing with and evaluating cases for disqualification filed under Section 68 of the Omnibus Election Code in relation to Section 6 of Rep. Act No. 6646.23
Under the said resolution, if a complaint is filed with the COMELEC against a candidate who has already been proclaimed winner, charging an election offense under Section 261 of the Omnibus Election Code, as amended by Rep. Act Nos. 6646 and 8436, and praying for the disqualification of the said candidate, the COMELEC shall determine the existence of probable cause24 for the filing of an Information against the candidate for the election offense charged. However, if the COMELEC finds no probable cause, it is mandated to dismiss the complaint for the disqualification of the candidate.
If the COMELEC finds that there is probable cause, it shall order its Law Department to file the appropriate Information with the Regional Trial Court (RTC) which has territorial jurisdiction over the offense, but shall, nonetheless, order the dismissal of the complaint for disqualification, without prejudice to the outcome of the criminal case. If the trial court finds the accused guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the offense charged, it shall also order his disqualification pursuant to Section 264 of the Omnibus Election Code, as amended by Section 46 of Rep. Act No. 8189 which reads:
In this case, the petitioners were proclaimed winners on May 18, 2001. The private respondents filed their complaint for violation of Section 216(a) and (e) of the Omnibus Election Code and for the disqualification of the petitioners only on June 23, 2001. The COMELEC found probable cause against the respondents for the offense charged and directed its Law Department to file the appropriate Information against the petitioners. Patently then, the COMELEC committed a grave abuse of its discretion amounting to excess or lack of jurisdiction in issuing its assailed resolutions disqualifying the petitioners from the positions they were respectively elected, in defiance of Resolution No. 2050.
The plaint of the Office of the Solicitor General, that the petitioners filed their petition merely and solely to eschew criminal prosecution for violation of Section 216(a) and (e) of the Omnibus Election Code, as amended, has no factual basis. In fact, the petitioners stated in their petition that "inasmuch as the COMELEC had already directed the prosecution of the herein petitioners in a criminal case which is now pending in the Regional Trial Court of Capiz, their supposed disqualification should be adjudged by the latter court and not by the COMELEC."
The COMELEC, likewise, committed a grave abuse of its discretion when it ordered the Municipal Election Officers to convene a new Board of Canvassers and proclaim the winners after the petitioners were declared disqualified.
It is well-settled that the ineligibility of a candidate receiving majority votes does not entitle the eligible candidate receiving the next highest number of votes to be declared elected. A minority or defeated candidate cannot be deemed elected to the office. The votes intended for the disqualified candidate should not be considered null and void, as it would amount to disenfranchising the electorate in whom sovereignty resides.25 As we held in Reyes vs. Commission on Elections:26
WHEREFORE, the petition is GRANTED. The COMELEC Resolutions dated October 21, 2003 and May 5, 2004 are hereby NULLIFIED AND SET ASIDE. As a necessary consequence, the proclamation of the private respondents on June 10, 2004 by the Municipal Board of Canvassers as the elected Mayor, Vice-Mayor and Members of the Sangguniang Bayan of the Municipality of Panitan, Capiz, respectively, is, likewise, NULLIFIED AND SET ASIDE. No costs.
Davide, Jr., C.J., Puno, Panganiban, Quisumbing, Ynares-Santiago, Sandoval-Gutierrez, Carpio, Austria-Martinez, Carpio-Morales, Azcuna, Tinga, and Chico-Nazario, JJ., concur.
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