Constitutional Law, Political Law

Balag v. Senate G.R. No. 234608 July 03, 2018 Power of Contempt of the Senate during Inquiries in Aid of Legislation

FACTS:

On September 17, 2017, Horacio Castillo III,a first year law student of the UST, died allegedly due to hazing conducted by the Aegis Juris Fraternity. On September 19, 2017, SR No. 504,was filed by Senator Zubiri condemning the death of Horacio III and directing the appropriate Senate Committee to conduct an investigation, in aid of legislation, to hold those responsible accountable.

The Senate Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs chaired by Senator Lacson together with the Committees on Justice and Human Rights and Constitutional Amendment and Revision of Codes, invited petitioner and several other persons to the Joint Public Hearing.

Petitioner attended the senate hearing. In the course of the proceedings, Senator Poe asked petitioner if he was the president of Aegis Juris Fraternity but he refused to answer the question and invoked his right against self-incrimination. She manifested that petitioner’s signature appeared on the application for recognition of the AJ Fraternity and on the organizational sheet, indicating that he was the president. Petitioner, again, invoked his right against self-incrimination.

Senator Poe then moved to cite him in contempt, which was seconded by Senators Villanueva and Zubiri. Senator Lacson ruled that the motion was properly seconded, hence, the Senate Sergeant-at-arms was ordered to place petitioner in detention after the committee hearing. 

Petitioner apologized for his earlier statement and moved for the lifting of his contempt. He admitted that he was a member of the AJ Fraternity but he was not aware as to who its president was because, at that time, he was enrolled in another school.

Senator Villanueva repeated his question to petitioner but the latter, again, invoked his right against self-incrimination. Thus, petitioner was placed under the custody of the Senate Sergeant-at-arms.

In the instant petition, petitioner essentially alleges that respondents unlawfully exercised their power of contempt and that

his detention was invalid.

 ISSUE:

In this case, the petition presents a critical and decisive issue that must be addressed by Court: What is the duration of the detention for a contempt ordered by the Senate?

RULING:

The contempt order issued against petitioner simply stated that he would be arrested and detained until such time that he gives his true testimony, or otherwise purges himself of the contempt. It does not provide any definite and concrete period of detention. Neither does the Senate Rules specify a precise period of detention when a person is cited in contempt.

The Court finds that there is a genuine necessity to place a limitation on the period of imprisonment that may be imposed by the Senate pursuant to its inherent power of contempt during inquiries in aid of legislation. Section 21, Article VI of the Constitution states that Congress, in conducting inquiries in aid of legislation, must respect the rights of persons appearing in or affected therein.

Period of imprisonment for contempt during inquiries in aid of legislation

In our jurisdiction, the period of the imprisonment for contempt by Congress was first discussed in Lopez v. De Los Reyes wherein the SC ruled that there was no valid exercise of the inherent power of contempt because the House of Representatives already adjourned when it declared the petitioner in contempt.

It was held therein that imprisonment for a term not exceeding the session of the deliberative body in which the contempt occurred was the limit of the authority to deal directly by way of contempt, without criminal prosecution. Citing foreign jurisprudence, it was thoroughly discussed therein that the power of contempt was limited to imprisonment during the session of the legislative body affected by the contempt. 

Congress’ statutory power of contempt has been recognized in foreign jurisdictions as reflected in the cases of In re Chapman and Jurney v. MacCracken. Similarly, in this jurisdiction, the statutory power of contempt of Congress was also acknowledged in Lopez. It was stated therein that in cases that if Congress seeks to penalize a person cited in contempt beyond its adjournment, it must institute a criminal proceeding against him.

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