The main thrust of petitioner’s argument is that the COMELEC exceeded its jurisdiction in initiating the contempt proceedings when it was performing its administrative and not its quasi-judicial functions as the National Board of Canvassers for the election of senators. According to petitioner, the COMELEC may only punish contemptuous acts while exercising its quasi-judicial functions.
The COMELEC possesses the power to conduct investigations as an adjunct to its constitutional duty to enforce and administer all election laws, by virtue of the explicit provisions of paragraph 6, Section 2, Article IX of the 1987 Constitution, which reads:
Article IX-C, Section 2. xxx
(6) xxx; investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute cases of violations of election laws, including acts or omissions constituting election frauds, offenses, and malpractices.
The above-quoted provision should be construed broadly to give effect to the COMELEC’s constitutional mandate as enunciated in Loong v. Commission on Elections,6 which held:
xxx. Section 2(1) of Article IX(C) of the Constitution gives the COMELEC the broad power "to enforce and administer all laws and regulations relative to the conduct of an election, plebiscite, initiative, referendum and recall." Undoubtedly, the text and intent of this provision is to give COMELEC all the necessary and incidental powers for it to achieve the objective of holding free, orderly, honest, peaceful, and credible elections. Congruent to this intent, this Court has not been niggardly in defining the parameters of powers of COMELEC in the conduct of our elections.
The powers and functions of the COMELEC, conferred upon it by the 1987 Constitution and the Omnibus Election Code, may be classified into administrative, quasi-legislative, and quasi-judicial. The quasi-judicial power of the COMELEC embraces the power to resolve controversies arising from the enforcement of election laws, and to be the sole judge of all pre-proclamation controversies; and of all contests relating to the elections, returns, and qualifications. Its quasi-legislative power refers to the issuance of rules and regulations to implement the election laws and to exercise such legislative functions as may expressly be delegated to it by Congress. Its administrative function refers to the enforcement and administration of election laws. In the exercise of such power, the Constitution (Section 6, Article IX-A) and the Omnibus Election Code (Section 52 [c]) authorize the COMELEC to issue rules and regulations to implement the provisions of the 1987 Constitution and the Omnibus Election Code.7
The quasi-judicial or administrative adjudicatory power is the power to hear and determine questions of fact to which the legislative policy is to apply, and to decide in accordance with the standards laid down by the law itself in enforcing and administering the same law. The Court, in Dole Philippines Inc. v. Esteva,8 described quasi-judicial power in the following manner, viz:
Quasi-judicial or administrative adjudicatory power on the other hand is the power of the administrative agency to adjudicate the rights of persons before it. It is the power to hear and determine questions of fact to which the legislative policy is to apply and to decide in accordance with the standards laid down by the law itself in enforcing and administering the same law. The administrative body exercises its quasi-judicial power when it performs in a judicial manner an act which is essentially of an executive or administrative nature, where the power to act in such manner is incidental to or reasonably necessary for the performance of the executive or administrative duty entrusted to it. In carrying out their quasi-judicial functions the administrative officers or bodies are required to investigate facts or ascertain the existence of facts, hold hearings, weigh evidence, and draw conclusions from them as basis for their official action and exercise of discretion in a judicial nature. Since rights of specific persons are affected, it is elementary that in the proper exercise of quasi-judicial power due process must be observed in the conduct of the proceedings. [Emphasis ours.]
The Creation of Task Force Maguindanao was impelled by the allegations of fraud and irregularities attending the conduct of elections in the province of Maguindanao and the non-transmittal of the canvassing documents for all municipalities of said province.
Task Force Maguindanao’s fact-finding investigation – to probe into the veracity of the alleged fraud that marred the elections in said province; and consequently, to determine whether the certificates of canvass were genuine or spurious, and whether an election offense had possibly been committed – could by no means be classified as a purely ministerial or administrative function.
The COMELEC, through the Task Force Maguindanao, was exercising its quasi-judicial power in pursuit of the truth behind the allegations of massive fraud during the elections in Maguindanao. To achieve its objective, the Task Force conducted hearings and required the attendance of the parties concerned and their counsels to give them the opportunity to argue and support their respective positions.
The effectiveness of the quasi–judicial power vested by law on a government institution hinges on its authority to compel attendance of the parties and/or their witnesses at the hearings or proceedings. As enunciated in Arnault v. Nazareno9 –
Experience has shown that mere requests for such information are often unavailing, and also that information which is volunteered is not always accurate or complete; so some means of compulsion is essential to obtain what is needed.
In the same vein, to withhold from the COMELEC the power to punish individuals who refuse to appear during a fact-finding investigation, despite a previous notice and order to attend, would render nugatory the COMELEC’s investigative power, which is an essential incident to its constitutional mandate to secure the conduct of honest and credible elections. In this case, the purpose of the investigation was however derailed when petitioner obstinately refused to appear during said hearings and to answer questions regarding the various election documents which, he claimed, were stolen while they were in his possession and custody. Undoubtedly, the COMELEC could punish petitioner for such contumacious refusal to attend the Task Force hearings.
Even assuming arguendo that the COMELEC was acting as a board of canvassers at that time it required petitioner to appear before it, the Court had the occasion to rule that the powers of the board of canvassers are not purely ministerial. The board exercises quasi-judicial functions, such as the function and duty to determine whether the papers transmitted to them are genuine election returns signed by the proper officers.10 When the results of the elections in the province of Maguindanao were being canvassed, counsels for various candidates posited numerous questions on the certificates of canvass brought before the COMELEC. The COMELEC asked petitioner to appear before it in order to shed light on the issue of whether the election documents coming from Maguindanao were spurious or not. When petitioner unjustifiably refused to appear, COMELEC undeniably acted within the bounds of its jurisdiction when it issued the assailed resolutions.
In Santiago, Jr. v. Bautista,11 the Court held:
xxx. The exercise of judicial functions may involve the performance of legislative or administrative duties, and the performance of and administrative or ministerial duties, may, in a measure, involve the exercise of judicial functions. It may be said generally that the exercise of judicial functions is to determine what the law is, and what the legal rights of parties are, with respect to a matter in controversy; and whenever an officer is clothed with that authority, and undertakes to determine those questions, he acts judicially.
On the procedure adopted by the COMELEC in proceeding with the indirect contempt charges against petitioner, Section 52 (e), Article VII of the Omnibus Election Code pertinently provides:
Section 52. Powers and functions of the Commission on Elections.
(e) Punish contempts provided for in the Rules of Court in the same procedure and with the same penalties provided therin. Any violation of any final and executory decision, order or ruling of the Commission shall constitute contempt thereof. [Emphasis ours.]
The aforecited provision of law is implemented by Rule 29 of COMELEC’s Rules of Procedure, Section 2 of which states:
Rule 29 – Contempt
Sec. 1. xxx
Sec. 2. Indirect Contempt. – After charge in writing has been filed with the Commission or Division, as the case may be, and an opportunity given to the respondent to be heard by himself or counsel, a person guilty of the following acts may be punished for indirect contempt:
(a) Misbehavior of the responsible officer of the Commission in the performance of his official duties or in his official transactions;
(b) Disobedience of or resistance to a lawful writ, process, order, judgment or command of the Commission or any of its Divisions, or injunction or restraining order granted by it;
(c) Any abuse of or any inlawful interference with the process or proceedings of the Commission or any of its Divisions not constituting direct contempt under Section 1 of this Rules;
(d) Any improper conduct tending, directly or indirectly, to impede, obstruct, or degrade the administration of justice by the Commission or any of its Divisions;
(e) Assuming to be an attorney and acting as such without authority; and
(f) Failure to obey a subpoena duly served.
SEC. 3 Penalty for Indirect Contempt. – If adjudged guilty, the accused may be punished by a fine not exceeding one thousand (P1,000.00) pesos or imprisonment for not more than six (6) months, or both, at the discretion of the Commission or Division.
The language of the Omnibus Election Code and the COMELEC Rules of Procedure is broad enough to allow the initiation of indirect contempt proceedings by the COMELEC motu proprio. Furthermore, the above-quoted provision of Section 52(e), Article VII of the Omnibus Election Code explicitly adopts the procedure and penalties provided by the Rules of Court. Under Section 4, Rule 71, said proceedings may be initiated motu proprio by the COMELEC, viz:
SEC. 4. How proceedings commenced. – Proceedings for indirect contempt may be initiated motu proprio by the court against which the contempt was committed by an order or any other formal charge requiring the respondent to show cause why he should not be punished for contempt.
In all other cases, charges for indirect contempt shall be commenced by a verified petition with supporting particulars and certified true copies of documents or papers involved therein, and upon full compliance with the requirements for filing initiatory pleadings for civil actions in the court concerned. If the contempt charges arose out of or are related to a principal action pending in the court, the petition for contempt shall allege that fact but said petition shall be docketed, heard and decided separately, unless the court in its discretion orders the consolidation of the contempt charge and the principal action for joint hearing and decision.
Hence, the COMELEC properly assumed jurisdiction over the indirect contempt proceedings which were initiated by its Task Force Maguindanao, through a Contempt Charge and Show Cause Order, notwithstanding the absence of any complaint filed by a private party.