Contempt of Congress: Exacting Obedience from the Uncooperative

Jaims Gabriel L. Orencia

During a 26 September 2023 inquiry, the Philippine Senate cited in contempt four officers and members of an organization in Visayas who were allegedly involved in human right abuses and criminal activities disguised under the veil of cult-like practices. The contempt citation was issued by the Senate after the members and officers of said organization allegedly refused to admit their roles in the cult-like activities. The inquiry stemmed from a Senate Resolution dated 13 September 2023 where Senator Bato dela Rosa directed the Senate’s Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs to conduct an inquiry in aid of legislation regarding the activities of a “heavily-armed private army of extremist groups” in Socorro, Surigao, Del Norte.

The power to cite a person in contempt, exercised by both the Senate and House of Representatives, is a constitutional prerogative granted to Congress to ensure obedience and respect for its proceedings. Such authority allows Congress to ensure that witnesses, resource persons, and individuals summoned for inquiry will abide by the rules set by our constitutional legislative bodies. As held by the Supreme Court in the landmark case of Arnault v. Nazareno, a legislative body cannot legislate effective laws without having the necessary information on the issues sought to be addressed by such laws.

Congress’ contempt power indeed has legal and historical underpinnings, going as far back as 1796 when the United States House of Representatives exercised this power against those attempting to unduly influence its members. In McGrain v. Daugherty, the United States Supreme Court also affirmed Congress’ exercise of its contempt power, ruling that some form of compulsion is necessary for Congress to obtain information necessary for effective legislation.

In the Philippines, the 1987 Philippine Constitution admittedly does not explicitly grant Congress the power of contempt. Instead, Congress’ power of contempt is commonly referred to as an “implied power”, often regarded as a necessary consequence of Congress’ power to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation. Article VI, Section 21 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution deals with Congress’ power to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation and provides that “[t]he Senate or the House of Representatives or any of its respective committees may conduct inquiries in aid of legislation in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure. The rights of persons appearing in or are affected by such inquiries shall be respected.”

The nature of Congress’ implied contempt power was clearly defined and explained by the Supreme Court in Negros Occidental II Electric Cooperative, Inc. v. Sangguniang Panlungsod of Dumaguete. In that case, the Supreme Court described Congress’ contempt power as “sui generis” considering that it is a unique authority exercised by Congress for its own self-preservation. This is because Congress, being that branch of government entrusted with legislative power, has the right to assert its power and penalize acts of contempt directed towards its exercise of legislative functions. Hence, the implied power of Congress to cite persons in contempt primarily stems from its status as one of the three great branches of government, rather than solely from its exercise of legislative power. Congress may, therefore, exercise its contempt powers and cite persons who act contemptuously during inquiries in aid of legislation, which undoubtedly form part of Congress’ legislative powers under the Constitution.

Notably, Congress’ contempt power is not confined solely to the Senate or the House of Representatives. It may also be exercised by the respective committees established within each house of Congress. In Sabio v. Gordon, Chairman Camilo L. Sabio of the PCGG argued that the Senate’s committees have no power to punish and cite him for contempt of Senate. In ruling that the Senate’s committees also exercise contempt powers, the Supreme Court emphasized that Article VI, Section 21 of the Constitution directly confers the power of inquiry to the respective committees within each house of Congress. Necessarily, any committee of Congress also has the authority to exercise all essential powers to fulfill its power of inquiry, including the power to cite a person in contempt.

On the other hand of the spectrum, recent cases have also underscored the importance of protecting the constitutional rights of persons appearing before congressional inquiries as mandated under Article VI, Section 21 of the Constitution. In the landmark case of Neri v. Senate, the Supreme Court ruled that a valid exercise of Congress’ contempt power requires (a) publication of its rules of procedure and (b) respect for the rights of persons appearing before its committees. In Balag v. Senate, the constitutional mandate that the rights of persons appearing before congressional committees must be respected was also used as basis to restrict the period of imprisonment of a person cited in contempt by the Senate. This is because the constitutional right to liberty can be violated when a person cited in contempt may be detained for an indefinite period without due process of law.

In the end, Congress’ exercise of this potent power carries with it an obligation to navigate the fine line between protecting the integrity of its proceedings and ensuring that the rights of persons appearing before its committees are respected. Congress’ power to cite a person in contempt remains an essential tool for the effective discharge of its legislative prerogatives. Be that as it may, it is important to remember that contempt of Congress is always subject to legal and constitutional limitations, lest we forget the Constitution’s mandate to protect the democratic ideals of the nation.

This article is for general information and educational purposes only and not offered as legal advice or opinion.

Jaims Gabriel L. Orencia is an associate of the Litigation and Dispute Resolution Department of the Angara Abello Concepcion Regala & Cruz Law Offices (ACCRALAW).

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