Why Comelec failed to defend itself before SC: 'We were busy'

MANILA, Philippines – Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Andres Bautista on Thursday, March 10, justified the poll body's failure to defend itself before the Supreme Court (SC) in a recent case involving vote-counting machines (VCMs).

Bautista said the Comelec was busy. 

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, for her part, said being a very, very important” agency is not an excuse for the Comelec to take the SC’s orders lightly. 

The SC ended up ruling against the Comelec. The High Court ordered the poll body to issue voting receipts as the petitioners requested. This now threatens to delay the preparations for the May 9 national and local elections, or even to cause the polls' postponement.

While Sereno said “the law itself” was the biggest factor in the Comelec’s loss, the Comelec still partly lost by default to the the petitioners, senatorial candidate Richard Gordon and his political party Bagumbayan,  

This is because the Comelec failed to meet the SC’s “non-extendible deadline” to submit its comment on the case. The Comelec left itself defenseless before the SC's magistrates.

This didn’t escape the SC, which gave the poll body a mouthful for its “lackadaisical attitude” toward Gordon and Bagumbayan’s petition. 

In a 16-page decision penned by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, the SC noted that instead of filing its comment on time, the Comelec requested for an extended deadline through the Office of the Solicitor General, its counsel for the case.

The SC quoted the Office of the Solicitor General as saying that it “has not yet received a copy of the Petition and has yet to obtain from Comelec the documents relevant to the case.”

Now the Comelec finds itself in a state of emergency, saying the SC ruling might force it to postpone the elections or hold manual polls.

'Marami kaming trabaho'

In an interview with reporters on Thursday, Bautista said the Comelec was surprised at the High Court’s ruling. 

He pointed out that the Comelec only requested an extension of 5 days to submit its comment. He said the SC gives longer extensions in other cases. 

Bautista said: “Ang pinag-uusapan natin dito, ilang araw lang. Hindi 'to linggo, hindi buwan, hindi taon. Ilang araw ang pinag-uusapan.” (What we’re talking about is only a few days. This is not a week, not a month, not a year. We’re only talking about a few days.)

At ang sinasabi nga natin is that, alam 'nyo naman, marami kaming trabaho ngayong mga panahong ito,” the elections chief said. (And what we’re saying is, as you know, we have lots of work these days.)

The lingering question, however, is why it took the Comelec a long time to file the comment before the SC.

The comment, after all, contains no new major argument. 

In the comment filed only on Monday, March 7, instead of last week, the Comelec argued that paper ballots already serve the purpose of voting receipts.

The Comelec had mentioned this in many press conferences and official statements.

Aside from this, the comment was only 10 pages long. Lawyers can usually write longer in a shorter timeframe.

Old arguments, long time to comment

Even experts have raised the Comelec’s arguments before.

Emil Marañon III, former chief of staff of ex-Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr, earlier wrote an explainer for Rappler containing the same things in the poll body’s late submission to the SC. 

Marañon wrote that “the 'paper audit trail’ required by law does not have to be a receipt; it can be the ballot itself, depending on the voting technology chosen by Comelec during a particular election.”

Rappler published his piece on February 29, a week before the Comelec submitted its comment to the SC.

Bautista on Thursday was asked why it took the Comelec a long time to prepare the comment, when the 10-page comment contained old arguments.

Bautista answered, “Again, hindi ko masasabi kung ano ang workload ng Office of the Solicitor General.” (Again, I’m not sure about the workload of the Office of the Solicitor General.)

He continued by moving on to another topic. He referred to a landmark case between lawyer Harry Roque and Comelec on voting receipts.

Pero ang akin ding kumbaga, ang gusto namin ding malaman, is that kung bakit nga hindi ginamit 'yung Roque vs Comelec sa naging desisyon ngayon. Well ito makikita natin doon sa ihahaing motion for reconsideration,” he said.

(But what we want to know is why they didn’t use the Roque vs Comelec case in that decision. You will see this in the motion for reconsideration that we will file.)

While being asked a follow-up question about this, Bautista abruptly cut the interview and walked away.

Sereno: 'I would like to caution people...'

Earlier on Thursday, the Chief Justice gave a rare sit-down media interview on the sidelines of another event. 

This comes after the Comelec practically blamed the SC for the doomsday scenarios expected in the May 9 elections. 

Sereno told reporters the Comelec should have filed its comment on time. 

“So maybe the appropriate time should be devoted to attending court matters – by everybody,” she said.

The Chief Justice added, “Simply because a body is a constitutional body that is very, very important, and at the center of many of our national concerns, does not mean that court requirements are to be taken lightly.”

Sereno was also asked if the SC, in requiring voting receipts, considered the “repercussions” that the Comelec warned about through media. 

Sereno answered, “We don't take matters that are aired before the media and that are not properly raised before us.” 

“I would like to caution people that when a matter is under litigation before a court, the procedure is to make such communications with the court…because that’s the only way we can take cognizance of the positions that they have,” the Chief Justice said. 

Sereno explained that the SC wants "to be helpful to the conduct of the 2016 elections, not serve as an obstacle to its successful conduct."

"We have set aside a lot of our time focusing on election issues and you can see how fast we have been working," she said.

The Comelec is set to appeal its case before the SC on Friday, March 11. – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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