344 Phil. 878

EN BANC

[ G.R. No. 124033, September 25, 1997 ]

ANTONIO T. KHO, PETITIONER, VS. COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS AND EMILIO A. ESPINOSA, RESPONDENTS.
D E C I S I O N

TORRES, JR., J.:

May the Commission on Elections entertain a counter-protest filed by a party after the period to file the same has expired? Although a routine issue, it can also have crippling effects.

This is the case before us.

On May 30, 1995, petitioner Kho, a losing candidate in the 1995 gubernatorial elections in Masbate, filed an election protest[1] against private respondents Espinosa to set aside the proclamation of the latter as the Provincial Governor of Masbate and to declare him instead the winner in the elections.

Summons[2] was then issued by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC, for brevity) to Espinosa on June 1, 1995 requiring him to answer to Kho’s petition of protest within five (5) days from receipt thereof.

It appears that Espinosa received the summons on June 6, 1995,[3] but, he filed his answer with counter protest only on June 15, 1995.[4] When Kho received the answer with counter-protest to Espinosa on June 24, 1995, he filed on the same date a motion to expunge the said pleading because it was filed way beyond the reglementary period of five (5) days as provided for under Rule 10, Section 1, Part II in relation to Rule 20, Section 4 of the COMELEC Rules of Procedure.

Way back on June 19, 1995, petitioner Kho also filed an omnibus motion [5] praying that since five(5) days had elapsed and no answer to the protest had yet been filed by Espinosa, a general denial must be entered into the records in accordance with the COMELEC Rules of Procedure.

The Respondent COMELEC First Division, however, issued an order [6] dated July 26, 1995 admitting Espinosa’s answer with counter-protest and requiring his lawyer to submit a supplemental pleading specifying the numbers of counter-protested precincts listed in the answer with counter protest. Kho received a copy of such order on September 20, 1995.

Following the order dated July 26, 1995, Espinosa filed on September 18, 1995 his compliance specifying therein the counter-protested precincts.

Consequently, the Comelec First Division, through its order dated September 23, 1995, admitted the said compliance, required Espinosa to make a cash deposit of P 40,150.00 for the 73 counter-protested precincts and ordered the collection and delivery of the counter-protested ballot boxes to the Commission for revision.

On September 23, 1995, Kho filed a motion to resolve [7] alleging that he filed a motion to expunge on June 24, 1995 as a result of Espinosa’s failure to answer the election protest within the legal period. Since, this motion to expunge had not yet been acted by the Commission, he accordingly, prayed for its resolution.

Acting on the said motion, however, the COMELEC First Division, by its September 26, 1995 order,[8] dismissed the motion to resolve holding that Espinosa’s answer with counter-protest which was mailed on June 15, 1995 was filed within the five (5) day reglementary period.

On September 29, 1995, Kho filed a motion for reconsideration [9] of the orders dated September 23 and 26, 1995. Espinosa, on the other hand, filed his opposition thereto arguing that the questioned interlocutory orders dated September 23 and 26, 1995 were mere incidental orders which implemented the earlier order dated July 26, 1995. He asserted that the failure on the part of Kho to seek a first a reconsideration of this July 26, 1995 order which admitted the answer with counter-protest is a fatal and an irreversible procedural infirmity.

In denying the motion for reconsideration of Kho, the COMELEC First Division, through its November 15, 1995 order,[10] held that since Kho did not attempt to file a motion for reconsideration of the July 26, 1995 order, such order can not now be disturbed. The subsequent orders of September 23 and 26, 1995 that carried out the July 26, 1995 order should not be set aside to prevent unnecessary delay in the proceedings of the case.

On December 1, 1995, Kho filed a manifestation and motion, [11] this time addressed to the COMELEC en banc, reiterating the arguments he asserted in his motion for reconsideration and praying at the same time for the elevation of the case to the Commission en banc and the setting aside of the November 15, 1995 order and all other related orders concerning the belated filing of Espinosa’s answer with counter-protest.

But the COMELEC First Division, in its order dated February 28, 1996, [12] denied the prayer for the elevation of the case to en banc because the September 23 and 26, 1995 orders were mere interlocutory orders which would not necessitate the elevation of the case to en banc, and merely took note of the other prayers in the manifestation and motion. The dispositive portion of the said order reads as follows:
WHEREFORE, in view of the foregoing, the Commission (First Division) hereby ORDERS, as follows:

1.       That the manifestation, as well as the second and third prayers, in protestant’s Manifestation and Motion be NOTED;

2.       That the prayer for the elevation of the records of this case to the commission en banc be DENIED;

3.       That the protestee’s prayer for suspension of revision proceedings be declared MOOT.

SO ORDERED.” [13]
On March 15, 1995 Kho filed the instant petition [14] arguing that the respondent COMELEC First Division committed grave abuse of discretion or without or in excess of jurisdiction in admitting the belatedly filed answer with counter-protest of Espinosa, and in refusing to elevate the case to the Commission en banc upon the pretext that the COMELEC First Division issued mere interlocutory orders. He prayed for the issuance of a temporary restraining order against the COMELEC to cease and desist from implementing the July 26, 1995 order and all other orders related to it, and that the COMELEC be directed to proceed with the protest case without considering the answer with counter-protest of Espinosa, which should be expunge from the records of the case.

Private respondent Espinosa, on the other hand that the five (5) day period of filing an answer is not jurisdictional because the answer in not initiatory pleading and the time of its filing can be extended either through motion or motu propio. He added that the COMELEC, in admitting the answer with counter protest, committed no error as it is allowed to suspend its rules in the interest of justice and speedy disposition of matters before it. According to him, the order of the COMELEC dated July 26, 1995 admitting his counter protest is not subjected to a timely motion for reconsideration by petitioner Kho, thus it became final and executory and can no longer be disturb.

Consequently, this Court issued a temporary restraining order on May 28, 1996.[15]

We find the petition meritorious.

It is clear from the records that private respondent Espinosa filed his answer with counter protest way beyond the reglementary period of five (5) days provided for by law. It must be pointed out that Espinosa received the COMELEC summons and the Petition of Protest of Kho on June 6, 1995. Under Section 1, Rule 10 of the COMELEC Rules of Procedure, the answer must be filed within five (5) days from service of summons and a copy of the petition. Private respondent Espinosa, therefore, had until June 11, 1995 within which to file his answer. In violation however of the aforesaid rules, Espinosa filed his answer with counterprotest only on June 15, 1995, obviously beyond the five (5) mandatory period.

It should be stressed that under the COMELEC Rules of Procedure the protestee may incorporate in his answer a counterprotest.[16] It has been said that a counterprotest is tantamount to a counterclaim in a civil action and may be presented as a part of the answer within the time he is required to answer to protest, unless a motion for extension is granted, in which it must be filed before the expiration of the extended time.[17] Apparently, the counterprotest of Espinosa was incorporated in his answer. And as what was revealed, this answer with counterprotest was filed only on June 15, 1995, which was obviously late for four (4) days. It appears that Espinosa did not file a motion for extension of time within which to file his answer with counterprotest. In the absence thereof, there is no basis then for the COMELEC First Division to admit the belatedly filed answer with counterprotest.

It is worthy to note that as early as in the case of Arrieta vs. Rodriguez, [18] this Court had firmly settled the counterprotest must be filed within the period provided by law, otherwise, the forum loses its jurisdiction to entertain the belatedly filed counterprotest. In the case at bar, there is no question that the answer with counter protest of Espinosa was filed outside the reglementary period provided for by law. As such, the COMELEC First Division has no jurisdictional authority to entertain the belated answer with counter protest much less pass upon and decide the issues raised therein. It follows therefore that the order of July 26, 1995 which pertains to the admission of the answer with counter protest of Espinosa as the other consequent orders implementing the order of admission issued by the COMELEC First Division are void for having been issued without jurisdiction. Even if petitioner Kho did not file a motion for reconsideration of the order dated July 26, 1995 admitting the answer with counterprotest, the jurisdictional infirmity, brought about by the late filing of the answer to the protest, persist and can not be cured by the omission on the part of the protestee-petitioner to seek a reconsideration of the order dated July 26, 1995.

Admittedly, even before the order dated July 26, 1995 was issued by the COMELEC First Division, petitioner Kho had already put into issue the late filing of Espinosa‘s answer with counterprotest and persistently asserted his right to move for the exclusion of the same from the record of the case. The records unmistakably show that when petitioner Kho was appraised of the fact that Espinosa did not file the answer within the reglementary period of five days, he filed on June 19, 1995 an omnibus motion praying that a general denial should be entered in the records of the case against Espinosa. He also filed on June 24, 1995 a motion to expunge from the records the answer with counter protest of Espinosa. And when he received the July 26, 1995 order on September 20, 1995, he immediately filed on September 23, 1995 a motion praying for the resolution of the motion to expunge filed earlier. These circumstances indubitably show that even though petitioner Kho did not file a motion for reconsideration of the July 26, 1995 order he was not remiss in assailing at the first instances the belated filing of the answer with counter protest of Espinosa.

As to the issue of whether or not the case should be referred to the COMELEC en banc, this Court finds the respondent COMELEC First Division correct when it held in its order dated February 28, 1996 that no final decision, resolution or order has yet been made which will necessitate the elevation of the case and its records to the Commission en banc. No less than the Constitution requires that the election cases must be heard and decided first in division and any motion for reconsideration of decisions shall be decided by the commission en banc. Apparently, the orders dated July 26, 1995, November 15 1995 and February 28, 1996 and the other orders relating to the admission of the answer with counter-protest are issuances of a commission in division and are all interlocutory orders because they merely rule upon an incidental issue regarding the admission of Espinosa’s answer with counter-protest and do not terminate or finally dispose of the case as they leave something to be done before it is finally decided on the merits.[19] In such a situation, the rule is clear that the authority to resolve incidental matters of the case pending in a division, like the questioned interlocutory orders, falls on the division itself, and not on the Commission en banc. Section 5 (c), Rule 3 of the COMELEC Rules of procedure explicitly provides for this,
Section 5. Quorum; Votes required. xxx

xxx

(c) Any motion to reconsider a decision, resolution, order or ruling of a Division shall be resolved by the Commission en banc except motions on interlocutory orders of the division which shall be resolved by the division which issued the order.” (italics provided)
Furthermore, a look at section 2, Rule 3 of the COMELEC Rules of procedure confirms that the subject case does not fall on any of the instances over which the Commission en banc can take cognizance of. It reads as follows:
Section 2. The Commission en banc.- The Commission shall sit en banc in cases hereinafter specifically provided, or in pre-proclamation cases upon a vote of a majority of the members of a commission, or in all other cases where a division is not authorized to act, or where, upon a unanimous vote of all the members of a Division, an interlocutory matter or issue relative an action or proceeding before it is decided to be referred to the commission en banc.”
In the instant case, it does not appear that the subject controversy is one of the cases specifically provided under the COMELEC Rules of Procedure in which the Commission may sit en banc. Neither is it shown that the present controversy a case where a division is not authorized to act nor a situation wherein the members of the First Division unanimously voted to refer the subject case to the commission en banc. Clearly, the Commission en banc, under the circumstances shown above, can not be the proper forum which the matter concerning the assailed interlocutory orders can be referred to.

In a situation such as this where the Commission in division committed grave abuse of discretion or acted without or in excess of jurisdiction in issuing interlocutory orders relative to an action pending before it and the controversy did not fall under any of the instances mentioned in section 2, Rule 3 of the COMELEC Rules of Procedure, the remedy of the aggrieved party is not to refer the controversy to the commission en banc as this is not permissible under its present rules but to elevate it to this Court via a petition for certiorari under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court.

Nevertheless, the resolution of this second issue is not decisive in the disposition of the instant case. What we considered here is the fact that the respondent COMELEC First Division committed grave abuse of discretion tantamount to lack of jurisdiction in admitting the belatedly filed answer with counter protest of private respondent Espinosa.

ACCORDINGLY, the petition is hereby GRANTED. The order dated July 26, 1995 admitting the answer with counterprotest of the private respondent as well as the other related orders, in so far as they pertain to the admission of the answer with counter protest, are hereby declared void for having been issued without jurisdiction. The respondent COMELEC First Division is hereby directed to proceed with the hearing of the protest case with utmost dispatch without considering the answer with counterprotest of the private respondent.
SO ORDERED.

Narvasa, C.J., (Chairman), Regalado, Davide, Jr., Romero, Bellosillo, Melo, Puno, Vitug, Kapunan, Francisco, Hermosisima, Jr. and Panganiban, JJ., concur.
Mendoza, J., on leave.


[1] Rollo pp. 36-43.

[2] Rollo p. 44.

[3] Rollo p. 47.

[4] Rollo pp. 50-55.

[5] Rollo pp. 45-46.

[6] Rollo p. 58.

[7] Rollo p. 60.

[8] Rollo p. 64.

[9] Rollo p. 70.

[10] Rollo pp. 96-98.

[11] Rollo pp. 99-110.

[12] Rollo pp. 112-115.

[13] Order dated February 28, 1996, pp. 3-4.

[14] Rollo pp. 3-35.

[15] Rollo, pp. 204-207.

[16] Rule 20, Section 3 of the COMELEC Rules of Procedure.

[17] Maliwanag vs. Herrera, No. l-29193, September 26, 1968, 25 SCRA 175.

[18] 57 Phil 717.

[19] Nepomuceno vs. Salazar, G.R. No. 37165, May 15, 1989.



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