Preventive Suspension and the Three-Term Limit Rule
a. Nature of Preventive Suspension
Preventive suspension – whether under the Local Government Code,17 the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act,18 or the Ombudsman Act19 – is an interim remedial measure to address the situation of an official who have been charged administratively or criminally, where the evidence preliminarily indicates the likelihood of or potential for eventual guilt or liability.
Preventive suspension is imposed under the Local Government Code “when the evidence of guilt is strong and given the gravity of the offense, there is a possibility that the continuance in office of the respondent could influence the witnesses or pose a threat to the safety and integrity of the records and other evidence.” Under the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, it is imposed after a valid information (that requires a finding of probable cause) has been filed in court, while under the Ombudsman Act, it is imposed when, in the judgment of the Ombudsman, the evidence of guilt is strong; and (a) the charge involves dishonesty, oppression or grave misconduct or neglect in the performance of duty; or (b) the charges would warrant removal from the service; or (c) the respondent’s continued stay in office may prejudice the case filed against him.
Notably in all cases of preventive suspension, the suspended official is barred from performing the functions of his office and does not receive salary in the meanwhile, but does not vacate and lose title to his office; loss of office is a consequence that only results upon an eventual finding of guilt or liability.
Preventive suspension is a remedial measure that operates under closely-controlled conditions and gives a premium to the protection of the service rather than to the interests of the individual office holder. Even then, protection of the service goes only as far as a temporary prohibition on the exercise of the functions of the official’s office; the official is reinstated to the exercise of his position as soon as the preventive suspension is lifted. Thus, while a temporary incapacity in the exercise of power results, no position is vacated when a public official is preventively suspended. This was what exactly happened to Asilo.
That the imposition of preventive suspension can be abused is a reality that is true in the exercise of all powers and prerogative under the Constitution and the laws. The imposition of preventive suspension, however, is not an unlimited power; there are limitations built into the laws20 themselves that the courts can enforce when these limitations are transgressed, particularly when grave abuse of discretion is present. In light of this well-defined parameters in the imposition of preventive suspension, we should not view preventive suspension from the extreme situation – that it can totally deprive an elective office holder of the prerogative to serve and is thus an effective interruption of an election official’s term.
Term limitation and preventive suspension are two vastly different aspects of an elective officials’ service in office and they do not overlap. As already mentioned above, preventive suspension involves protection of the service and of the people being served, and prevents the office holder from temporarily exercising the power of his office. Term limitation, on the other hand, is triggered after an elective official has served his three terms in office without any break. Its companion concept – interruption of a term – on the other hand, requires loss of title to office. If preventive suspension and term limitation or interruption have any commonality at all, this common point may be with respect to the discontinuity of service that may occur in both. But even on this point, they merely run parallel to each other and never intersect; preventive suspension, by its nature, is a temporary incapacity to render service during an unbroken term; in the context of term limitation, interruption of service occurs after there has been a break in the term.
b. Preventive Suspension and the Intent of the Three-Term Limit Rule
Strict adherence to the intent of the three-term limit rule demands that preventive suspension should not be considered an interruption that allows an elective official’s stay in office beyond three terms. A preventive suspension cannot simply be a term interruption because the suspended official continues to stay in office although he is barred from exercising the functions and prerogatives of the office within the suspension period. The best indicator of the suspended official’s continuity in office is the absence of a permanent replacement and the lack of the authority to appoint one since no vacancy exists.
To allow a preventively suspended elective official to run for a fourth and prohibited term is to close our eyes to this reality and to allow a constitutional violation through sophistry by equating the temporary inability to discharge the functions of office with the interruption of term that the constitutional provision contemplates. To be sure, many reasons exist, voluntary or involuntary – some of them personal and some of them by operation of law – that may temporarily prevent an elective office holder from exercising the functions of his office in the way that preventive suspension does. A serious extended illness, inability through force majeure, or the enforcement of a suspension as a penalty, to cite some involuntary examples, may prevent an office holder from exercising the functions of his office for a time without forfeiting title to office. Preventive suspension is no different because it disrupts actual delivery of service for a time within a term. Adopting such interruption of actual service as the standard to determine effective interruption of term under the three-term rule raises at least the possibility of confusion in implementing this rule, given the many modes and occasions when actual service may be interrupted in the course of serving a term of office. The standard may reduce the enforcement of the three-term limit rule to a case-to-case and possibly see-sawing determination of what an effective interruption is.
c. Preventive Suspension and Voluntary Renunciation
Preventive suspension, because it is imposed by operation of law, does not involve a voluntary act on the part of the suspended official, except in the indirect sense that he may have voluntarily committed the act that became the basis of the charge against him. From this perspective, preventive suspension does not have the element of voluntariness that voluntary renunciation embodies. Neither does it contain the element of renunciation or loss of title to office as it merely involves the temporary incapacity to perform the service that an elective office demands. Thus viewed, preventive suspension is – by its very nature – the exact opposite of voluntary renunciation; it is involuntary and temporary, and involves only the actual delivery of service, not the title to the office. The easy conclusion therefore is that they are, by nature, different and non-comparable.
But beyond the obvious comparison of their respective natures is the more important consideration of how they affect the three-term limit rule.
Voluntary renunciation, while involving loss of office and the total incapacity to render service, is disallowed by the Constitution as an effective interruption of a term. It is therefore not allowed as a mode of circumventing the three-term limit rule.
Preventive suspension, by its nature, does not involve an effective interruption of a term and should therefore not be a reason to avoid the three-term limitation. It can pose as a threat, however, if we shall disregard its nature and consider it an effective interruption of a term. Let it be noted that a preventive suspension is easier to undertake than voluntary renunciation, as it does not require relinquishment or loss of office even for the briefest time. It merely requires an easily fabricated administrative charge that can be dismissed soon after a preventive suspension has been imposed. In this sense, recognizing preventive suspension as an effective interruption of a term can serve as a circumvention more potent than the voluntary renunciation that the Constitution expressly disallows as an interruption.
To recapitulate, Asilo’s 2004-2007 term was not interrupted by the Sandiganbayan-imposed preventive suspension in 2005, as preventive suspension does not interrupt an elective official’s term. Thus, the COMELEC refused to apply the legal command of Section 8, Article X of the Constitution when it granted due course to Asilo’s certificate of candidacy for a prohibited fourth term. By so refusing, the COMELEC effectively committed grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction; its action was a refusal to perform a positive duty required by no less than the Constitution and was one undertaken outside the contemplation of law.21
WHEREFORE, premises considered, we GRANT the petition and accordingly NULLIFY the assailed COMELEC rulings. The private respondent Wilfredo F. Asilo is declared DISQUALIFIED to run, and perforce to serve, as Councilor of Lucena City for a prohibited fourth term. Costs against private respondent Asilo.
ARTURO D. BRION
SIMON B. ALDOVINO, JR., DANILO B. FALLER AND FERDINAND N. TALABONG V. vs.
COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS AND WILFREDO F. ASILO,G.R. No. 184836, December 23, 2009