COCOFED v. Comelec (G.R. No. 207026; August 6, 2013)


FACTS: Petitioner COCOFED-Philippine Coconut Producers Federation, Inc. (COCOFED) is an organization and sectoral party whose membership comes from the peasant sector, particularly the coconut farmers and producers.On May 29, 2012, COCOFED manifested with the COMELEC its intent to participate in the party-list elections of May 13, 2013 and submitted the names of only two nominees Atty. Emerito S. Calderon (first nominee) and Atty. Domingo P. Espina.

On August 23, 2012, the COMELEC conducted a summary hearing, pursuant to COMELEC Resolution No. 9513, to determine whether COCOFED, among several party-list groups that filed manifestations of intent to participate in the May 13, 2013 party-list elections, had continuously complied with the legal requirements.In its November 7, 2012 resolution, the COMELEC cancelled COCOFEDs registration and accreditation as a party-list organization on several grounds.Notably, the Concurring Opinion of Commissioner Christian Lim cited, as additional ground, that since COCOFED submitted only two nominees, then it failed to comply with Section 8 of Republic Act (RA) No. 7941that requires the party to submit to COMELEC a list of not less than five nominees.

On December 4, 2012, COCOFED submitted the names of Charles R. Avila, in substitution of Atty. Espina, as its second nominee and Efren V. Villaser as its third nominee.

COCOFED, among several others, questioned the COMELECs cancellation of its registration and accreditation before this Court, with a prayer for the issuance of preliminary injunction and/or temporary restraining order. By reason of the status quo ante order issued by the Court, COCOFEDs name was included in the printing of the official ballots for the May 13, 2013 elections.

On April 2, 2013, the Court rendered its Decision in Atong Paglaum, Inc., etc., et al. v. Commission on Elections. The Court remanded all the petitions to the COMELEC to determine their compliance with the new parameters and guidelines set by the Court in that case

On May 10, 2013, the COMELEC issued its assailed resolution, maintaining its earlier ruling cancelling COCOFEDs registration and accreditation for its failure to comply with the requirement of Section 8 of RA No. 7941, i.e., to submit a list of not less than five nominees.

The COMELEC noted that all existing party-list groups or organizations were on notice as early as February 8, 2012 (when Resolution No. 9359 was promulgated) that upon submission of their respective manifestations of intent to participate, they also needed to submit a list of five nominees.During the hearing on August 23, 2012, the COMELEC pointed out to COCOFED that it had only two nominees.

COCOFED moved for reconsideration only to withdraw its motion later. Instead, on May 20, 2013, COCOFED filed a Manifestation with Urgent Request to Admit Additional Nominees with the COMELEC, namely : (i) Felino M. Gutierrez and (ii) Rodolfo T. de Asis.

On May 24, 2013, the COMELEC issued a resolution declaring the cancellation of COCOFEDs accreditation final and executory.

ISSUE: Can COCOFED's registration can be cancelled?

HELD: A moot and academic case is one that ceases to present a justiciable controversy because of supervening events so that a declaration thereon would be of no practical use or value.

In the present case, while the COMELEC counted and tallied the votes in favor of COCOFED showing that it failed to obtain the required number of votes, participation in the 2013 elections was merely one of the reliefs COCOFED prayed for. The validity of the COMELECs resolution, canceling COCOFEDs registration, remains a very live issue that is not dependent on the outcome of the elections.

Under Section 4 of RA No. 7941, a party-list group already registered "need not register anew" for purposes of every subsequent election, but only needs to file a manifestation of intent to participate with the COMELEC. These two acts are different from each other.

Under Section 5 of RA No. 7941, an applicant for registration has to file with the COMELEC, not later than ninety (90) days before the election, a verified petition stating its desire to participate in the party-list system as a national, regional or sectoral party or organization or a coalition of such parties or organizations.

The applicant is required to submit its constitution, by-laws, platform or program of government, list of officers, coalition agreement and other relevant information as the COMELEC may require. Aside from these, the law requires the publication of the applicants petition in at least two (2) national newspapers of general circulation. The COMELEC then resolves the petition, determining whether the applicant has complied with all the necessary requirements.

Under this legal reality, the fact that COCOFED did not obtain sufficient number of votes in the elections does not affect the issue of the validity of the COMELECs registration. A finding that the COMELEC gravely abused its discretion in canceling COCOFEDs registration would entitle it, if it is so minded, to participate in subsequent elections without need of undergoing registration proceedings anew.

This brings us to the issue of whether the COMELEC indeed gravely abused its discretion in issuing the assailed resolution. We hold that it did not.

Failure to submit the list of five nominees before the election warrants the cancellation of its registration

The law expressly requires the submission of a list containing at least five qualified nominees. Section 8 of RA No. 7941 reads.

Section 8. Nomination of Party-List Representatives. Each registered party, organization or coalition shall submit to the COMELEC not later than forty-five (45) days before the election a list of names, not less than five (5), from which party-list representatives shall be chosen in case it obtains the required number of votes.

As early as February 8, 2012, the COMELEC had informed, through Resolution No. 9359,all registered parties who wished to participate in the May 2013 party-list elections that they "shall file with the COMELEC a Manifestation of Intent to participate in the part-list election together with its list of at least five (5) nominees, no later than May 31, 2012."

Under Section 6(5) of RA No. 7941, violation of or failure to comply with laws, rules or regulations relating to elections is a ground for the cancellation of registration. However, not every kind of violation automatically warrants the cancellation of a party-list groups registration. Since a reading of the entire Section 6 shows that all the grounds for cancellation actually pertain to the party itself, then the laws, rules and regulations violated to warrant cancellation under Section 6(5) must be one that is primarily imputable to the party itself and not one that is chiefly confined to an individual member or its nominee.

COCOFEDs failure to submit a list of five nominees, despite ample opportunity to do so before the elections, is a violation imputable to the party under Section 6(5) of RA No. 7941.

First, the language of Section 8 of RA No. 7941 does not only use the word "shall" in connection with the requirement of submitting a list of nominees; it uses this mandatory term in conjunction with the number of names to be submitted that is couched negatively, i.e., "not less than five." The use of these terms together is a plain indication of legislative intent to make the statutory requirement mandatory for the party to undertake.With the date and manner of submissionof the list having been determined by law a condition precedent for the registration of new party-list groups or for participation in the party-list elections in case of previously registered party-list groups,and was in fact reiterated by the COMELEC through its resolutions COCOFED cannot now claim good faith, much less dictate its own terms of compliance.

Pursuant to the terms of Section 8 of RA No. 7941, the Court cannot leave to the party the discretion to determine the number of nominees it would submit. A contrary view overlooks the fact that the requirement of submission of a list of five nominees is primarily a statutory requirement for the registration of party-list groups and the submission of this list is part of a registered partys continuing compliance with the law to maintain its registration. A party-list groups previous registration with the COMELEC confers no vested right to the maintenance of its registration. In order to maintain a party in a continuing compliance status, the party must prove not only its continued possession of the requisite qualifications but, equally, must show its compliance with the basic requirements of the law.

Second, while COCOFEDs failure to submit a complete list of nominees may not have been among the grounds cited by the COMELEC in earlier canceling its registration, this is not sufficient to support a finding of grave abuse of discretion. Apart from the clear letter of Section 8 of RA No. 7941 and the COMELEC resolutions issued more or less a year before the 2013 elections, COCOFEDs belated submission of a Manifestation with Urgent Request to Admit Additional Nominees several days after the elections betrays the emptiness of COCOFEDs formalistic plea for prior notice.

Section 6 of RA No. 7941 requires the COMELEC to afford "due notice and hearing" before refusing or cancelling the registration of a partylist group as a matter of procedural due process. The Court would have demanded an exacting compliance with this requirement if the registration or continuing compliance proceeding were strictly in the nature of a judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding.In several cases, however, the Court had already ruled that the registration of party-list groups involves the exercise of the COMELECs administrative power, particularly its power to enforce and administer all laws related to elections.

While COCOFED could have complied after the elections (as it in fact did), it should have, at the very least, submitted an explanation justifying its inability to comply prior to the elections. However, COCOFED simply chose to ignore the law; this, to us, is a plain disregard of the administrative requirement warranting the cancellation of its registration.

Third, the fact that a party-list group is entitled to no more than three seats in Congress, regardless of the number of votes it may garner,does not render Section 8 of RA No. 7941 permissive in nature.

On February 21, 2012, the COMELEC, through Resolution No. 9366,again apprised registered party-list groups that its Manifestation of Intent to Participate shall be accompanied by a list of at least five (5) nominees. Under Section 9, Rule 5 of this resolution, the Education and Information Department of the COMELEC shall cause the immediate publication of this list in two national newspapers of general circulation.

The publication of the list of nominees does not only serve as the reckoning period of certain remedies and procedures under the resolution. Most importantly, the required publication satisfies the peoples constitutional right to information on matters of public concern. The need for submission of the complete list required by law becomes all the more important in a party-list election to apprise the electorate of the individuals behind the party they are voting for. If only to give meaning to the right of the people to elect their representatives on the basis of an informed judgment, then the party-list group must submit a complete list of five nominees because the identity of these five nominees carries critical bearing on the electorates choice.A post-election completion of the list of nominees defeats this constitutional purpose.

Even if a party-list group can only have a maximum of three seats, the requirement of additional two nominees actually addresses the contingencies that may happen during the term of these party-list representatives. Section 16 of RA No. 7941 reads.

Section 16. Vacancy. In case of vacancy in the seats reserved for party-list representatives, the vacancy shall be automatically filled by the next representative from the list of nominees in the order submitted to the COMELEC by the same party, organization, or coalition, who shall serve for the unexpired term. If the list is exhausted, the party, organization coalition concerned shall submit additional nominees.

While the law allows the submission of additional nominees once the list is exhausted, the exhaustion of the list presupposes prior compliance with the requirement of Section 8 of RA No. 7941. Since the exhaustion of the list is an event that can rarely happen under this interpretation, then the law effectively upholds the peoples right to make informed electoral judgments. Again, it is a basic rule of statutory construction that the provisions of the law must not be read in isolation but as a whole, as the law must not be read in truncated parts; its provisions in relation to the whole law and every part thereof must be considered in fixing the meaning of any of its parts in order to produce a harmonious whole.

Moreover, after the submission of a list of nominees to the COMELEC, the party itself has no discretion to change the names or to alter the order of nomination in the list it submitted.While there are instances when a change of name or alteration of the order is allowed, these circumstances focus on the nominee himself, whether voluntary (the nominee withdraws in writing his nomination) or involuntary (the nominee dies or becomes incapacitated). To allow COCOFED to complete the list of its nominees beyond the deadline set by the law would allow the party itself to do indirectly what it cannot do directly.

Fourth, we cannot discern any valid reason why a party-list group cannot comply with the statutory requirement.The party-list system is a constitutional innovation that would expand opportunities for electoral participation to those who cannot hope to win in the legislative district elections, but who may generate votes nationwide equivalent to what a winner in the legislative district election would garner.In short, the party-list system operates on the theoretical assumption that a party-list group has national constituency whose interests, concerns, or ideologies call for representation in the House of Representatives. We quote with approval the COMELECs observation.

If the party cannot even come up with a complete list of five names out of a purported more than one million members, then it is highly doubtful that COCOFED will meet this expectation to contribute to the formulation and enactment of legislation that is beneficial for the nation as a whole; and if it cannot even name at least three more people who belongs to, or with sufficient advocacy for, the sector sought to be represented then as a sectoral party or organization, it has already forsaken what it seeks to represent.

Given this driving idea, a party is not allowed to simply refuse to submit a list containing "not less than five nominees" and consider the deficiency as a waiver on its part. Aside from colliding with the plain text of the law, this interpretation is not in harmony with the statutory policy of enhancing the party-list-groups chances to compete for and win seats in the legislature, and therefore does not serve as incentive to Filipino citizens belonging to these groups to contribute to the formulation and enactment of appropriate legislation.

Fifth, while under the 6th parameter in Atong Paglaum, the Court said that the disqualification of some of the nominees shall not result in the disqualification of the party-list group "provided that they have at least one nominee who remains qualified," the Court largely considered that

petitioners' nominees who do not belong to the sectors they represent may have been disqualified, although they may have a track record of advocacy for their sectors. Likewise, nominees of non-sectoral parties may have been disqualified because they do not belong to any sector. Moreover, a party may have been disqualified because one or more of its nominees failed to qualify, even if the party has at least one remaining qualified nominee. As discussed above, the disqualification of petitioners, and their nominees, under such circumstances is contrary to the 1987 Constitution and R.A. No. 7941.

In fact, almost all of the petitioners in A tong Paglaum were disqualified on the ground that the nominees failed to "qualify," as this word was interpreted by the COMELEC.In other words, the Court in no way authorized a party-list group's inexcusable failure, if not outright refusal, to comply with the clear letter of the law on the submission of at least five nominees.

SUMMARY: All these reasons negate a finding that the COMELEC gravely abused its discretion in cancelling COCOFED's registration.