CASE DIGEST: Umali v. Vergara

G.R. Nos. 203974 & 204371 : April 22, 2014

AURELIO M. UMALI, Petitioner, v. VERGARA AND THE CITY GOVERNMENT OF CABANATUAN,Respondents./J.V. BAUTISTA, Petitioner, v. COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS, Respondent.

VELASCO, JR., J.:


FACTS:

On July 11, 2011, the Sangguniang Panglungsod of Cabanatuan City passed Resolution No. 183-2011, requesting the President to declare the conversion of Cabanatuan City from a component city of the province of Nueva Ecija into a highly urbanized city (HUC). Acceding to the request, the President issued Presidential Proclamation No. 418, Series of 2012, proclaiming the City of Cabanatuan as an HUC subject to ratification in a plebiscite by the qualified voters therein, as provided for in Section 453 of the Local Government Code of 1991.

Respondent COMELEC, acting on the proclamation, issued the assailed Minute Resolution No. 12-0797 which reads: WHEREFORE, the Commission RESOLVED, as it hereby RESOLVES, that for purposes of the plebiscite for the conversion of Cabanatuan City from component city to highly-urbanized city, only those registered residents of Cabanatuan City should participate in the said plebiscite.

The COMELEC based this resolution on Sec. 453 of the Local Government Code of 1991 (LGC), citing conversion cases involving Puerto Princesa City in Palawan, Tacloban City in Southern Leyte, and Lapu-Lapu City in Cebu, where only the residents of the city proposed to be converted were allowed to vote in the corresponding plebiscite.

In due time, petitioner Aurelio M. Umali, Governor of Nueva Ecija, filed a Verified Motion for Reconsideration, maintaining that the proposed conversion in question will necessarily and directly affect the mother province of Nueva Ecija. His main argument is that Section 453 of the LGC should be interpreted in conjunction with Sec. 10, Art. X of the Constitution.

He argues that while the conversion in question does not involve the creation of a new or the dissolution of an existing city, the spirit of the Constitutional provision calls for the people of the local government unit (LGU) directly affected to vote in a plebiscite whenever there is a material change in their rights and responsibilities. The phrase qualified voters therein used in Sec. 453 of the LGC should then be interpreted to refer to the qualified voters of the units directly affected by the conversion and not just those in the component city proposed to be upgraded. Petitioner Umali justified his position by enumerating the various adverse effects of the Cabanatuan Citys conversion and how it will cause material change not only in the political and economic rights of the city and its residents but also of the province as a whole.

To the Verified Motion for Reconsideration, private respondent Julius Cesar Vergara, city mayor of Cabanatuan, interposed an opposition on the ground that Sec. 10, Art. X does not apply to conversions, which is the meat of the matter. He likewise argues that a specific provision of the LGC, Sec. 453, as couched, allows only the qualified voters of Cabanatuan City to vote in the plebiscite. Lastly, private respondent pointed out that when Santiago City was converted in 1994 from a municipality to an independent component city pursuant to Republic Act No. (RA) 7720, the plebiscite held was limited to the registered voters of the then municipality of Santiago.

The COMELEC En Banc on October 16, 2012, in E.M No. 12-045 (PLEB), by a vote of 5-24 ruled in favor of respondent Vergara. Hence, the Petition for Certiorari with prayer for injunctive relief, docketed as G.R. No. 203974, on substantially the same arguments earlier taken by petitioner Umali before the poll body.

Meanwhile, on October 25, 2012, respondent COMELEC promulgated Resolution No. 9543, which adopted a calendar of activities and periods of prohibited acts in connection with the conversion of Cabanatuan City into an HUC. The Resolution set the conduct of the plebiscite on December 1, 2012. Thereafter, a certain Dr. Rodolfo B. Punzalan filed a Petition for Declaratory Relief praying that Minute Resolution No. 12-0797 be declared unconstitutional, that the trial court decree that all qualified voters of the province of Nueva Ecija be included in the plebiscite, and that a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) be issued enjoining public respondent from implementing the questioned resolution.

On November 6, 2012, public respondent through Minute Resolution No. 12-0989 suspended the preparations for the event in view of the TRO issued by the RTC

After this development, petitioner J.V. Bautista, on December 3, 2012, filed a case before this Court for Mandamus, docketed as G.R. No. 204371, praying that public respondent be ordered to schedule the plebiscite either on December 15 or 22, 2012.

After the conclusion of the 2013 elections, public respondent issued Resolution No. 1353 scheduling the plebiscite to January 25, 2014. However, a TRO was issued by this Court on January 15, 2014 in G.R. No. 203974 to suspend the conduct of the plebiscite for Cabanatuan Citys conversion. Given the intertwining factual milieu of the two petitions before the Court, both cases were consolidated on March 18, 2014.

ISSUE: Whether the qualified registered voters of the entire province of Nueva Ecija or only those in Cabanatuan City can participate in the plebiscite called for the conversion of Cabanatuan City from a component city into an HUC.

HELD: The Petition for Certiorari is meritorious.

POLITICAL LAW: Sec. 453 of the Local Government Code and Sec. 10, Art. X of the Constitution

Sec. 453 of the LGC should be interpreted in accordance with Sec. 10, Art. X of the Constitution

Petitioner Umali asseverates that Sec. 10, Art. X of the Constitution should be the basis for determining the qualified voters who will participate in the plebiscite to resolve the issue. Sec. 10, Art. X reads:

Section 10, Article X. No province, city, municipality, or barangay may be created, divided, merged, abolished, or its boundary substantially altered, except in accordance with the criteria established in the local government code and subject to approval by a majority of the votes cast in a plebiscite in the political units directly affected.

Petitioner Umali elucidates that the phrase political units directly affected necessarily encompasses not only Cabanatuan City but the entire province of Nueva Ecija. Hence, all the registered voters in the province are qualified to cast their votes in resolving the proposed conversion of Cabanatuan City.

On the other hand, respondents invoke Sec. 453 of the LGC to support their claim that only the City of Cabanatuan should be allowed to take part in the voting. Sec. 453 states:

Section 453. Duty to Declare Highly Urbanized Status. It shall be the duty of the President to declare a city as highly urbanized within thirty (30) days after it shall have met the minimum requirements prescribed in the immediately preceding Section, upon proper application therefor and ratification in a plebiscite by the qualified voters therein.

Respondents take the phrase registered voters therein in Sec. 453 as referring only to the registered voters in the city being converted, excluding in the process the voters in the remaining towns and cities of Nueva Ecija.

Before proceeding to unravel the seeming conflict between the two provisions, it is but proper that we ascertain first the relationship between Sec. 10, Art. X of the Constitution and Sec. 453 of the LGC.

First of all, we have to restate the general principle that legislative power cannot be delegated. Nonetheless, the general rule barring delegation is subject to certain exceptions allowed in the Constitution, namely:

(1) Delegation by Congress to the President of the power to fix tariff rates, import and export quotas, tonnage and wharfage dues, and other duties or imposts within the framework of the national development program of the Government under Section 28(2) of Article VI of the Constitution; and

(2) Delegation of emergency powers by Congress to the President to exercise powers necessary and proper to carry out a declared national policy in times of war and other national emergency under Section 23(2) of Article VI of the Constitution.


The power to create, divide, merge, abolish or substantially alter boundaries of provinces, cities, municipalities or barangays, which is pertinent in the case at bar, is essentially legislative in nature. The framers of the Constitution have, however, allowed for the delegation of such power in Sec. 10, Art. X of the Constitution as long as (1) the criteria prescribed in the LGC is met and (2) the creation, division, merger, abolition or the substantial alteration of the boundaries is subject to the approval by a majority vote in a plebiscite.

True enough, Congress delegated such power to the Sangguniang Panlalawigan or Sangguniang Panlungsod to create barangays pursuant to Sec. 6 of the LGC, which provides:

Section 6. Authority to Create Local Government Units. - A local government unit may be created, divided, merged, abolished, or its boundaries substantially altered either by law enacted by Congress in the case of a province, city, municipality, or any other political subdivision, or by ordinance passed by the sangguniang panlalawigan or sangguniang panlungsod concerned in the case of a barangay located within its territorial jurisdiction, subject to such limitations and requirements prescribed in this Code.

The guidelines for the exercise of this authority have sufficiently been outlined by the various LGC provisions detailing the requirements for the creation of barangays, municipalities, cities, and provinces. Moreover, compliance with the plebiscite requirement under the Constitution has also been directed by the LGC under its Sec. 10, which reads:

Section 10. Plebiscite Requirement. No creation, division, merger, abolition, or substantial alteration of boundaries of local government units shall take effect unless approved by a majority of the votes cast in a plebiscite called for the purpose in the political unit or units directly affected.

With the twin criteria of standard and plebiscite satisfied, the delegation to LGUs of the power to create, divide, merge, abolish or substantially alter boundaries has become a recognized exception to the doctrine of non-delegation of legislative powers.

Likewise, legislative power was delegated to the President under Sec. 453 of the LGC quoted earlier, which states:

Section 453. Duty to Declare Highly Urbanized Status. It shall be the duty of the President to declare a city as highly urbanized within thirty (30) days after it shall have met the minimum requirements prescribed in the immediately preceding Section, upon proper application therefor and ratification in a plebiscite by the qualified voters therein.

In this case, the provision merely authorized the President to make a determination on whether or not the requirements under Sec. 45210 of the LGC are complied with. The provision makes it ministerial for the President, upon proper application, to declare a component city as highly urbanized once the minimum requirements, which are based on certifiable and measurable indices under Sec. 452, are satisfied. The mandatory language shall used in the provision leaves the President with no room for discretion.

In so doing, Sec. 453, in effect, automatically calls for the conduct of a plebiscite for purposes of conversions once the requirements are met. No further legislation is necessary before the city proposed to be converted becomes eligible to become an HUC through ratification, as the basis for the delegation of the legislative authority is the very LGC.

In view of the foregoing considerations, the Court concludes that the source of the delegation of power to the LGUs under Sec. 6 of the LGC and to the President under Sec. 453 of the same code is none other than Sec. 10, Art. X of the Constitution.

In light of the foregoing disquisitions, the Court rules that conversion to an HUC is substantial alternation of boundaries governed by Sec. 10, Art. X and resultantly, said provision applies, governs and prevails over Sec. 453 of the LGC.

STATUTORY CONSTRUCTION: a particular provision should be interpreted with other relevant provisions in the law

Moreover, the rules of statutory construction dictate that a particular provision should be interpreted with the other relevant provisions in the law The Court finds that it is actually Sec. 10 of the LGC which is undeniably the applicable provision on the conduct of plebiscites. The title of the provision itself, Plebiscite Requirement, makes this obvious. It requires a majority of the votes cast in a plebiscite called for the purpose in the political unit or units directly affected. On the other hand, Sec. 453 of the LGC, entitled Duty to Declare Highly Urbanized Status, is only on the duty to declare a city as highly urbanized. It mandates the Office of the President to make the declaration after the city has met the requirements under Sec. 452, and upon proper application and ratification in a plebiscite.

The conduct of a plebiscite is then a requirement before a declaration can be made. Thus, the Court finds that Sec. 10 of the LGC prevails over Sec. 453 of the LGC on the plebiscite requirement.

POLITICAL LAW: hornbook doctrine

Hornbook doctrine is that neither the legislative, the executive, nor the judiciary has the power to act beyond the Constitutions mandate. The Constitution is supreme; any exercise of power beyond what is circumscribed by the Constitution is ultra vires and a nullity. As elucidated by former Chief Justice Enrique Fernando in Fernandez v. Cuerva:

Where the assailed legislative or executive act is found by the judiciary to be contrary to the Constitution, it is null and void. As the new Civil Code puts it: When the courts declare a law to be inconsistent with the Constitution, the former shall be void and the latter shall govern.

Administrative or executive acts, orders and regulations shall be valid only when they are not contrary to the laws or the Constitution. The above provision of the civil Code reflects the orthodox view that an unconstitutional act, whether legislative or executive, is not a law, confers no rights, imposes no duties, and affords no protection.

Applying this orthodox view, a law should be construed in harmony with and not in violation of the Constitution. In a long line of cases, the cardinal principle of construction established is that a statute should be interpreted to assure its being in consonance with, rather than repugnant to, any constitutional command or prescription. If there is doubt or uncertainty as to the meaning of the legislative, if the words or provisions are obscure or if the enactment is fairly susceptible of two or more constitution, that interpretation which will avoid the effect of unconstitutionality will be adopted, even though it may be necessary, for this purpose, to disregard the more usual or apparent import of the language used.

POLITICAL LAW: plebiscite

Pursuant to established jurisprudence, the phrase by the qualified voters therein in Sec. 453 should be construed in a manner that will avoid conflict with the Constitution. If one takes the plain meaning of the phrase in relation to the declaration by the President that a city is an HUC, then, Sec. 453 of the LGC will clash with the explicit provision under Sec. 10, Art. X that the voters in the political units directly affected shall participate in the plebiscite. Such construction should be avoided in view of the supremacy of the Constitution. Thus, the Court treats the phrase by the qualified voters therein in Sec. 453 to mean the qualified voters not only in the city proposed to be converted to an HUC but also the voters of the political units directly affected by such conversion in order to harmonize Sec. 453 with Sec. 10, Art. X of the Constitution.

The Court finds that respondents are mistaken in construing Sec. 453 in a vacuum. Their interpretation of Sec. 453 of the LGC runs afoul of Sec. 10, Art. X of the Constitution which explicitly requires that all residents in the political units directly affected should be made to vote.

A component citys conversion into an HUC and its resultant autonomy from the province is a threat to the latters economic viability. Noteworthy is that the income criterion for a component city to be converted into an HUC is higher than the income requirement for the creation of a province. The ensuing reduction in income upon separation would clearly leave a crippling effect on the provinces operations as there would be less funding to finance infrastructure projects and to defray overhead costs. Moreover, the quality of services being offered by the province may suffer because of looming austerity measures. These are but a few of the social costs of the decline in the provinces economic performance, which Nueva Ecija is bound to experience once its most progressive city of Cabanatuan attains independence.

In cutting the umbilical cord between Cabanatuan City and the province of Nueva Ecija, the city will be separated from the territorial jurisdiction of the province, as earlier explained. The provincial government will no longer be responsible for delivering basic services for the city residents benefit. Ordinances and resolutions passed by the provincial council will no longer cover the city. Projects queued by the provincial government to be executed in the city will also be suspended if not scrapped to prevent the LGU from performing functions outside the bounds of its territorial jurisdiction, and from expending its limited resources for ventures that do not cater to its constituents.

In view of these changes in the economic and political rights of the province of Nueva Ecija and its residents, the entire province certainly stands to be directly affected by the conversion of Cabanatuan City into an HUC. Following the doctrines in Tan and Padilla, all the qualified registered voters of Nueva Ecija should then be allowed to participate in the plebiscite called for that purpose.

Respondents apprehension that requiring the entire province to participate in the plebiscite will set a dangerous precedent leading to the failure of cities to convert is unfounded. Their fear that provinces will always be expected to oppose the conversion in order to retain the citys dependence is speculative at best. In any event, any vote of disapproval cast by those directly affected by the conversion is a valid exercise of their right to suffrage, and our democratic processes are designed to uphold the decision of the majority, regardless of the motive behind the vote. It is unfathomable how the province can be deprived of the opportunity to exercise the right of suffrage in a matter that is potentially deleterious to its economic viability and could diminish the rights of its constituents. To limit the plebiscite to only the voters of the areas to be partitioned and seceded from the province is as absurd and illogical as allowing only the secessionists to vote for the secession that they demanded against the wishes of the majority and to nullify the basic principle of majority rule.

WHEREFORE, premises considered, the Petition for Certiorari, docketed as G.R. No. 203974, is hereby GRANTED. COMELEC is hereby ordered to conduct a plebiscite for the purpose of converting Cabanatuan City into a Highly Urbanized City to be participated in by the qualified registered voters of Nueva Ecija within 120 days from the finality of this Decision.

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