Ombudsman's independence vs. other constitutional bodies

Under the 1987 Constitution, several constitutional bodies have been expressly labeled as “independent.”[1] The extent of the independence enjoyed by these constitutional bodies however varies and is to be interpreted with two significant considerations in mind: first, the functions performed or the powers involved in a given case; and second, consistency of any allowable interference to these powers and functions, with the principle of checks and balances.

Notably, the independence enjoyed by the Office of the Ombudsman and by the Constitutional Commissions shares certain characteristics – they do not owe their existence to any act of Congress, but are created by the Constitution itself; additionally, they all enjoy fiscal autonomy. In general terms, the framers of the Constitution intended that these “independent” bodies be insulated from political pressure to the extent that the absence of “independence” would result in the impairment of their core functions.

In Bengzon v. Drilon,[2] involving the fiscal autonomy of the Judiciary, it was ruled against the interference that the President may bring and maintained that the independence and the flexibility of the Judiciary, the Constitutional Commissions and the Office of the Ombudsman are crucial to our legal system.
The Judiciary, the Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman must have the independence and flexibility needed in the discharge of their constitutional duties. The imposition of restrictions and constraints on the manner the independent constitutional offices allocate and utilize the funds appropriated for their operations is anathema to fiscal autonomy and violative not only the express mandate of the Constitution but especially as regards the Supreme Court, of the independence and separation of powers upon which the entire fabric of our constitutional system is based.
The constitutional deliberations explain the Constitutional Commissions’ need for independence. In the deliberations of the 1973 Constitution, the delegates amended the 1935 Constitution by providing for a constitutionally-created Civil Service Commission, instead of one created by law, on the premise that the effectivity of this body is dependent on its freedom from the tentacles of politics.[3] In a similar manner, the deliberations of the 1987 Constitution on the Commission on Audit highlighted the developments in the past Constitutions geared towards insulating the Commission on Audit from political pressure.[4]

Notably, the 1987 Constitution also created an “independent” Commission on Human Rights, although it enjoys a lesser degree of independence since it is not granted fiscal autonomy in the manner fiscal autonomy is granted to the constitutional commissions. The lack of fiscal autonomy notwithstanding, the framers of the 1987 Constitution clearly expressed their desire to keep the Commission independent from the executive branch and other political leaders:
MR. MONSOD. We see the merits of the arguments of Commissioner Rodrigo. If we explain to him our concept, he can advise us on how to reconcile his position with ours. The position of the committee is that we need a body that would be able to work and cooperate with the executive because the Commissioner is right. Many of the services needed by this commission would need not only the cooperation of the executive branch of the government but also of the judicial branch of government. This is going to be a permanent constitutional commission over time. We also want a commission to function even under the worst circumstance when the executive may not be very cooperative. However, the question in our mind is: Can it still function during that time? Hence, we are willing to accept suggestions from Commissioner Rodrigo on how to reconcile this. We realize the need for coordination and cooperation. We also would like to build in some safeguards that it will not be rendered useless by an uncooperative executive.


MR. GARCIA. xxx Very often, when international commissions or organizations on human rights go to a country, the most credible organizations are independent human rights bodies. Very often these are private organizations, many of which are prosecuted, such as those we find in many countries in Latin America. In fact, what we are proposing is an independent body on human rights, which would provide governments with credibility precisely because it is independent of the present administration. Whatever it says on the human rights situation will be credible because it is not subject to pressure or control from the present political leadership.

Secondly, we all know how political fortunes come and go. Those who are in power yesterday are in opposition today and those who are in power today may be in the opposition tomorrow. Therefore, if we have a Commission on Human Rights that would investigate and make sure that the rights of each one is protected, then we shall have a body that could stand up to any power, to defend the rights of individuals against arrest, unfair trial, and so on.[5]

These deliberative considerations abundantly show that the independent constitutional commissions have been consistently intended by the framers to be independent from executive control or supervision or any form of political influence. At least insofar as these bodies are concerned, jurisprudence is not scarce on how the “independence” granted to these bodies prevents presidential interference.

In Brillantes, Jr. v. Yorac,[6] it was emphasized that the Constitutional Commissions, which have been characterized under the Constitution as “independent,” are not under the control of the President, even if they discharge functions that are executive in nature. The Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional the President’s act of temporarily appointing the respondent in that case as Acting Chairman of the COMELEC “however well-meaning”[7] it might have been.

In Bautista v. Senator Salonga,[8] the Supreme Court categorically stated that the tenure of the commissioners of the independent Commission on Human Rights could not be placed under the discretionary power of the President:

Indeed, the Court finds it extremely difficult to conceptualize how an office conceived and created by the Constitution to be independent – as the Commission on Human Rights – and vested with the delicate and vital functions of investigating violations of human rights, pinpointing responsibility and recommending sanctions as well as remedial measures therefor, can truly function with independence and effectiveness, when the tenure in office of its Chairman and Members is made dependent on the pleasure of the President. Executive Order No. 163-A, being antithetical to the constitutional mandate of independence for the Commission on Human Rights has to be declared unconstitutional.

Again, in Atty. Macalintal v. Comelec,[9] the High Court considered even the mere review of the rules of the Commission on Elections by Congress a “trampling” of the constitutional mandate of independence of this body. Obviously, the mere review of rules places considerably less pressure on a constitutional body than the Executive’s power to discipline and remove key officials of the Office of the Ombudsman, yet the Court struck down the law as unconstitutional.

The kind of independence enjoyed by the Office of the Ombudsman certainly cannot be inferior – but is similar in degree and kind – to the independence similarly guaranteed by the Constitution to the Constitutional Commissions since all these offices fill the political interstices of a republican democracy that are crucial to its existence and proper functioning.[10]

[1] Referring to the Constitutional Commissions (Commission on Elections, Commission on Audit, and the Civil Service Commission), the Commission on Human Rights, a central monetary authority, and, to a certain extent, the National Economic Development Authority.

[2] G.R. No. 103524 and A.M. No. 91-8-225-CA, April 15, 1992, 208 SCRA 133, 150; emphasis and underscore ours.

[3] Speech, Session of February 18, 1972, as cited in “The 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines: A Commentary” by Joaquin Bernas, 2003 ed., p. 1009.


[b] because we believe that the Civil Service created by law has not been able to eradicate the ills and evils envisioned by the framers of the 1935Constitution; because we believe that the Civil Service created by law is beholden to the creators of that law and is therefore not politics-free, not graft-free and not corruption-free; because we believe that as long as the law is the reflection of the will of the ruling class, the Civil Service that will be created and recreated by law will not serve the interest of the people but only the personal interest of the few and the enhancement of family power, advancement and prestige.

[4] Record of the Constitutional Commission, Vol. 1, July 15, 1986, pp. 532-533.

MR. JAMIR. xxx When the 1935 Constitution was enacted, the auditing office was constitutionalized because of the increasing necessity of empowering the auditing office to withstand political pressure. Finding a single Auditor to be quite insufficient to withstand political pressure, the 1973 Constitution established the Commission consisting of three members — a chairman and two commissioners.

[5] Records of the Constitutional Commission, Vol. 3, August 27, 1986, pp. 748-749; emphases ours.

[6] G.R. No. 93867, December 18, 1990, 192 SCRA 358.

[7] Id. at 361.

[8] 254 Phil. 156, 179 (1989); emphases and underscores supplied.

[9] 453 Phil. 586, 658-659 (2003).

[10] Accordingly, there is no point discussing, even for purposes of comparing and contrasting, the “independence” of the National Economic Development Authority and the central monetary authority, whose major concern is primarily the direction of the country’s economy, both in its micro and macro aspects.