[G.R. NO. 166639 : April 24, 2007]
ROGELIO P. JUAN Petitioner, v. COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS and SALVADOR C. DEL MUNDO, Respondents.
D E C I S I O N
This is a Petition for Certiorari and prohibition1 seeking the reversal of the Commission on Elections ("COMELEC") En Banc Resolution dated January 25, 2005, affirming with modification the ruling of the COMELEC Second Division2 ("Second Division") in an election protest involving the office of the Punong Barangay of Barangay Talipapa, Novaliches, Quezon City. The Second Division reversed the Decision dated May 15, 2003 of Branch 38 of the Metropolitan Trial Court of Quezon City.3
Petitioner Rogelio P. Juan and respondent Salvador C. Del Mundo were both candidates for the position of Punong Barangay of Barangay Talipapa, Novaliches, Quezon City, in the July 15, 2002 synchronized barangay and sangguniang kabataan elections. Petitioner was proclaimed the winner by a margin of 1,083 votes.4 Claiming massive electoral fraud and dissatisfied with the results, respondent filed an election protest before the trial court.5 Respondent sought the recount of ballots in all of the seventy-two (72) precincts of Barangay Talipapa.
In his Answer, petitioner denied respondent's claim, contending that the election was clean and credible and that the respondent did not object to the tabulation made by the Board of Election Tellers (BET). Correlatively, petitioner filed a counter-protest.
The trial court scheduled the recounting of ballots. In the course thereof, on October 16, 2002, petitioner moved to stop the recount because before they were opened, some ballots boxes had broken and/or unlocked plastic seals. Petitioner claimed that the integrity of the ballots contained therein had been compromised and the recount would not faithfully reflect the true will of the people. After requiring the parties to submit their respective memoranda, the trial court denied the said motion since it was premature to conclude that fraudulent acts were indeed committed. The trial court proceeded with the recount.
The Ruling of the Trial Court
On May 15, 2003, the trial court dismissed the election protest filed by respondent and proclaimed petitioner the duly elected Punong Barangay of Barangay Talipapa, Novaliches, Quezon City. The trial court held that petitioner won the election by garnering 3,102 votes over respondent's 2,576 votes, or a winning margin of 526 votes. The trial court noted that both parties made claims and objections as to the ballots. However, they failed to formally offer the said contested ballots in evidence.6
Respondent appealed to the COMELEC. The appeal, docketed as EAC No. 116-2003, was raffled to the Second Division.
The Ruling of the COMELEC
In its Resolution dated January 30, 2004, the Second Division granted respondent's appeal, reversed the trial court's Decision, declared respondent as the duly elected Punong Barangay of Barangay, Talipapa, and ordered petitioner to peacefully vacate the contested office.7 The Second Division found respondent to have won the election by 1,241 votes.8 The Second Division made the following findings:
For respondent Salvador Del Mundo:
Total Number of Votes As Per Physical Count Add: Valid Claimed Ballots 20 Less: Marked Ballots 16 TOTAL VALID VOTES 2,580
For petitioner Rogelio Juan:
Total Number of Votes As Per Physical Count 3,102 Add: Valid Claimed Ballots 32 Less: Ballots Found To be
Written by One Person (WBOP)
1,261 Less: Ballots Found To be
Written byTwo Persons (WBTP)
6 Less: Marked Ballots 528 TOTAL VALID VOTES 1,339
Petitioner moved to reconsider. However, in a Resolution dated January 25, 2005, the COMELEC En Banc, denied the petitioner's motion, annulled his proclamation and affirmed the Second Division's ruling with modification as to the number of votes obtained, holding that respondent won over the petitioner by fifty-six (56) votes.9 Thus:
FOR SALVADOR C. DEL MUNDO
Number of Votes per Physical Count 2,576 Less: Invalid Votes - 16 2,560 Add: Valid Claims + 20 Add: Result from Precinct 2858-A 36 TOTAL 2,616
FOR ROGELIO P. JUAN
Number of Votes per Physical Count 3,102 Less: Valid Votes - 607 2,495 Add: Valid Claims + 32 Add: Result from Precinct 2858-A 33 TOTAL 2,560
Hence, this petition based on the following grounds:
THE COMELEC GRAVELY ABUSED ITS DISCRETION WHEN IT INVALIDATED THE BALLOTS OF JUAN ON THE GROUND THAT THEY WERE "MARKED BALLOTS" DESPITE UNCONTROVERTED EVIDENCE THAT THE "MARKINGS" FOUND ON THESE BALLOTS WERE THE RESULTS OF POST ELECTION OPERATION IN THIRTY - SEVEN (37) REVERSAL PRECINCTS10 WHEREIN THE BALLOT BOXES AND THE CONTENTS THEREOF WERE TAMPERED WITH THE CLEAR INTENTION OF INVALIDATING THE SAID BALLOTS OF JUAN.
IT WAS GRAVE ABUSE OF DISCRETION FOR THE COMELEC TO INVALIDATE THE BALLOTS OF JUAN ON THE GROUND THAT SUCH BALLOTS WERE WRITTEN IN PAIRS BY ONE OR TWO PERSONS WHEN ON THEIR FACES THEY WEE CLEARLY WRITTEN BY DIFFERENT PERSONS, EXCEPT FOR THOSE FAKE BALLOTS INTRODUCED DURING THE POST ELECTION OPERATION THAT TAMPRED THE BALLOT VOXES AND THE CONTENTS OF THE AFORESAID THIRTY SEVEN (37) REVERSAL PRECINCTS.11
Petitioner contends that the testimonies of 107 public school teachers as chairpersons and members of the BET attest that: (1) they observed no markings in the contested ballots or that the same were prepared by one or two persons, and that there were no irregularities in the appreciation thereof in the precinct level;12 (2) the contested ballots were results of post-election operations intented to invalidate the petitioner's votes as evidenced by the condition of the ballot boxes in the reversal precincts showing that the same were violated;13 and, (3) as such, the ballots can no longer be relied upon, hence, the uncontested election returns should be the basis in determining the election results.14
On the other hand, respondent contends that: (1) the instant petition has no basis since the appreciation of contested ballots involves a question of fact best left to the determination of the COMELEC; (2) the petitioner's allegation of post-election operations is not supported by evidence and partake of a factual determination; and, (3) the best evidence in determining the results are the ballots, in the absence of any evidence that the ballots were indeed tampered or substituted.15
Moreover, the COMELEC through the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) claims that the petitioner failed to prove his allegation of post-election operations and that the testimonies of the said BET chairpersons and members do not establish the commission of the same. Thus, the OSG submits that the COMELEC did not commit grave abuse of discretion in issuing the assailed resolutions.16
On February 1, 2005, this Court issued a Resolution requiring the parties to observe the status quo prevailing before the issuance of the COMELEC's assailed resolutions.17
The Court's Ruling
The petition is bereft of merit.
A ballot indicates the voter's will. There is no requirement that the entries in the ballot be written nicely or that the name of the candidate be spelled accurately. In the reading and appreciation of ballots, every ballot is presumed valid unless there is a clear reason to justify its rejection. The object in the appreciation of ballots is to ascertain and carry into effect the intention of the voter, if it can be determined with reasonable certainty.18 When placed in issue, as in this case, the appreciation of contested ballots and election documents which involves a question of fact, is best left to the determination of the COMELEC.Ï‚Î·Î±Ã±rÎ¿blÎµÅ¡ Î½Î¹râ€ Ï…Î±l lÎ±Ï‰ lÎ¹brÎ±rÃ¿
As to the allegations that the "markings" on the ballots cast for the petitioner were the result of post-election operations in the 37 reversal precincts, this Court abides by the COMELEC findings that the said allegations were not supported by evidence.
The petitioner argues that the testimonies of the 107 public school teachers of the BET attest that they observed no markings in the contested ballots or that the same were prepared by one or two persons, and that there were no irregularities in the appreciation thereof in the precinct level. However, this Court observed that the representative sample of the said testimonies, i.e. the Sinumpaang Salaysay of Myrna R. Jaucian dated February 4, 2004,19 would show that the same is an affidavit in prepared form, with the affiant only writing her name, precinct number, and affixing her signature thereon. This only implies that the testimonies of the said 107 teachers of the BET consisted only of the very same prepared Sinumpaang Salaysay with only the affiants affixing their own signatures. Further, as correctly observed by the COMELEC En Banc, the markings on the ballots were so subtly made that they would have escaped the scrutiny of the teachers serving as BET, and that only upon close comparison with the other ballots did the flaws became discernible. In this light, the testimonies of these 107 teachers of the BET do not sufficiently establish the petitioner's claim of post-election operations on the questioned ballots.
In addition, the Court agrees with the observation of the COMELEC En Banc that even the trial court did not consider as meritorious the petitioner's protestations about the condition and integrity of the ballot boxes. The ballots found inside the 37 precincts questioned by the petitioner as tampered were considered as valid votes and counted accordingly. The intrinsic validity of the ballots had already been ruled upon by the Second Division when it declared the same, upon visual examination thereof, as genuine and authentic. Morever, this finding of the Second Division has been upheld by the COMELEC En Banc.
This Court is not a trier of facts.20 The Court's jurisdiction to review decisions and orders of the COMELEC on this matter operates only upon a showing of grave abuse of discretion on the part of the COMELEC. Verily, only where grave abuse of discretion is clearly shown shall the Court interfere with the COMELEC's judgment.21
Grave abuse of discretion arises when a lower court or tribunal violates the Constitution, the law or existing jurisprudence. It means such capricious and whimsical exercise of judgment as would amount to lack of jurisdiction; it contemplates a situation where the power is exercised in an arbitrary or despotic manner by reason of passion or personal hostility, so patent and gross as to amount to an evasion of positive duty or a virtual refusal to perform the duty enjoined by law.22 The office of a petition for certiorari is not to correct simple errors of judgment;23 any resort to the said petition under Rule 64 in relation to Rule 65 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure is limited to the resolution of jurisdictional issues.24 Thus, it is imperative for the petitioner to show caprice and arbitrariness on the part of the COMELEC whose exercise of discretion is being assailed.
Proof of such grave abuse of discretion is found wanting in this case.Ï‚Î·Î±Ã±rÎ¿blÎµÅ¡ Î½Î¹râ€ Ï…Î±l lÎ±Ï‰ lÎ¹brÎ±rÃ¿
The COMELEC'S conclusion on a matter decided within its competence is entitled to utmost respect. It is not sufficient to allege that the COMELEC gravely abused its discretion. Such allegation should also be justified.25 In this case, petitioner failed to justify his assertion of grave abuse of discretion against the COMELEC. In the same token, petitioner failed to support his allegation with evidence that post-election operations were devised in order to invalidate his votes. Moreover, the COMELEC's proceedings were conducted in accordance with the prevailing laws and regulations.
To recall, the trial court itself manifested that both parties failed to formally offer the contested ballots in evidence. The Second Division did not merely rely on the ruling of the trial court. Instead, it conducted a reappreciation of the contested ballots. Furthermore, the COMELEC En Banc made an independent, judicious and careful scrutiny of the contested ballots. It reviewed and passed upon the validity or invalidity of the same. It is unfortunate for the petitioner that the COMELEC En Banc's modified tally did not change the results of the elections.
Time and again, this Court held:
"Findings of facts of administrative bodies charged with their specific field of expertise, are afforded great weight by the courts, and in the absence of substantial showing that such findings are made from an erroneous estimation of the evidence presented, they are conclusive, and in the interest of stability of the governmental structure, should not be disturbed. The COMELEC, as an administrative agency and a specialized constitutional body charged with the enforcement and administration of all laws and regulations relative to the conduct of an election, plebiscite, initiative, referendum, and recall, has more than enough expertise in its field that its findings or conclusions are generally respected and even given finality. We do not find the instant case an exception to this avowed rule."26
WHEREFORE, the instant petition is DISMISSED for lack of merit. The COMELEC En Banc Resolution dated January 25, 2005 is hereby AFFIRMED. Accordingly, this Court's Resolution requiring the parties to observe the status quo dated February 1, 2005 is hereby lifted. No costs.
1 Under Rule 64 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure, Rollo, pp. 4-33.
2 Resolution dated January 30, 2004, Rollo, pp. 34-68.
3 Rollo, pp. 123-135.
4 Petitioner obtained 3,531 votes over respondent's 2,448.
5 Docketed as Election Protest No. 38-783.
6 The trial court held:
Consequently, the Court did not bother anymore to resolve the claims and objections made by the parties during the recounting/revision proceedings.
x x x
Since evidence in this point or aspect is wanting, the court has no other recourse but to uphold the basic rule in evidence that: "Official duty has been regularly performed (Rule 131, Sec. 3 [m], Revised Rules of Court); Decision dated May 15, 2003 (Election Protest No. 28-783), Rollo, pp. 134-135
7 Rollo, pp. 34-68.
8 The Second Division held that respondent garnered 2,580 votes over petitioner's 1,339 votes.
9 Rollo, pp. 90-119.
10 Petitioner specified the 37 Reversal Precincts as follows: Precinct Nos. 2904-A; 2891-A; 2882-A; 2893-A; 2881-A; 2895-A; 2837-A; 2835-A; 2899-A; 2871-A; 2897-A; 2841-A/2878-A; 2844-A; 2900-A; 2892-A; 2889-A; 2876-A; 2898-A; 2866-A; 2879-A; 2870-A; 2872-A; 2873-A; 2850-A; 2877-A; 2858-A; 2853-A; 2855-A; 2838-A; 2896-A; 2867-A; 2902-A; 2887-A/2906-A; 2905-A; 2903-A; 2874-A; and 2890-A, instant Petition, Rollo, p. 12.
11 Ibid., Rollo, pp. 16-17.
12 A representative sample of the said testimonies is herein denominated as Sinumpaang Salaysay of one Myrna R. Jaucian, dated February 4, 2004, Rollo, p. 89.
13 Petitioner manifested that said ballot boxes have shattered glass windows; broken inner or outer plastic seals; unlocked outer or inner plastic seals; no outer plastic seals; physical count of ballots not tallying with the results reflected in election returns; padlock forced open; keys of ballot boxes opened or missing, instant Petition, Rollo, p - . 17-18.
14 Petitioner's Memorandum dated February 23, 2006.
15 Respondent's Memorandum dated February 1, 2006.
16 OSG's Memorandum dated February 27, 2006.
17 Rollo, p. 185.
18 Dojillo v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 166542, July 25, 2006, 496 SCRA 484, 497.
19 Footnote 12, supra.
20 Henry P. Lanot, substituted by Mario S. Raymundo v. Commission on Elections and Vicente P. Eusebio, G.R. No. 164858, November 16, 2006.
21 Jaime T. Torres v. House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal and Ninfa Garin, G.R. No. 144491, February 6, 2001, 351 SCRA 312, 326.
22 Danilo "Dan" Fernandez v. COMELEC, G.R. No. 171821, October 9, 2006.
23 Pedragoza v. COMELEC, G.R. No. 169885, July 25, 2006, 496 SCRA 513, 524 citing Navarosa v. COMELEC, G.R. No. 157957, September 18, 2003, 411 SCRA 369, 386.
24 Ocate v. COMELEC, G.R. No. 170522, November 20, 2006.
26 Footnote 21.