While petitioner raises principally the issue of grave abuse of discretion on the part of the COMELEC for not declaring as null and void the challenged orders of the trial court, the more fundamental issue here, in our view, involves the COMELECís own jurisdiction. The Court cannot proceed further in this case without resolving that issue.

Note that from the trial court, petitioner proceeded directly to the COMELEC en banc. Apparently, he was proceeding pursuant to Section 49 of COMELEC Resolution No. 2824, which provides:

"xxx The Commission en banc in meritorious cases may entertain a petition for review of the decision of the MetC/MTC/MCTC in accordance with the Comelec Rules of Procedure. xxx"

But we find this rule not in accord but in conflict with Article IX-C, Section 3 of the Constitution, which states that:

"Sec. 3. The Commission on Elections may sit en banc or in two divisions, and shall promulgate its rules of procedure in order to expedite disposition of election cases, including pre-proclamation controversies. All [such [election [cases [shall [be [heard [and [decided [in [division, provided that motions for reconsideration of decisions shall be decided by the Commission en banc." (Emphasis supplied.)

In Sarmiento v. Commission on Elections,9 [212 SCRA 307, 313 (1992)] we ruled that the COMELEC, sitting en banc, does not have the requisite authority to hear and decide election cases in the first instance. This power pertains to the divisions of the Commission. Any decision by the Commission en banc as regards election cases decided by it in the first instance is null and void.

In the recent case of Zarate v. COMELEC,10 [G.R. No. 129096, promulgated on November 19, 1999, p. 8.] this rule has been reiterated. We nullified the decision of the COMELEC en banc in Zarate, which incidentally also concerns a 1996 SK election case appealed directly from the MTC. We remanded the case and ordered it assigned to an appropriate division of the COMELEC.

Thus, consistent with the rulings in Zarate and Sarmiento cases, we are now constrained to declare as null and void the questioned resolution of the COMELEC en banc in this case of Abad (SPR No. 45-96).

En Banc, Justice Quisumbing, ROLANDO ABAD, JR. petitioner, vs. COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS; HON. OCTAVIO A. FERNANDEZ, JR., Presiding Judge, Second Metropolitan Circuit Trial Court, General Natividad, Nueva Ecija; and SUSANITO SARENAS, JR., respondents [G.R. No. 128877. December 10, 1999]

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Election cases first heard by a Division of the Commision on Elections (COMELEC) - The appeal interposed by the private respondent to the Commission on Elections from the decision of the Trial Court of origin in subject election case, was not referred to a division of the Commission but was, instead submitted to the Commission En Banc, which decided against the petition. Such recourse by the private respondent transgressed Section 3, Subdivision C of Article IX of the Constitution. "xxx election cases include pre-proclamation controversies, and all such cases must first be heard  and decided by a Division of a Commission. The Commission sitting En Banc, does not have the authority to hear and decide the same at the first instance. In the COMELEC Rules of Procedure, pre-proclamation cases are classified as Special Cases and, in compliance with the (Sec. 3, Subdivision C, Art. IX of the) Constitution, the 2 Divisions of the Commission are vested with the authority to hear and decide these Special Cases.  Rule 27 thereof governs Special Cases; specifically, Section 9 of the said Rule provides that appeals from rulings of the Board of Canvassers are cognizable by any of the Divisions to which they are assigned and not by the commission en banc.

En Banc, Justice Purisima, Zarate v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 1290906, November 19, 1999.

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The question of whether the Commission may decide cases en banc without first referring them to any of its divisions has been consistently answered in the negative since Sarmiento vs. COMELEC.10 [212 SCRA 307. Reiterated in Ong vs. COMELEC, 216 SCRA 806; Ong vs. COMELEC, 221 SCRA 475; Reyes vs. Regional Trial Court of Oriental Mindoro, 244 SCRA 41; Borja vs. COMELEC, 260 SCRA 604; Ramirez vs. COMELEC, 270 SCRA 590; Garvida vs. COMELEC, 271 SCRA 767; Acosta vs. COMELEC, 293 SCRA 578.], which interpreted Section 3, Article IX(C) of the Constitution.11 [ [Section 3, Article IX(C) of the Constitution reads: "The Commission on Elections may sit en banc or in two divisions, and shall promulgate its rules of procedure in order to expedite disposition of election cases, including pre-proclamation controversies. All such election cases shall be heard and decided in division, provided that motions for reconsideration of decisions shall be decided by the Commission en banc."] as requiring all election cases to be first heard and decided by a division of the Commission, before being brought to the Commission en banc on reconsideration. Conformably, we hold that the Commission exceeded the bounds of its jurisdiction when it took cognizance of private respondent Restorís letter-petition at the first instance, thus rendering its May 11, 1998 Resolution void.

To the above rule, private respondents take exception by stating that the subject letter-petition posed issues which were administrative in character, and, thus, not subject to the requirement of referral to division which applies only in the Commissionís exercise of its adjudicatory or quasi-judicial functions.

In the concurring opinion of Justice Antonio in University of Nueva Caceres vs. Martinez, 56 SCRA 148, he noted that

(t)he term "administrative" connotes, or pertains, to "administration, especially management, as by managing or conducting, directing or superintending, the execution, application, or conduct of persons or things." It does not entail an opportunity to be heard, the production and weighing of evidence, and a decision or resolution thereon.

While a "quasi-judicial function" is

a term which applies to the action, discretion, etc., of public administrative officers or bodies, who are required to investigate facts, or ascertain the existence of facts, hold hearings, and draw conclusions from them, as a basis for their official action and to exercise discretion of a judicial nature..12 [Midland Insurance Corporation, 143 SCRA 458.]

Thus, in Vigan Electric Light Co., Inc. vs. Public Service Commission, 10 SCRA 46,.13 [Also cited in Philippine Consumers Foundation, Inc. vs. Education Secretary, 153 SCRA 622.] we held that where the fixing of power rates, which are to apply exclusively to a particular party, is based upon a report of the General Auditing Office, and which fact is denied by the affected party, the making of such finding of fact by respondent administrative agency is a function partaking of a quasi-judicial character.

A directive by the Commission to disallow petitionerís use of the nickname "JTV" for purposes of her candidacy, on the basis of Resolution No. 2977.14 [See note 4.], clearly necessitates a determination of whether petitioner is in fact not generally or popularly known as such in the locality of Occidental Mindoro. Indubitably, since it involved the application of law or rules to an ascertained set of facts, it called for the Commissionís exercise of its adjudicatory powers and falls within the concept of an "election contest" in the sense contemplated by Section 3, Article IX(C) of the Constitution.

We cannot agree with the view advanced by private respondents that because the petition below cannot be classified as a case falling under Rules 20 to 33 of the COMELEC Rules of Procedure.15 [These Rules refer to particular actions or proceedings, i.e., ordinary actions Ė election protest and quo warranto; special actions Ė petition to deny due course or cancel certificate of candidacy, proceedings against nuisance candidates, postponement or suspension of elections; special cases Ė pre-proclamation controversies; special reliefs Ė certiorari, prohibition or mandamus in aid of the Commissionís limited appellate jurisdiction over courts of general jurisdiction, contempt; provisional remedies Ė injunction; special proceedings Ė annulment of permanent list of voters, registration of political parties or organizations, which the Commission, sitting in Divisions, is required to hear and decide.], it is not a quasi-judicial matter and may thus be dealt with firsthand by the Commission en banc. Private respondent Restorís letter-petition clearly asks, not only for the invalidation of "JTV" as petitionerís authorized nickname, but also the nullification of all votes cast in that name..16 [Letter-Petition to COMELEC, Annex "G" of Petition.] We are hard put to treat the issue as administrative when petitioner stands to be so adversely affected by the relief asked for. That the petition below was in the form of a letter does not make the issues posed therein less substantial. As opined by the Office of the Solicitor General in its Manifestation in Lieu of Comment, "(t)o sustain the ruling of the COMELEC is to open venues for commission of fraud, as one simply needs to write a letter to the COMELEC asking that votes for a candidate be nullified on the ground that the nickname used is inappropriate or not valid."

The remaining issue pertains to the validity of votes cast in the name "JTV". In view of the fact that the election protest of private respondent Quintos is presently pending in the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal, we resolve to leave this matter to the resolution of the said body as the sole judge of all contests respecting the election, returns and qualifications of its members..17 [Sec. 17, Art. VI, Constitution.] Oldmiso

WHEREFORE, the petition is GRANTED and the COMELEC Resolutions dated May 11, 1998 and May 13, 1998, respectively, are hereby REVERSED and SET ASIDE. No pronouncement as to costs.

En Banc, Justice Gonzaga, MA. AMELITA C. VILLAROSA, petitioner, vs. COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS, and ATTY. DAN RESTOR, respondents.RICARDO QUINTOS, necessary respondent. [G.R. No. 133927. November 29, 1999]

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Last Updated: Monday, April 23, 2001 12:58:24 AM