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Calida’s quo warranto

February 12, 2020 - Wednesday 4:02 AM by Atty. Jamil Matalam

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The Solicitor General’s latest suit was a surprise, at least to me. In law school, we understood quo warranto petitions as a special civil action aimed to challenge the holding of a public office sans authority or legal right. It was meant to oust a usurper of a public office. So when the news reached me that SG Calida filed a quo warranto action regarding  ABS-CBN’s franchise, I was really surprised. One of my first reactions was to reach out for the Rules of Court, and look at the rule on quo warranto cases. Under the rules, quo warranto actions do involve not only public offices but also franchises.

In Rule 66, to be precise, the Solicitor General can file a quo warranto actions against someone in relation to a franchise. There are three situations where a quo warranto action is applicable. First, it involves a person usurping, intruding, or unlawfully holding or exercising a public office, position, or franchise. Second, it involves public officers doing or suffering an act which constitutes a legal ground for the forfeiture of their office. The third is about associations acting as corporations but not legally incorporated or lawfully authorized to do so. The second situation is most obviously not the situation contemplated by the Calida suit. It cannot be the third as well, because the suit does not question the incorporation of  ABS-CBN. By elimination, the Calida suit contemplates the first situation. It is about ABS-CBN unlawfully exercising a franchise.

I have not read the quo warranto petition, but from what I gathered, I suppose the action accuses  ABS-CBN of unlawfully exercising its franchise. The accusations include the following acts: allowing foreigners to partly own the  ABS-CBN corporations; the doing of corporate layering schemes to transfer its franchise; the launching of broadcast offerings, like the KBO, without permits; and others. It seeks to ask for a court action, a revocation of franchise perhaps, because the franchise grantee has illegally exercised the privileges and rights conferred to it. The legal action filed by the Solicitor General, therefore, cannot be other than a quo warranto action. It is the exact remedy provided by the Rules of Court.

It is also wrong to say that the Supreme Court is not the proper venue for the Calida legal suit. Rule 66 is clear about this. The rule says that the action “can be brought only in the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, or in the Regional Trial Court…” The Solicitor General, based on the same rule, has the privilege of having the option of filing the action in the Regional Trial Court in the City of Manila. That is, the territorial jurisdiction of the Regional Trial Courts will not be given a particular emphasis as usual if the quo warranto is commenced by the Solicitor General. The Supreme Court, although there are possible other venues to try the case, is never an improper venue for a quo warranto action, especially so if the action is commenced by the Solicitor General. Moreover, the Supreme Court hearing the case will mean it will be quick. If the Supreme Court hears it at the first instance, then the decision or resolution of the quo warranto action need not undergo several appeals before it will be ultimately decided. The Supreme Court is the better venue because it is not a wrong venue, and it will be a faster resolution.

I also think that the quo warranto action is not about the curtailment of the freedom of the press or expression. It is about a business entity allegedly abusing its franchise. Framing the quo warranto action as an issue about freedom is misleading. A business entity engaged in broadcasting the news cannot use the freedom of the press for illegally exercising its franchise. They are not being asked to stop broadcasting by the filing of the quo warranto; they still are allowed to broadcast. All that is to be done is to present or show that no abuse or illegal exercise of the franchise has been done.

Yet the question regarding the timeliness of the filing of the action still lingers. Why file it now when the franchise of  ABS-CBN is about to expire in less than two months and a possibly new one will be granted? It might just be another moot and academic issue, something that will just be dismissed. Some say that a finding by the Supreme Court that  ABS-CBN illegally exercised its franchise will not affect its future operation if a new franchise is issued in its favor. The idea is that the quo warranto only applies to the previous franchise and not to the new one. If this is the case then  ABS-CBN should worry less about Calida’s suit and focus instead on getting a new franchise. It will also mean that the Solicitor General lacks foresight. I think, however, that these are not the case, and perhaps there is more to it than in the news.