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Due process of law in administrative proceedings

Dominador Awiten .

THE principle of due process of law is famously credited to Daniel Webster when he argued in the Dartmouth College v. Woodward case (1819) that it meant to be “the law that hears before it condemns; which proceeds upon inquiry, and renders judgment only after trial.” With the forceful argument of Webster, the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, ruled that a State may not impair, weaken, or cancel a valid contract without violating the contract clause of the US Federal Constitution, even if the contract in issue was entered into when the State was then a colony, or before there was even a United States or the US Constitution in existence.

There were a few elaboration of the concept, and a concise reiteration was made by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who said: “The power to tax is not the power to destroy, while this court sits.”

Characteristic of Holmes was his belief that due process of law espouses fairness and protects the people from unreasonable legislation.

However, prescinding from Holmes’ pithy understanding of due process, he was more wellegarded as a dissenter, and his dissent in the case of Abrams v. United States (1919) is considered the most charged ever:

“[W]hen men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe … that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes can safely be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of the Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.”

In our jurisprudence, due process of law  has acquired distinct manifestations in the various kinds of dispute resolution.  Administrative due process has become a separate species, distinguishable from the due process norm in the regular courts.

The momentous Supreme Court ruling in the case of Ang Tibay versus The Court of Industrial Relations (1940), penned by the illustrious Justice Jose P. Laurel, laid down what are now considered as the cardinal requirements for administrative due process, or what the Court held to be the primary rights of the parties in the administrative proceeding.  The cardinal requirements or primary rights of the parties have now been succinctly encapsulated to be the right of notice and the opportunity to be heard.  The decision in the administrative proceeding should be supported by substantial evidence, or that evidence which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion.

Due process in administrative proceedings is now embedded in the Constitutional provision that public office is a public trust and public officers are required to perform their duties with the utmost degree of responsibility, integrity, loyalty and efficiency.

A few cases may be worthy of mention to exemplify how the Supreme Court has exercised judicial review to uphold the accountability of a public officer, on the one hand, and to protect a person from a needless, nay, vexatious prosecution in another.

The rule is that an administrative offense does not prescribe, and the reason is that administrative discipline is not really for the punishment of the offender but to ensure good behavior in public office and preserve the people’s confidence and faith in the government.

In the case of Ombudsman v. Merceditas de Sahagun, (2008) the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and recognized the authority of the Ombudsman to impose an administrative penalty despite the provision of law that the Ombudsman may not conduct an investigation after one year of the occurrence of the act or omission complained of. The law, with the use of the word “may,” is construed as a grant of discretion on the Ombudsman.

In the case of Winston Garcia v. Molina and Velasco (2010), a formal charge without conducting the requisite preliminary investigation is held as void ab initio. It is abhorrent to the cardinal due process requirements of notice and hearing.

(Dominador C. Awiten has been in government service ever since.  He studied Law at Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan and was admitted to the Bar in 1992.)


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