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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Board of Governors of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines is tough to move or act collegially on controversial issues; but now, lo and behold, it's protesting the convoluted view that the SC has taken on Grace Poe’s eligibility to run for president. The SC decision on the core issues of citizenship and residency vs. Poe lacks a clear majority, leaving them unresolved in the minds of both lawyers and ordinary mortals, who now clamor for a re-vote by the SC. Latest to join in the demand is Comelec's lawyer, Commissioner Arthur Lim.








Some justices of the Supreme Court must have expected that the indeterminate and highly controversial manner whereby the Court voted last March 8 to throw out Comelec’s disqualification of presidential candidate Grace Poe would be out-shadowed by her popularity as alleged by various surveys.  It turned out to be a grievous miscalculation of judgment by the SC, as gauged by the way opinion-makers from various publications and institutions are coming out strongly in protest of the way the SC handled the voting on the two core issues of citizenship and residency vs. Poe. The Comelec, whose Commissioner Arthur Lim defended its DQ of Poe, has filed a motion for reconsideration of the SC's "majority decision," following the example of the four private respondents for Poe's DQ. 

The latest to protest the SC "majority decision" is the nine-member Board of Governors of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines---the umbrella organization of over 50,000 lawyers from all over the country, . There is now a clamor for the High Court to re-vote on those two core issues and it's noise that can be ignored only at peril to the SC's reputation and the stability of our legal system.

XXX 

This blogger has been covering the SC for some time now but never have I seen opinion-makers and commentators in the broadsheets and the internet torn up over results of what was passed up as a majority vote (9-6 ) of the SC on the Poe twin issues. This "majority vote", it appears, turned out to be actually only 7-5-3---no clear majority among the SC justices, so that those twin issues remain unresolved. Various commentators have zeroed in mainly on what they perceive as the “perversion of the Constitution” by the 47-page SC decision that allowed candidate Poe to run for president---thus overturning the Comelec’s en banc DQ of Poe months ago.

I must say that like tens of thousands of other Filipinos I’m terribly saddened by what has happened to the SC---all because of what appears to be a decision based on political inclinations rather than on solid legal grounds.

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Various lawyers among the columnists have come out vehemently against the SC decision. I noted earlier how Atty. Jess Sison of Philippine Star as well as Atty. Raul Palabrica of the Inquirer, a newspaper oftentimes accused of bias for a particular candidate, came out with columns attacking the SC decision, ---obviously because they couldn’t bear to see the destruction of the esteemed SC.

The Standard’s Emil P. Jurado stated in his column of Tuesday, March 22 that “As a lawyer and officer of the Court, I am ready to erase my name from the roll of lawyers because my faith and respect for Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno and her cabal of justices has gone to the dogs.”  Strong words. Strong sentiment. 

Another Standard columnist, Victor Avecilla, who used to be part of the legal staff of former SC Chief Justice Enrique Fernando, has also been taking a strong stand vs. the SC. He argued that “to reverse the DQ decision of the Comelec, a majority of the justices of the Supreme Court must categorically rule that Comelec acted with grave abuse of its discretion.”  Avecilla also stressed that “Many Filipinos are already upset that the seven justices based their votes on grounds which find no support in either the letter or the spirit of the Constitution. TO INSIST THAT SEVEN OUT OF 15 IS A MAJORITY IS TO ADD INSULT TO INJURY.” (emphasis BOC’s).

In today's Inquirer, Cristina Montes and Jemy Gatdula, argued in an opinion piece titled "The Court that became Congress," that in both the 1935 and the 1987 Constitution, it was in effect the millions of Filipinos who laid out the qualifications for president. Thus, "only they, in the proper procedure outlined in the Constitution, can change these qualifications. NOT A SMALL GROUP OF UNELECTED LAWYERS, NO MATTER HOW LEARNED THEY MAY BE." (emphasis BOC's). Meaning, "its authors, the Filipino people themselves, directly to amend it by the proper amendatory process," NOT the SC justices.  

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But most damning of all---because of the prestige of the organization--- is the position taken by the Board of Governors of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines at its recent annual convention in Zambales. The IBP laments that "the dispositive portion of the alleged majority decision “merely orders the reversal of the decisions of the Commission on Elections (that granted) the petitions to disqualify Poe…and states that she is to be allowed to run for President.” The IBP complained that in ordering the reversal of the Comelec’s DQ, the SC merely qualified Poe to be a candidate, but it ”did not settle the matter of whether Poe is a natural-born citizen and whether she has met the residency requirement under the law.”

Even more disastrous, the IBP complained “that the SC ruling penned by Associate Justice Jose Perez and said to have been approved by a majority of nine justices, held that only the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) can rule on such issues and not the Comelec.” This meant, said the IBP, that as far as the SC is concerned, Poe must first win in the May 9 polls (and) for someone to file a quo warranto petition against her with the SC sitting as the (PET).” This position, as far as the IBP is concerned, goes directly against the Constitution which places under the Comelec's jurisdiction questions pertaining to the conduct of the elections.

This blogger suspects that the SC merely stuck to opposing the Comelec's cancellation of Poe's certificate of candidacy, but avoided spelling out her qualification as a natural-born citizen, out of fear that some time in the future---if Congress should change composition and become more opposition---some of the magistrates could face impeachment over the assertion of Poe's being a natural-born Filipino, as it seems truly indefensible. 

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One can appreciate fully this action of the IBP Board in criticizing the recent “majority” decision of the SC when one realizes how very tough it is to get the IBP to even be united in a critical issue involving the SC in the past. The difficulty is understandable when one considers that the IBP is the largest and most prestigious association of lawyers in the country, and each member of the Board of Governors represents a distinct region of the country and is elected for a two-year term. The nine board members elect an Executive Vice President from among themselves who subsequently becomes the IBP President, currently Atty. Rosario Setias Reyes.

Moreover, inasmuch as the SC with its 15 justices is regarded as the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution and the law, few lawyers would really want to pick a fight with the SC justices as it could affect pending cases of their clients. Then too, there's the reality that the candidate to be elected President of the Philippines this May will get to appoint TEN NEW JUSTICES of the Court in the next six years.  Only five of the six P-Noy appointees, led by CJ Ma. Lourdes Sereno, would get to remain---if no impeachment proceeding targets them from an opposition Congress.

Going against the High Magistrates is a prospect few lawyers would want to do, considering what could happen to their clients, but at this critical moment there are those who are casting aside their fears in order to preserve a higher interest---the justice system in the country.

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The private respondents----namely, former UE Dean Amado Valdez, Attorneys Manuelito Luna and Estrella Elamparo and the private petitioner, De La Salle University Prof. Antonio Contreras---have filed a joint motion for reconsideration of the “majority” decision and exhort the magistrates to re-open their deliberations on their voting---in order to explain to the people who are very much confused as to what constitutes a “majority decision” and how it is arrived at, and concepts supposedly easy to understand, such as being "natural-born."

As Standard columnist Victor Avecilla put it, “A decision of the Supreme Court which is supported by a majority of the justices is a doctrinal ruling----one which establishes a doctrine, a legal principle that is binding on everybody in the Philippines. Any ruling which is short of the required majority is a MERE PLURALITY RULING, and the same is not doctrinal.” Avecilla continues: “To state the obvious, IT BINDS NOBODY. Therefore, where a decision of the Supreme Court does not establish doctrine, THE SAME CANNOT BE THE VALID BASIS FOR OVERTURNING A DECISION TENDERED BY THE COMELEC.” (emphasis by BOC).

Comelec Commissioner and lawyer Arthur Lim, who defended the poll body’s DQ of Poe before the SC, also filed an MR exhorting the SC justices to deliberate once again as no clear majority had emerged in the previous voting.

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The IBP Board of Governors, the private lawyers, the Comelec and Prof. TonTon Contreras---as well as the Filipino nation---are all waiting for the SC which appears to have handed a "majority” decision not supported by sound mathematics (instead of the 9-6 announced earlier, it appeared more like 7-5-3). The High Court will be in Baguio for the next week or two, and it is expected to work on this MR while there. Let us hope that the Lenten penitential spirit overcomes the magistrates and they accept what is defined by the Constitution and the rules of court---now, rather than after the elections.

The alternative to solving the problem of Poe's candidacy is to foment trouble from those waiting in the wings to see whether the High  Court could truly render justice. As columnist Emil Jurado put it:  "With so many unanswered questions on the eligibility of (Grace Poe) to run for president, and the eerie silence of Sereno and her cabal of pro-Poe justices, it would seem the nation is in limbo."

I submit that more than being in limbo, our justice system is on trial here and various sectors of our country are deeply concerned about the triumph of politics over justice. 

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