Chief Justice stands up to traffic crisis powers
CANBERRA—Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno has slowed down the request of President-elect Rodrigo Duterte for emergency powers to solve the traffic crisis in Metro Manila.
In an interview with the Inquirer last week, Sereno brushed aside the incoming President’s early attempt to seek sweeping powers that would allow him to break traffic paralysis in the National Capital Region with dictatorial decisions.
In standing up to the request, she told the incoming administration not to forget the rule of law in its plan seeking extraordinary powers.
She said, “Now, I would want a specific proposal before we can take this on the ability of the government to satisfy the due process requirement of the Constitution.”
Sereno was commenting on incoming Transport Secretary Arthur Tugade’s disclosure of the Duterte administration’s plan to seek emergency powers to solve the traffic crisis in the Philippine capital that has national economic ramifications.
Sereno’s interventions raised a number of contentious issues that foreshadowed unsettling conflict between the Supreme Court and the incoming administration over constitutional issues.
Among the issues highlighted by the Chief Justice were:
“The government cannot just confiscate property.”
The issue of temporary restraining orders (TROs) from the courts that often delayed government projects. (Sereno said, “The subject matter of TROs for infrastructure projects is something that we must clarify strongly.”)
The Duterte administration, which will take office on June 30, may also look at other factors that contribute to the daily traffic mess, estimated to cost the country P2.4 billion daily, according to a 2013 study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
“I am not sure that they have really decided that infrastructure is the key to solving the traffic mess. I’m sure it is an element, but whether it’s the only thing that created the nightmare of Metro Manila traffic is something that the executive has to discuss,” Sereno said.
“They also have to talk about regulation on who is allowed to traverse those lanes, including the operation of public utility vehicles. Is there enough of whatever regulatory regime is there? … There are a multitude of dimensions that we need to address.”
Tugade told a business forum in Davao City last week that the powers the administration would seek from Congress would allow the government to take over property, invoke right of way in private villages, and stop courts from issuing TROs on critical infrastructure projects under litigation, a common cause of delays.
Sereno said the judiciary was already reviewing guidelines for the issuance of TROs, including those affecting public infrastructure projects, the subject matter of which requires clarification.
“We have never failed to recognize the importance of infrastructure projects, and that’s why we keep on reiterating that requirements under the rules of court before a restraint on implementation can be judicially made, these must be scrupulously followed,” she said.
Another matter under close review was the issuance of TROs in cases involving expropriation of private property for public use.
Under Republic Act No. 8974, the law governing the right-of-way acquisition for infrastructure requires the payment of commensurate compensation to affected private parties.
But while expropriation is allowed under the law, the state cannot just seize property without due process, Sereno said.
“You can say that we have started looking into it seriously, with respect to valuation, during expropriations. We have a lot of valuation cases right now, including for lands that are subject to agrarian reform takings,” she said.
Although Sereno noted that Duterte, a lawyer, had said he would respect the constitutional structure of power, she said she didn’t see any reason why the judiciary “will slow down at all in reforming the justice sector, including ensuring the professional independence of the justice sector.” After all, the judiciary will outlast Duterte’s presidency.
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