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With Due Respect

Foundlings are natural-born citizens

Voting 9-3, with three abstentions, the Supreme Court ruled last Sept. 20 in David v Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET) that Grace Poe, a foundling, is a natural-born citizen of the Philippines and therefore qualified to sit in the Senate and to aspire for any public office or privilege requiring such type of citizenship.

Presumed natural-born. The landmark decision, written by Justice Marvic M.V.F. Leonen, the Benjamin of the high court, upheld the presumption that “all foundlings found in the Philippines are born to at least either a Filipino father or a Filipino mother (and are, thus, natural-born unless there is substantial proof otherwise) because this presumption arises when the Constitution is read as a whole, so as to effectuate its purpose.”

The Court emphatically held: “Concluding that foundlings are not natural-born Filipino citizens is tantamount to telling our foundling citizens that they can never be of service to the country in the highest possible capacities. It is also tantamount to excluding them from certain means, such as professions and state scholarships, which will enable the actualization of their aspirations… Concluding that foundlings are not natural-born citizens creates an inferior class of citizens who are made to suffer that inferiority through no fault of their own. If that is not discrimination, we do not know what is.”

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This decision affirmed a 5-4 judgment (dated Nov. 17, 2015) of the SET upholding Poe’s natural-born citizenship and her right to run for, be elected, and hold office as a senator. For details on this ruling, please see my column “Analyzing the SET decision” (11/29/15).

The Leonen ponencia also held that Poe validly “reacquired her natural-born citizenship, after having been naturalized as an American citizen, when, following her naturalization as a citizen of the United States of America, she complied with the requisites of Republic Act (RA) 9225.” Under this law, natural-born citizens who became aliens reacquire their original citizenship when repatriated.

Concurring with Leonen were Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno and Justices Presbitero J. Velasco Jr., Diosdado M. Peralta, Lucas P. Bersamin, Jose P. Perez, Jose C. Mendoza, Francis H. Jardeleza and Alfredo Benjamin S. Caguioa.

Dissenting were Justices Mariano C. Del Castillo, Bienvenido L. Reyes and Estela M. Perlas-Bernabe. Due to their membership and previous action in the SET, Justices Antonio T. Carpio, Teresita J. Leonardo-De Castro and Arturo D. Brion took no part in the Court’s decision.

Separate but consistent. To clarify, this decision is separate from but consistent with an earlier verdict, promulgated by the Court on March 8, 2016 (Poe v Comelec), and penned by Justice Perez, that “declared [Poe] qualified to be a candidate for President” in the May 9, 2016, elections.

As discussed in my column “Comelec gravely abused discretion in Poe’s case” (4/10/16), the Court, voting 9-6, reversed an earlier decision of the Commission on Elections that struck down Poe’s candidacy for the presidency on the alleged grounds that 1) she was not a natural-born citizen, 2) she failed to complete the 10-year residency requirement, and 3) she made material misrepresentations in her certificate of candidacy.

That earlier decision was however denigrated by some critics because two of the nine majority justices (Peralta and Caguioa) declined to vote on the issue of Poe’s natural-born citizenship. Instead, they opined that Poe should be allowed to run on the narrow ground that the Comelec had gravely abused its discretion in ruling on the qualifications of a presidential candidate.

The power to rule on such qualifications is vested by the Constitution solely on the Presidential Electoral Tribunal. Thus, the critics claim that Poe’s natural-born citizenship was approved only by a plurality, not a majority, of the 15-member Court.

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This new decision penned by Justice Leonen definitively settled this contentious point, given that nine justices, including Peralta and Caguioa, voted to declare Poe a natural-born citizen and could thus remain as a member of the Senate.

Fortunately, this latter decision was issued by the Court only last Sept. 20, away from the “noise” of the 2016 election. Consequently, the Court and those who sincerely advocated the grant of social justice to foundlings can no longer be criticized for political partisanship.

Mutual respect. The Court affirmed the well-settled doctrine that election laws should be interpreted liberally and that doubts in interpreting them should be resolved in favor of giving our people the freedom to choose their leaders.

Consistent with this doctrine, in the attempt to disqualify now President Rodrigo Duterte, I opined in my column on Dec. 6, 2015, that “if, as reported in the media, the only reason for his alleged disqualification is a typographical error, I believe he should be allowed to run for president. Substantial justice, not literal interpretation, should be applied.”

May I also say that some of the dissenters in these two cases are my close friends. Our honest differences of opinion never affect our personal esteem for each other. Our friendship is based on our mutual respect for the free market of ideas, not on the excessive desire for conformity or on the eerie silence of the cemetery.

Indeed, friends can disagree without being disagreeable, and can differ without being difficult.

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Comments to chiefjusticepanganiban@hotmail.com

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TAGS: Comelec, foundlings, Grace Poe, Natural-Born Citizens, Supreme Court
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