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Sounding Board
Population size of congressional districts

By Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 07:25:00 03/30/2009

Filed Under: Congress, Population, Constitution, Politics

WHAT SHOULD be the minimum population of a representative district? The Constitution is clear that a city can become a representative district if it has a population of at least 250,000. The Constitution is also clear that each province, no matter how small its population, is entitled to one representative district. The question now is being asked whether the Constitution sets a minimum size for representative districts when Congress creates them independently of the creation of cities or provinces. Is the 250,000 minimum for cities also the norm for other districts?

It is reported, for instance, that the district presently occupied by Dato Arroyo may be divided into two districts of less than 250,000 population each. If this is true, is this constitutional? We have to look for the answer in both the text of the Constitution and in the political theory that underlies it.

The general norm is that districts should be apportioned among the provinces, cities, and Metropolitan Manila ?in accordance with their respective inhabitants, and on the basis of a uniform and progressive ratio.?

When the Ordinance to the 1987 Constitution apportioned the nation into representative districts, the sizes of the representative districts created then were of more or less of equal sizes in terms of population. The Ordinance was the principal handiwork of Commissioner Hilario Davide Jr., later Supreme Court Chief Justice. Davide indicated that the nation would be divided into 183 representative districts with more or less 350,000 to 400,000 inhabitants each. That was what happened.

Twenty-two years have elapsed since then and it is certain that, through new births and population movements, the current representative districts have become disproportionate in size. To remedy such a situation the Constitution commands that ?Within three years following the return of every census the Congress shall make a reapportionment of legislative districts based on the standards provided in this section.?

When Congress does decide to make apportionment, what are the standards? One standard is that the territory of each district must be ?contiguous, compact and adjacent.? Another standard is that there is a minimum population size for a city to become a district but there is no minimum for a province to become one district. For the rest, we are left with the standard that legislative districts shall be ?apportioned among the provinces, cities, and the Metropolitan Manila in accordance with their respective inhabitants, and on the basis of a uniform and progressive ratio.?

This norm is meant to achieve equality of representation according to the constitutional ideal that ?as much as practicable one man?s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another?s.?

This brings us to the current question: Can Congress create representative districts so disproportionate in size to the 350,000 to 400,000 population of the representative districts created by the Ordinance appended to the 1987 Constitution? It can when it makes a city a representative district, in which case 250,000 inhabitants would suffice; or also when it creates a new province, in which case population size does not matter. But when Congress splits existing congressional districts into two or more districts not as an incident to the creation of a city or of a province, Congress is bound to follow the rule that the redistricting must be ?in accordance with their respective inhabitants, and on the basis of a uniform and progressive ratio.?

From this I would conclude that the creation of representative districts, independent of creation of cities or provinces, should be done through a general nationwide reapportionment based on the latest census returns. Unless the reapportionment is nationwide, a change in apportionment in one province without similar changes in all other provinces can result in violation of the principle that ?one man?s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another?s.? There could be the undemocratic congressionally created result that a population of 200,000 could have one vote in Congress and another district with 400,000 would also have only one vote in Congress. In such a situation, the weight of the vote of the 400,000 or their voice in Congress would only be half of the weight of the vote or of the voice of the 200,000. That would not be democratic. Therefore, when one congressman proposes the redistricting of his province, such proposal should be the concern of all other congressmen because it would have an impact on their constituents.

I believe it can safely be said that there now exists gross disproportion nationwide in the size of congressional districts. Theoretically it is the constitutional duty of Congress to make a reapportionment to remedy this situation. But if it does not, what then?

Jurisprudence under the 1935 Constitution seems to suggest that what the Constitution abhors is inequality in apportionment if the inequality is created by Congress and not when it follows from the growth and movement of population. I am not sure if this is still good law under the 1987 Constitution whose provisions are slightly different from those of the 1935 Constitution. But even if it is no longer good law, under separation of powers, I doubt that Congress can be judicially compelled to make a national reapportionment. Neither, however, should Congress be allowed to make piecemeal reapportionments that violate the command that apportionment be ?in accordance with their respective inhabitants, and on the basis of a uniform and progressive ratio.? Even if the status quo today is no longer ideal, Congress should not be allowed to make it worse.

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