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The Supreme Court as ‘court of last error’

05:02 AM July 18, 2017

This is a brief supplement to R.A.V. Saguisag’s piece titled “Time to convene for CA abolition but none for ML grounds review” (Letters, 6/26/17) where, at the outset, he candidly expressed his dismay over Congress’ supposedly ill-advised refusal to comply with its constitutional mandate to convene in joint session to review President Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao. Then he proceeded to advise the House leadership to seek the Supreme Court’s intervention vis-à-vis the House’s dispute with the Court of Appeals over the CA order to release Ilocos Norte officials who were earlier held in contempt and detained in the chamber, instead of threatening the court with abolition.

“This is the civilized institutional arrangement, to correct errors of lower courts,” Saguisag said, adding: “Supreme Court errors, of course, become the law of the land.”

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I cannot help recalling what our professor in constitutional law used to say: “When the Supreme Court makes a mistake, that’s the law.” The Civil Code in its Article 8 is clear on this by providing that judicial decisions applying or interpreting the laws or the Constitution “shall form a part of the legal system of the Philippines.” As if to echo the professor’s remark, a colleague in the UP Law faculty assertively brands the Supreme Court as “the court of last error.”

Now, how may Supreme Court errors be gleaned and brought to public attention? The following situations may provide the answer.

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A losing party litigant in a case decided by the Court who is not satisfied with its adverse decision may file a motion for reconsideration that would assign alleged errors in the decision.

Also, a strong dissenting opinion in a case decided by the Court in a split vote may likely expose the alleged errors in the majority opinion assailed as flawed.

Students, professors and practitioners of law may openly debate the correctness of the Court’s arguable decisions. Legal scholars may weigh in through published commentaries critical of the Court’s certain questionable decisions.

Interestingly, the Court may sometimes reverse itself. A case in point: Ebranilag v. Division Superintendent of Schools of Cebu, decided in 1993, which upheld the religious freedom of members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the petitioners, and exempted them from saluting the Philippine flag which, in their view, is an “image” to which the Bible prohibits them from rendering obeisance. This decision reversed the Court’s earlier ruling in Gerona v. Secretary of Education (106 Phil. 2), which sustained the flag ceremony as a valid exercise of the police power aimed at inculcating in the public the virtue of patriotism and consequently did not exempt members of Jehovah’s Witnesses from saluting the flag. Evidently, the Court made a mistake in deciding Gerona.

Of recent vintage is the latest ruling of the Court in a 2013 decision striking down the pork barrel system as unconstitutional, thereby reversing its earlier rulings in two cases, LAMP v. Secretary of Budget & Management (2012) and Philconsa v. Enriquez (1994), which upheld the constitutionality of the same funding scheme. Again, the Court appears to have erred in deciding the LAMP and Philconsa cases.

Yes, indeed, let’s face it: The Supreme Court is a human institution. It cannot claim infallibility in its decision-making process. To be sure, it may commit errors in rendering its decisions. And should that happen, that’s it. That’s the law.

That’s the bottom line.

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BARTOLOME C. FERNANDEZ JR., retired senior commissioner, Commission on Audit

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