Sisyphus’ Lament

Isabelle Duterte proves law is useless

The most intense legal debate at end of 2017 was not whether martial law’s extension is valid. Not justices’ unprecedented testimony in the House of Representatives impeachment hearings. Not CenterLaw’s innovative case against “tokhang” in San Andres Bukid, Manila.

No, it was the viral hunt for a law against 17-year-old presidential granddaughter Isabelle Duterte’s Malacañang photoshoot.


This sparked an enriching discussion on simple living and the bounds of publicly criticizing minors. My fellow columnist Manuel L. Quezon III reminded that Art. XI, Sec. 1 of the Constitution exhorts: “Public officers … must, at all times … lead modest lives.”

But it quickly turned “pilosopo” (smart-alecky).


Even mainstream media hyped how Isabelle violated Executive Order No. 310 (2004), which prescribes who may use the presidential seal.

But this makes no sense. First, the order governs placing the seal in offices and stationery, not simply taking photos with it. Legalistic haters really argue that every selfie with a presidential seal is illegal, an obviously nonsensical conclusion.

Second, an executive order may be withdrawn by the president anytime.

Third, it prescribes no penalty anyway, and Isabelle is not a public official who may face administrative charges.

All the instant lawyers proved was that they do not understand what an executive order is.

The debate demonstrated two depressing realities.

First, any attempt to discuss a simple legal idea will always descend to pointless, misinformed hairsplitting. We see law not as simple but weighty concepts, but how clever it must be to pull obscure technicalities from forgotten pieces of paper.


Second, our sense of intellectual urgency is warped. We rush to deploy law to publicly crucify a teenager but not to understand an issue of such gravity as extending martial law for another year.

And when we actually discuss such a key issue, the same descent to triviality dominates.

The pending Supreme Court case against extending martial law invokes the simple rule that the 1987 Constitution only allows martial law when there is actual rebellion.

Thus, the government wins if it presents reasonable factual basis that it is pursuing Maute group remnants still actively fighting and regrouping and recruiting reinforcements.

On the other hand, it cannot (in the legal context) argue martial law is needed to secure Marawi City’s rebuilding, as this is not actual rebellion.

Yet proponents mangle this simple framework with clever sounding arguments such as how an extension supposedly cannot be longer than the initial 60 days for which the president may declare martial law.

This is a nonexistent, completely made up doctrine. In fact, Art. VII, Sec. 18 of the Constitution states that Congress may extend martial law “for a period to be determined by the Congress.”

Yet what clearly contradicts the Constitution’s text and would be laughed out of a freshman law class takes center stage in congressional debate and news reports. We always lap it up.

We are fortunate that martial law has been overseen by our most trusted officials. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is seen as an apolitical professional who publicly rejected nationwide martial law. Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and his deputy Menard Guevarra have been meticulous and scrupulous in framing the law behind various orders.

But our democracy is supposed to be mature enough to have serious discussions on serious national issues that transcend individuals and politics.

We are supposed to be able to discuss proposed amendments to the Constitution instead of what legal duties might compel the Policarpio family to explain their daughter’s disappearance; to discuss the Bangsamoro Basic Law instead of charges against the woman who publicly slapped a taxi driver in Quezon City; to discuss the facts on which the martial law extension is based instead of a 17-year-old girl and her red gown.

Our resolution for 2018 must be to level up and do more research, and stop embracing sophistry as brilliance.

React:, Twitter @oscarfbtan,

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TAGS: Isabelle Duterte, Malacañang photoshoot, Oscar Franklin Tan, Sisyphus’ Lament
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