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Rule of law/rule of lawyers

Is Bongbong Marcos legally qualified to run for president in 2022? Or should his certificate of candidacy (COC) be invalidated? Once again, lawyers will rule on an issue critically important to determining the country’s future. Whomever they are inclined to support for the presidency, voters must follow the deliberations on the suit for the invalidation of Bongbong’s COC and, exercising their right and obligation, give voice to their views. In a field of five competitors, the elimination of one strong candidate will have a material, perhaps decisive, impact on the electoral results.

Forget for a moment the media narratives on the family history, personality, and professional record of Bongbong Marcos. Or the protests and drama-drama of his camp, projecting the absurd, laughable image of Bongbong as the helpless victim of political persecution—“inaapi si Bongbong.” Focus on the issue: Did Bongbong file a valid COC? Did Bongbong truthfully reply, under oath, to his eligibility to run for the presidency? Or did Bongbong commit perjury? Mercifully, retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban has simplified the case to make it understandable to non-lawyers.

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The facts are clear: Bongbong’s COC contained “material misrepresentations,” meaning Bongbong lied, as he has done on other issues. Bongbong lied in claiming he was eligible to run for the presidency. He was not. In 1997, the Court of Appeals had rendered final judgment convicting Bongbong for not filing and settling tax returns from 1982-85. He thus lied in denying that he had been found liable for an offense punishable by “perpetual disqualification to hold public office.” For these lies, the Omnibus Election Code prescribes the cancellation of the COC.

Bongbong’s lawyers dismiss the lies as not “malicious;” the Court of Appeals did not find him guilty of “committing a crime involving moral turpitude.” But does not fraud necessarily involve malice? Would the BIR and the tax courts grant dispensation from punishment to other Filipino tax evaders who claim that their failure to pay taxes was not “malicious” and did not involve “moral turpitude”?

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Shifting the argument from the non-debatable question of fact to the more slippery speculation on motives allows slippery lawyers more scope for legalese. Non-lawyers may wonder at the lack of any debate on motivation or malice when Maria Lourdes Sereno’s appointment as chief justice was invalidated—because she had not presented SALNs that UP faculty had to file. Was this failure more serious than Bongbong’s lies on his COC? Still, Supreme Court justices did not consider it necessary to go beyond the fact of Sereno’s failure to comply with requirements.

The lawyers also argue that, despite Bongbong’s conviction on the tax cases, he has run and won elections, and, therefore, should be allowed to run for public office again. That history should rather argue for invalidating Bongbong’s COC for the 2022 elections. The Duterte administration boasts of its uncompromising determination to enforce the law, regardless of how difficult compliance may be for the people or how disproportionate the pain it inflicts on them. How then can citizens accept the logic of permitting another violation of the law because the criminal had cleverly evaded justice for earlier violations? Why should evidence of impunity, whether accomplished through the negligence or incompetence, corruption or coercion of enforcers, serve to protect the serial criminal?

The facts on the invalidation of Bongbong’s COC appear clear and simple to lawyers and even to laymen unschooled in the law. But we should listen to lawyers on both sides of the issue to detect who is deploying technical jargon and playing word games to confuse the public. We want to understand by what principle of law, language, or logic, even prescinding from ethical and moral norms, the Comelec, and perhaps the Supreme Court, can dismiss the suit against Bongbong’s candidacy.

Respecting the facts and the innate human capacity to discern what is right and what is wrong must be an essential first step in enforcing the rule of law. Unless clearly, consistently, and impartially applied to all people, the rule of law is not what prevails, but the rule of lawyers—and their different motivations.

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Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).

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TAGS: Bongbong Marcos, COC, Comelec, Elections
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