‘Double flip-flop’ by high court

The justices of the Supreme Court have been drowning in cases. As of 2004, the last year they gave us information through the Philippine Statistical Yearbook, their case backlog (defined as case load minus case outflow) was 6,882 cases. Divide that by 15 justices, and that means an average of 458 cases each that the justices haven’t disposed of yet.

Meanwhile, new cases are coming in. Has this backlog been reduced? Not if we go by the high court’s case disposition rate (ratio of total cases decided/resolved in a year, over the total cases filed), which in 2003 and 2004 was 0.97.  For the mathematically challenged, that means the backlog is growing.

All this is by way of introduction. Each justice has so many to take charge of that he/she usually doesn’t want to get involved with someone else’s case by way of giving a dissenting or concurring opinion, unless it is of great moment. Just take a look at the decisions handed down each month (sc.judiciary.gov.ph) to see how few and far between those are.

That is why the decision in the case involving Regina O. Reyes vs. Comelec and Joseph Socorro B. Tan (GR 207264) caught my eye.  There were three dissenting opinions and two separate concurring opinions. That’s like the pork barrel case, for heaven’s sake. Not only that. What made me sit up and take notice were the names of the dissenters: Arturo Brion, Antonio Carpio, and Marvic Leonen, who I consider to be three of the high court’s intellectual heavyweights.

That was enough for me to read all the case material.

Here’s the case in a nutshell: Regina O. Reyes filed her candidacy as representative of the lone district of Marinduque in the last elections. Her candidacy was questioned by Tan, a voter and resident of the district. On what grounds? Essentially, that she lied about her civil status, her birthday, her residence, and her citizenship. He brought the case to the Commission on Elections. The Comelec found that she was a US citizen, and had not renounced her US citizenship. Therefore, the Comelec cancelled her certificate of candidacy (which means, among other things, that she is not a valid candidate, and that all the votes in her favor are “stray” votes).

Her motion for reconsideration failing in the Comelec, Reyes then filed her case in the Supreme Court, which decided in favor of the Comelec (there was no grave abuse of discretion on its part) and Tan.

Everything looks on the up and up, right?  Well, there is a glaring error. Would you believe that the Comelec decided that she was an American citizen on the basis of a blog? I kid you not. Justice Brion was brutal: “Common sense and the minimum sense of fairness dictate that an article in the Internet cannot simply  be taken to be evidence of the truth of what it says, nor can photocopies of documents not shown to be genuine be taken as proof of the ‘truth.’ To accept these materials as statements of ‘truth’ is to be partisan and to deny the petitioner her right to both procedural and substantive due process. Again, at the very least, further inquiry should have been made before there was the judgment.” Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes had similar thoughts in his dissent.

Then there is the matter of “undue haste” on the part of the Supreme Court in making its decision (it dismissed the Reyes petition outright) on the case. Reyes filed the case against the Comelec and Tan on June 7, 2013.  The decision was handed down barely three weeks later, on June 25. The high court did not even ask the Comelec, and Tan, for their answer (as presumably is the usual procedure). Justice Brion calls the majority approach “unusual,” and their rulings “strained,” which is why he could not allow it to stand without comments. And he calls them “comments” rather than “refutations” because the latter “implies a consideration on the merits of properly submitted and debated issues, which did not happen in this case.”

Why was there this “rush to judgment” by the majority? There’s the rub. The ruling would favor the son of a member of the high court, which is why, failing all else, the high court should “at least hear and consider both sides before making the ruling,” which it did not do.

Reyes’ opponent in the Marinduque elections was Lord Allan Velasco, son of Justice Presbitero Velasco. This apparently was discussed in the deliberations of the high court, but was not mentioned in any opinion except Justice Brion’s. That has to explain the high court’s seeming imprudence.

But the story does not end there. According to Justice Carpio, the high court’s ruling is a “double flip-flop.” It reverses the “well-settled” doctrines that the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal acquires sole jurisdiction over any contest relating to the “election, returns and qualifications” of House members, and that any question on the validity of the proclamation falls under the sole jurisdiction of the HRET. Reyes was proclaimed, so the high court should have stepped back. Why didn’t it? My guess: If the HRET determines that Reyes is disqualified, Lord Allan Velasco will have no advantage, and special elections will have to be held. Whereas if the high court’s position was that the Comelec still has the power to stop her proclamation, the votes for her will be regarded as stray, and her opponent (Velasco) will win.

In other words, the high court’s decision has the effect of disenfranchising 52,209 voters who voted for Reyes, and allowing Velasco to win the elections with his 48,236 votes.

Lesson: 48,000 wins over 52,000 if the Supreme Court is on your side.