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How will SC decide Grace Poe’s cases?

I explained last Sunday that the gut issue in the cases of Grace Poe now submitted for decision in the Supreme Court is whether the Commission on Elections (Comelec) gravely abused its discretion in canceling her certificate of candidacy (COC) due to her alleged “false representation.”

Debate on truth. If that is so, why then did the Court devote five long days of combative oral argument tackling her citizenship and residency qualifications? So readers asked.

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Answer: Before any COC can be cancelled by the Comelec, the statements, as I stressed last Sunday, must be (1) material, (2) false, and (3) made with a deliberate intent to mislead, misinform, or hide a fact, or to deceive the electorate as to one’s qualifications.

In Poe’s cases, the questioned statements are definitely material because they refer to her citizenship and residency. But are they false? By the tenor of their questions, the justices are deeply divided.

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Some of them seem to believe that Poe told the truth, or at least had some factual and legal bases in making them. Additionally, Justice Francis H. Jardeleza also wondered whether the Comelec deprived Poe of due process, which would ipso facto void the poll body’s decision.

Others appear to think that she did not have any basis at all. Thus, the oral argument went to great length on whether, in fact and in law, the entries on her citizenship and residence were true or false.

If the statements were true, then Poe’s COC cannot be cancelled. Assuming arguendo that her statements were false, still her COC cannot be cancelled if she made them in good faith with no intention to deceive the electorate. To determine good faith and intention, what degree of proof is required? Does it need to be conclusive?

FPJ’s case. A good guide to answer this crucial question is Tecson vs Comelec (Mar. 3, 2004), the celebrated case on the Comelec’s authority to cancel the COC of a PRESIDENTIAL candidate.

In this case, the petition prayed for the cancellation of the COC of Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ) because he stated therein that he was a natural-born citizen when, allegedly, his parents were foreigners: his mother, Bessie Kelly, was an American, and his father, Allan Poe, was a Spaniard, being the son of Lorenzo Pou, a Spanish subject. Lorenzo Pou’s death certificate showed that he died on Sept. 11, 1954, at 84. It was further claimed that FPJ was an illegitimate child who followed the citizenship of his American mother.

Eight justices, led by ponente Justice Jose C. Vitug, held that “[a]ny conclusion on the Filipino citizenship of Lorenzo Pou could only be drawn from the presumption that, having died in 1954 at 84 years old, Lorenzo would have been born sometime in the year 1870, when the Philippines was under Spanish rule, and that San Carlos, Pangasinan, his place of residence upon his death in 1954, in the absence of any other evidence, could have well been his place of residence before death, such that Lorenzo Pou would have benefited from the ‘en masse Filipinization’ that the Philippine Bill had effected in 1902. That citizenship (of Lorenzo Pou), if acquired, would thereby extend to his son, Allan F. Poe, father of respondent FPJ. The 1935 Constitution … confers citizenship on all persons whose fathers are Filipino citizens regardless of whether such children are legitimate or not.”

Court’s decision. From this “presumption,” the Court ruled: “…[W]hile the totality of the evidence may not establish conclusively that respondent FPJ is a natural-born citizen … he cannot be held guilty of having made a material misrepresentation in his [COC]… which, as so ruled in Romualdez-Marcos vs COMELEC, must not only be material, but also deliberate and willful.”

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The majority said in essence that election laws should be construed liberally and that doubts in interpreting them should be resolved in favor of giving the people free choice. Thus, Justice (later Chief Justice) Reynato S. Puno stressed:

“Given the indecisiveness of the votes of the members of this Court, the better policy approach is to let the people decide who will be the next President. For on political questions, this Court may err but the sovereign people will not. To be sure, the Constitution did not grant to the unelected members of this Court the right to elect in behalf of the people.”

Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez was even more emphatic: “The present bid to disqualify [FPJ] from the presidential race is a clear attempt to eliminate him as one of the choices. This Court should resist such attempt… We should not only welcome electoral competition, we should cherish it. Disqualifying a candidate, particularly the popular one, on the basis of doubtful claims does not result to a genuine, free and fair election. It results to violence.” (Italics in original)

In contrast, five dissenters favored a strict interpretation. Thus, Justice Antonio T. Carpio rued, “There is … no evidence on record that Lorenzo Pou was a Philippine inhabitant and resident on 11 April 1899. The date of arrival of Lorenzo Pou in the Philippines is not known. If he arrived … after 11 April 1899, then he could not benefit from the mass naturalization under the Treaty of Paris of 1898 and the Philippine Bill of 1902… The prevailing doctrine today is that an illegitimate child of a Filipino father and an alien mother follows the citizenship of the alien mother as the only legally known parent.”

In deciding the cases of Poe, will the Court adopt the majority’s liberal (or the minority’s strict) interpretation in the landmark case won by her adoptive father? We should know soon enough.

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TAGS: disqualification, Elections 2016, Fernando Poe Jr., Grace Poe, Supreme Court
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