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Sisyphus’ Lament

Supreme Court voting on Grace Poe clear

THE Supreme Court voting to allow Sen. Grace Poe to run for president is clear and recent criticism of this is exaggerated. The voting itself is simple even though the decision promulgated last March 8 (including 10 separate opinions) ran to 688 pages and the Supreme Court’s denial of reconsideration last April 5 was accompanied by eight separate opinions. Citizens should not doubt that they can understand a simple vote.

The Supreme Court is not a law professors’ discussion group. It does not directly answer doctrinal questions such as, “Is a foundling a natural-born citizen?” or “When does a former Filipino citizen become resident once again?” Courts decide only actual cases between actual parties.

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As I stressed last week on the blatantly deficient same-sex marriage petition, a Supreme Court decision must translate into a concrete order. Otherwise, there is no case.

So what is Poe’s case? The Commission on Elections canceled her certificate of candidacy (COC). Poe challenged this before the Supreme Court. Underlying legal issues regarding her citizenship and residency were raised.

Despite the interminable debates on various issues, the Supreme Court’s actual decision was whether or not to cancel Poe’s COC. It clearly voted 9-6 not to cancel this.

Specifically, the order at the decision’s end annuls the Comelec resolutions canceling the COC and stated: “Petitioner Mary Grace Natividad Sonora Poe-Llamanzares is DECLARED QUALIFIED to be a candidate for President.”

This is a simple, clear vote. In contrast, in 2008, the Court declared laws creating 16 cities unconstitutional. In 2009, after arguably prohibited procedural steps, it voted 6-6 on reconsideration. The longstanding rule was that the original decision stands in case of a tie vote on reconsideration.

However, the justices invoked Article VIII, Section 4(2) of the Constitution, which requires that a case involving a law’s constitutionality must be supported by a majority of justices who actually took part in deliberations and voted. Because there is no majority in a 6-6 vote, even though it was really a vote on reconsideration and not on the original case, they interpreted Article VIII, Section 4(2) as requiring them to dismiss the case and allow the challenged laws to remain valid.

These League of Cities “flip-flopping” cases were so controversial they were cited in the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona. Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio’s brilliant dissent itemized past cases with tie votes that might be reopened due to the new voting rule.

So why do some claim that there is no majority in the Poe case?

Brilliant minds such as 15 justices will rarely be in complete agreement. Seven justices agreed that Poe is natural-born and meets residency requirements. However, Justice Alfredo Caguioa, joined by Justice Diosdado Peralta, focused on the technical point under the Omnibus Election Code that a COC may only be canceled for a “false material misrepresentation.”

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For technical reasons, Caguioa and Peralta stressed that Court review of the Comelec at the COC stage should be limited. They concluded that Poe made no false material misrepresentations given the lack of intent to deceive. She appears to have returned with her family and belongings in 2005 and reestablished residence. She always believed and the government always recognized that she is a citizen.

The two reiterated, however, the technical argument that the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to make a definitive ruling on the complex issue of foundling citizenship outside a formal electoral protest after the elections.

Thus, while nine justices voted not to cancel Poe’s COC, only seven actually opined on the underlying grounds. Invoking Article VIII, Section 4(2), Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno argues that Caguioa and Peralta did not join the deliberations of the underlying grounds and the seven justices thus form a Supreme Court majority on residency and citizenship. Invoking the same section, Carpio argues that Caguoia and Peralta must be counted, so seven is one short of a majority of the full 15 justices.

This is hardly new. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that President Joseph Estrada was no longer president, but with no majority vote on why. The largest minority declared him resigned. In 1998, the Ople ruling announced a right to informational privacy but that portion of the decision did not receive a majority of votes. Later decisions nevertheless recognize it as a landmark privacy ruling.

So where does this leave us? Anywhere but a constitutional crisis. First, there is no doubt who the valid candidates are and our elections may proceed smoothly.

Second, the 688-page decision will torment students and generate fascinating debate in the coming years. This is normal. The most intimate Supreme Court debates are intergenerational. Our most powerful ideas draw strength not just from intellectual rightness, but from the weight of history shaped by far more than a single decision or a single set of justices.

Third, obviously, someone will sue Poe if she wins. Someone would probably do this even if the voting was 15-0. Carpio’s April 5 dissent, for example, argues that the Court voted solely on canceling the COC and never formally voted on citizenship and residency, thus arguing that the decision allowing Poe to run cannot preclude a disqualification case after the elections. However, giving each citizen the right to sue is not a constitutional crisis but integral to democracy.

I have no doubt that future generations will accept the opinions on foundling citizenship and OFW residency rights with none of today’s controversy. In the meantime, it is time for us to choose our leaders through ballots, not lawsuits.

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React: [email protected], Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

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TAGS: disqualification case, DQ, Grace Poe, opinion, Poe, Poe case, SC ruling
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