Thursday, November 18, 2010

Are violent video games protected speech?

This is the question the parties in Schwarzenneger v. Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA) argued before the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) on November 2nd. The case emanated from a law passed by the State of California which bans the sale of ultra-violent video games to minors, arguing that such forms of entertainment have detrimental effects on children.
The 2005 law, however, failed to take effect after lower courts in California blocked its implementation citing, chiefly, violation of children's First Amendment right. The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits laws infringing on free speech.

During the November 2nd oral argument before the SCOTUS, while the justices appear to be sympathetic with the law's objectives, most of their questions seem to point to a direction where the court will not carve out an exception to the First Amendment - at least for depiction of violence. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and staunch court conservative Antonin Scalia asked the proponents of the law on where regulation would stop if the court were to allow it. Ginsburg asked whether movies, which clearly portray violence, and comics would be next. Scalia, on the other hand, ever the originalist (the view of interpreting the constitution according to the framers' intent), argued that the founding fathers never intended to exclude portrayals of violence from the coverage of free speech.

One court observer, however, notes that sometimes the justices vigorously question the position of the party in whose favor they would later on rule, if only to test arguments that could change their minds. So the oral argument is not really a good indicator of which direction the court will go on this issue. Legal analysts would focus more on the merits of the case.

There is no question that video games constitute speech, but the question is do they fall within the ambit of protected speech? If not then the California law will be declared unconstitutional. The law being a content-based regulation (the content of the speech itself - portrayal of violence in the games - is being sought to be regulated), the SCOTUS will likely apply the strict scrutiny standard, which is a very difficult standard to pass. Under this standard, the two tests to apply if the law were to pass constitutional muster are: (1) is there a compelling or overriding governmental interest in passing the law? (2) is the law "narrowly tailored" in accomplishing that interest?

Applying these two tests to the video games law, the State of California must present conclusive evidence that ultra-violent video games have adverse psychological effects on children. But that is only half the test. The proponent must also show that there are no least restrictive means of regulating speech, meaning the manner the law seeks to regulate the targeted speech must be the least restrictive, hence "narrowly tailored." To this, the entertainment industry is arguing that the current rating system of video games by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), such as the "M" (mature) rating for violent games, is the least restrictive and should be sufficient.

This is the biggest case yet involving the video games industry. It is probably one of the reasons why among thousands of cases that regularly land on the doorsteps of the SCOTUS, the high court decided to allow this petition. If the SCOTUS upholds the law, minors would still be able to buy violent video games through an adult, much like in the case of alcohol and tobacco. But First Amendment advocates fear such ruling would open the floodgates for regulation of other media.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Scrapping the Pork Barrel

Many lawmakers are worried about the Aquino Administration’s plan to slash the Priority Development Assistance Fund or what is commonly and contemptuously known as “pork barrel.” This plan has reportedly divided even members of the president’s own party, such as Quezon City Rep. Feliciano Belmonte, prospective speaker of the house, who is said to have assured lawmakers that the pork will stay in contrast with Rep. Lorenzo Tañada III, also of Quezon City, who proposed to cut the funding into half.

Pork barrel funds or politics refers to the practice of allocating public funds to finance local projects, usually infrastructure projects, in a lawmaker’s district or, in the case of senators, in localities selected by them. Each congressman is allocated pork barrel funding of up to P70 million, while each senator up to P200 million.

The most common argument lawmakers present in support of the pork is that it is a way of equalizing the distribution of government services to the people. As their representatives, lawmakers know more what services are needed by their constituents and the pork barrel is a way of extending the arm of the government in areas not being serviced by it.

However, since lawmakers are given the discretion in identifying what projects to undertake and which localities to benefit, the pork barrel is seen as a source of corruption for lawmakers by receiving kickbacks from the projects and a form of patronage politics, in which the projects are undertaken to reciprocate the support given by a certain locality during the past election or as a means to generate votes for the lawmaker in future elections.

What is also objectionable is that the pork barrel is funded by the taxpayers in general and yet it only benefits certain localities selected by the lawmaker. It may be argued that since every district has a representative, ultimately all localities may benefit in one way or the other from these allocations. But nothing is farther from the truth. In reality, not all localities get the benefit and the most that get it are the supporters of the benefactor lawmaker. Also, not all lawmakers get equal allocation, not to mention speedy release, of these funds; it all depends on how close the lawmaker is with the powers that be.

The Aquino Administration’s approach of slashing the pork barrel is more moderate than eliminating it altogether. But if it were up to me, scrapping it is more preferable and just leave the determination and delivery of beneficial projects to our local executives in coordination with the national government. After all, this is an executive function which a legislator is not supposed to engage in the first place.

By scrapping the pork barrel, our lawmakers will be forced to concentrate more on their primary and traditional role of legislating. To be sure, the many contenders for congressional and senatorial post, not to mention the party-list, will be dramatically cut down since this will deter the many aspirants who have no legislative agenda at all, let alone the ability to craft laws and debate about them. The halls of congress is not the right place for them if their main incentive for running is the promise of fat pork allocation.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Revisiting Midnight Appointment Cases

When the Supreme Court, under a new leadership, resumed session last Tuesday, it was confronted once again with the nagging issue on the power of the outgoing president to appoint retired Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno's replacement, with the filing by the Philippine Bar Association of a second motion for reconsideration of the decision in De Castro v. JBC. I can only surmise the uncomfortable situation Chief Justice Renato Corona must have found himself in when he presided over the Court to tackle the question on the legitimacy of his appointment.

The widely criticized De Castro was of course the March 17 decision that paved the way for CJ Corona's appointment by lameduck President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA). The case involves the applicability of the constitutional ban on the appointing power of an outgoing president, particularly with respect to vacancies in the judiciary, two months prior to and until the end of her term. This is known as the ban on midnight appointments.

Penned by my former law professor, now Justice Lucas Bersamin, the De Castro ruling held that the ban does not apply to appointments in the judiciary because of a specific command in the Constitution for the president to fill any vacancy in the Supreme Court within 90 days from its occurence. The decision goes on to say that failure of the president to make such appointment would amount to a disobedience of the Constitution. Justice Bersamin raciocinated that had the framers of the Constitution intended to make the ban applicable to the judiciary, they could have expressly stated so under the article dealing with the judiciary; that by appearing on the article dealing with the presidency, the ban applies only to the executive department.

But Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales was unimpressed by the majority's ruling and filed a strong dissent by characterizing Justice Bersamin's reasoning as specious, weak and without legal mooring. She attacked Justice Bersamin's reliance on the structural arrangement of the Constitution in justifying the decision and for failure of the decision to resort to basic rules on the interpretation of the Constitution. For example, the lady justice pointed out that it is basic in constitutional interpretation that where there is no ambiguity the Constitution should be interpreted according to its plain meaning. According to her the prohibition on the president to make any appointment within the prohibited period, except when public service would be prejudiced, is a plain and simple blanket prohibition. She also cited the rule that when the law does not distinguish no distinction should be made, and true enough the ban on midnight appointment does not distinguish as to what branch of government it applies.

The dissent also takes exception to the observation that the failure to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court within the 90-day period amounts to dereliction of duty by the president. It argues that legal impossibility exempts non-compliance with this requirement and the two-month ban precisely excuses such non-compliance and suspends the running of the 90-day period until the ban ends.

Finally, Justice Carpio-Morales laments Justice Bersamin's failure to cite any particular deliberation of the drafters of the Constitution in claiming that the intent of the framers support the conclusion reached by the majority.

De Vera is in sharp contrast with the much earlier decision in Aytona v. Castillo, wherein the Supreme Court ruled that after a newly-elected president has been proclaimed, the incumbent and outgoing president is nothing more than a caretaker whose duty is to see to the smooth transition of power from the old to the new president. Interestingly, Aytona involves the withdrawal by then President Disodado Macapagal, GMA's father, of the 350 midnight appointments made by his predecessor President Carlos P. Garcia in 1961. A day before Macapagal's assumption to office, Garcia issued appointments to both executive and judicial positions.

The Supreme Court upheld the validity of President Macapagal's order canceling or recalling the appointments made by President Garcia without distinguishing between the types of positions involved. Of course, Aytona was decided under the 1935 Constitution which allows reelection of the president.

A much later case, In Re Valenzuela (promulgated in 1998), decided under the present Constitution, likewise did not distinguish between executive and judicial positions when it comes to the application of the ban on midnight appointments. This case involves the appointment of judges. Having fallen within the two-month ban, and there being no justification for the urgency of the appointments, the Supreme Court struck down the appointments as invalid.

Clearly then De Castro departed from the Aytona and Valenzuela decisions. It is worth noting that the Supreme Court, as the final authority to declare what the law is, can reverse itself and even overturn long established principles of law laid down in a particular case. De Castro is definitely such an instance. It is highly unlikely, however, that the Supreme Court will reconsider De Castro, given the fact that CJ Corona has already assumed office. I don't think the Supreme Court is about to strip one of its members of his just conferred primus inter pares status.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Corona's Appointment Ties Noynoy's Hands

In clear disregard of the incoming president's prerogative to appoint the next chief justice, outgoing president and incoming congresswoman Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) displayed once again her stubbornness by appointing her former chief of staff and spokesperson, now Supreme Court Justice Renato Corona as the next chief justice.

While De Castro v. Judicial and Bar Council has cleared the way for GMA in appointing the next chief justice, courtesy and prudence dictate that she should have let the incoming president have the privilege of appointing the replacement of Chief Justice Reynato Puno, who is set to retire on Monday. The absence of a chief justice will in on way hamper the operation of the high court, it being a collegial body where each member equally exercises judicial functions in collaboration with the others. Besides, an acting chief justice can always be designated in the interim as has happened in the past where the most senior member of the court assumes the role pending the appointment of a chief justice.

GMA's haste in appointing the new chief justice, with only less than two months before her term expires, is once again lending credence to apprehensions of another sinister plot in the making. Just like the no-el scenarios - born out of Malacañang's questionable conduct and pronouncements - this appointment will once more stir our imaginations and make us conclude that GMA is making the final touches to her carapace that will protect her against future prosecutions, especially so that the presidential front-runner Noynoy Aquino has promised to launch an investigation into the allegations of wrongdoing during her administration. And who better to protect her than an old associate like Renato Corona, who has closely worked with her even while she was still a vice president.

But GMA does not only appear to serve her interest in this appointment. She has also put the heir-apparent to the presidency on the spot. Knowing that Aquino has publicly announced before that he will not recognize a GMA-appointed chief justice, the appointment appears to be pitting Noynoy against the Supreme Court (which is packed with GMA appointees) early on in his presidency.

After all is said and done, however, the appointment of Renato Corona has effectively tied the hands of Noynoy. The Supreme Court itself has already spoken that GMA can make the appointment. For Noynoy to disregard such appointment once he assumes power would not only be a legal dent on his young administration, but also antagonize the Supreme Court whose members will not take kindly the embarrassment that will befall one of their own.

If GMA has not seen fit to exercise courtesy and prudence, that's no reason for Noynoy to do the same. Nothing will be gained except to nurse a bruised ego by not recognizing the appointment, however distasteful the manner it has been made. Six years is a long time to be waging losing battles in the Supreme Court.
(Photo Courtesy of

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Legal and Political Ramifications of Postponing the Elections

The glitches on the voting machines' memory cards found during Monday's mock polls have generated calls for either postponement of the May 10 elections or reverting it to manual voting. Monday's exercise has further heightened the public's fear of a rigged or failed elections, and the Comelec-Smartmatic assurance has not helped in assuaging this fear.

As of this writing, Smartmatic (the company awarded with automating the May 10 polls) is rushing the reconfiguration of the 76,340 defective compact flash (CF) cards - which contain the program for the voting machines to work - in time for the final testing on May 7. There is, however, a well-founded fear that this might not be done, or even if done, the result might still be suspect, considering that it took Smartmatic more or less two months to initially reconfigure these CF cards for the May 10 polls compared to the two or three days Smartmatic will do the second reconfiguring to correct the errors.

No less than the president's top election lawyer, Romulo Macalintal, has called for postponing the elections and even went as far as withdrawing as the president's counsel if only to stress his seriousness. He argues that the Omnibus Election Code (OEC) empowers the Comelec to postpone the election if for some reason it becomes impossible to hold, and proposes that a 15-day postponement would be reasonable to give Comelec more time to prepare.

Constitutional Commissioner Fr. Joaquin Bernas, however, doubts the legality of Comelec's power to postpone under the OEC. He believes the OEC merely empowers the Comelec to postpone in local, but not in national election.

Although the Constitution sets the national election on the second Monday of May, it allows its postponement when a law to this effect is passed by Congress. Given, however, the lack of time to convene Congress, not to mention the preoccupation of many of its members on the campaign trail and the improbability of mustering enough favorable votes, it seems almost impossible now that such a law can still be passed.

On the other hand, the Concerned Citizens Movement, which sought to stop the automated election but failed to do so in Roque v. Comelec, has filed a petition anew with the Supreme Court to hold the election under the manual system for fear of a failed election under the automated system. It is unlikely, however, that the Supreme Court will give the petition due course. For one, the case or controversy requirement that will move the high court to entertain the petition is missing. While the automated election system (AES) has experienced glitches during its testing, this alone does not meet the requirement of an actual case or controversy where conflicting legal rights susceptible of judicial resolution are present. Besides, the question on the legality of the automation law has already been passed upon by the court in Roque v. Comelec.

Other sectors, uncluding some presidential candidates, remain firm in their position that the May 10 elections should push through as scheduled. They voice fear that the postponement of the elections will only serve the president's plan of overstaying in power. Malacañang, of course, is wise to distance itself from postponing the elections and the president's prompt acceptance of Macalintal's withdrawal seems to reinforce the administration's lack of interest in delaying the elections. And the Comelec is certainly unwilling to receive the ire of those against a No-el scenario by steadfastly claiming that the elections will push through and can fix the AES hiccups before Monday. After all, if the AES fails the fault cannot be solely attributed to it as it is merely implementing a law passed by Congress.

Postponement of not, the country may be getting itself into a catch-22 situation. If the elections proceed as scheduled, the probability of failure is not at all unlikely since no one knows what other glitchy creatures will emerge from the murky waters of an untested AES come Monday. To be sure, no one (whether Comelec, Smartmatic or even IT practitioners) has foreseen that the CF cards of the voting machines will fail to read and accurately count votes for other positions, despite Smartmatic's experiences in implementing an AES in other countries, such as in Curacao and Venezuela. And it is without a doubt that there will be areas where the voting machines will fail to transmit results electronically. In a country like ours where the IT infrastructure is not developed in several areas this is a given. In other words manual voting in lieu of automated voting will certainly take place. It's just a question of how much will be the extent of it.

If it comes to the point that manual voting becomes widespread, it is highly probable that the results will not be known after the term of the president and her constitutional successors ends. Consider this: the 80,000 clustered precincts around the whole country under the AES have resulted in about 600 to even 1,000 voters per precinct, compared to the about 200 voters per precinct in the past. If manual voting is resorted to in the event of computer problems, one could only imagine how long will the voting take place. Long after the legally mandated closing of voting has passed more voters would still be unable to vote, resulting in their disenfranchisement. To avoid this, declaration of failure of elections is the only viable option and in the meantime the clock is ticking, and power vacuum beckons.

It is not yet late for our leaders - administration and opposition alike - to come together and sit down for a contingency measure in the event of failure of election. They should as soon as possible provide for a transition government, a caretaker if you will, that will see the country through this first nationally-automated electoral exercise. President Macapagal-Arroyo should initiate this move to cast any doubt on her motives. Who knows, this might just be the legacy - a postitive one, that is - that she will leave when she steps down from office on June 30th. Until now, however, the president has yet to make any pronouncement on the eventuality of a failed election and the public is being kept in the dark as to what contingency measures she has.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Agra's Disregard of Evidentiary Standards

DOJ Secretary Alberto Agra has found himself in the middle of a storm for dismissing the murder charges against two Ampatuan clan members in connection with the gruesome massacre of Mangudadatu supporters and journalists in Maguindanao. The besieged justice secretary reversed the preliminary investigation findings of his prosecutors, claiming there is not enough credible evidence to warrant the filing of murder charges against the two Ampatuans.

The prosecutors, however, who recommended the filing of the murder charges based their conclusion on the testimony of an unbiased eyewitness, as against the alibi foisted by the Ampatuans. Historically considered as a weak defense, the Ampatuans' alibi should have been left for consideration during the trial proper and not during the preliminary investigation, especially that there is an eyewitness to support the filing of charges.

It bears noting that during the preliminary investigation stage, what the investigating prosecutor needs to determine only is whether or not a crime has been committed, and if so whether or not the person being investigated is probably guilty thereof. "Probable cause" is the key phrase. As the name implies, the probability of guilt only is what needs to be determined, and not the certainty of guilt - a standard applied during the trial proper only.

There is no doubt that the massacre did occur. There is also evidence that the Ampatuans may have been involved, as testified to by the eyewitness who claims he knew first-hand of the Ampatuans' participation in the planning of the massacre. These are facts and circumstances which would engender a well-founded belief that a crime has been committed and that the Ampatuans are probably guilty of the crime charged. Under our rules of criminal procedure, this is sufficient for the prosecutor to indict the Ampatuans. Take note, the purpose of the investigation is not to find guilt but a cause for filing the charges. Accusation is not synonymous with guilt. The Ampatuans will still get their day in court to refute these charges, and that will be the time for them to scrutinize the truthfulness of the eyewitness testimony, question his motive, test the veracity of this statements or refute them with contradictory evidence, such as alibi.

It is therefore no wonder that even Agra's chief state prosecutor went public against his decision to drop the charges against the two Ampatuans. He clearly disregard the evidentiary requirement in preliminary investigation, by wrongly applying the much higher standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt that should only be made during the trial proper.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dimensions of a Failed Election and What GMA Needs to Do

As the May 10 elections near the failure of elections anxiety grows even stronger. This fear acquires special significance because for the first time in Philippine history the elections will be automated - at least on a nationwide basis, since we already had a taste of computerized polls during the ARMM elections. In this coming elections, however, the stakes are high as all positions, from president down to the councilor of the smallest municipality, will be voted for.

Failure of elections is not something new in our electoral lexicon. Losing candidates have at various times in the past utilized this as a legal tool to annul the proclamation of their rivals. More often than not, however, this legal argument has been met with disapprobation from the Supreme Court. The High Court has sustained this claim only in the clearest cases of electoral frauds.

Section 6 of the Omnibus Election Code identifies the instances under which the Commission on Elections (Comelec) can declare a failure of elections, which the Supreme Court in Soliva v. Comelec, G.R. No. 141723 (April 20, 2001) has enumerated in the following manner:

Section 6 of the Omnibus Election Code contemplates three instances when the COMELEC may declare a failure of election and call for the holding of a special election. First, when the election in any polling place has not been held on the date fixed on account of force majeure, violence, terrorism, fraud or other analogous cases. Second, when the election in any polling place had been suspended before the hour fixed by law for the closing of the voting. And third, after the voting and during the preparation and the transmission of the election returns or in the custody or canvass thereof, such election results in a failure to elect.
In the context of automated polls, many fear failure of elections with computers breaking down or not transmitting election results. The glitches experienced in the recent absentee voting in Hong Kong have only served to heighten this fear. In Roque v. Comelec, however, the Supreme Court dismissed this fear in denying the petition to declare the automation illegal. The Supreme Court said the automation law provides manual voting as a contingency measure in the event computers break down. The problem with this, however, is that if manual voting is resorted to in case of computer glitches, elections in affected precincts may take unusually longer and pass the closing of voting, especially so that precincts are now clustered with registered voters numbering as many as 1,000 in a precinct. Many voters will end up not being able to cast their votes.

Another scenario is the ever-looming threat of electoral fraud. Opponents of automation claim the resurgence of Garci-type cheating, wherein Comelec insiders will rig the PCOS machines by configuring them to make the favored candidates win. Inquirer columnist Amando Doronilla, however, refuses to accept this possibility in his February 16 article Who Will be the Evil Genius? According to him, there is none among the current presidential candidates (except perhaps Gilbert Teodoro via Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo) who is in a position of authority to direct the manipulation by Comelec. Teodoro and Comelec chair Jose Melo, he says, would not do it. Doronilla argues that President Macapagal-Arroyo has clearly no need for this to further her congressional bid, considering her almost guaranteed victory among her town mates.

If elections fail - because of massive cheating or breakdown of voting machines or both - and the problem is not resolved before the term of office of the president and her constitutional successors ends on June 30, there would clearly be no one legally authorized to lead the country after this date. Since GMA would be the last person to hold the reins of power before the crisis begins, I would suppose she would stay at the helm in the mentime. Now, whether or not she will do so for good remains to be seen.

Although most GMA critics would conclude that she will take this opportunity to remain in power for good, I humbly believe otherwise. If GMA were to perpetuate herself in power she would certainly meet stiff opposition both domestically and internationally, not least of which is the US. With all the military exercises the US has been conducting in the Philippines and the millions of dollars it pours into them, the Philippines is still much within the radar of US global interests. With all its worries on terrorism, the need to check an ever expanding China, and an adventurous North Korea, the last thing the US needs is a failed or weakened Philippine state.

On the local front, a permanent GMA tenancy in Malacañang would elicit thunderous protests from the opposition and civil society groups. Coups are not farfetched. In short what will happen will be nothing short of a civil unrest; even worse, an uprising that could throw the whole country into a bloody revolution. This very gruesome scenario is something that will make Washington even more vigilant in preventing a Marcosian reprise by GMA. With all her faults, I don't think GMA is ready to take this dangerous path.

GMA can, however, do one last thing that will mark her legacy. She could remain in power - a sort of hold-over president - in the event of a failed election. But in doing so, she must assure the public that it will only be temporary until the elections are re-held and completed. By law, the Comelec is mandated to re-hold elections in the event of failure at the first instance. This would entail huge expense and effort, but this is the only way that chaos can be averted.

The alternative of her not staying and vacating office when no successor has been proclaimed and sworn would be more dangerous. Power grabbers from all stripes will try to outdo each other to succeed in power. There can be no illusion that this will happen peacefully. To be sure it will be a violent race to the top. On the other hand, if GMA were to hold-over, it will simply be a case of status quo. What will save the day is the assurance that she will give to the public that she will only be doing so to pave the way for a smooth transition of power.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Fair Elections Act Trumps Celebrities' Free Speech

The entertainment industry recently rose up in arms against the Comelec for making known its intention to strictly enforce a resolution implementing the Fair Elections Act (R.A. 9006), which requires celebrities to resign or take a leave of absence from their work during the campaign period if they campaign for or against a candidate in the May 2010 elections. Although the Comelec ruled to make the requirement optional, some quarters, like the PPCRV, still appear poise to have the law implemented.

It is well known that many movie and television personalities have endorsed or campaigned for candidates, especially those vying for national elective positions, by appearing in political ads or campaign sorties. The Comelec and proponents of the law argue that candidates who employ celebrities derive undue advantage over other candidates due to the influence these celebrities wield over their massive viewers and followers.

Celebrities, on the other hand, counter that the strict enforcement of the law violates their free speech rights and rights as citizens to support the candidates they like, not to mention their right to earn a living. There is also argument that the law unduly singles them out.

Section 6, paragraph 6.6. of the Fair Elections Act provides that "[a]ny mass media columnist, commentator, announcer, reporter, on-air correspondent or personality who is a candidate for any elective public office or is a campaign volunteer for or employed or retained in any capacity by any candidate or political party shall be deemed resigned, if so required by their employer, or shall take a leave of absence from his/her work as such during the campaign period . . ."

The above-quoted provision clearly requires the enumerated persons, which include movie and TV personalities, to either resign or take a leave of absence from work during the campaign period if they are (1) candidates (2) campaign volunteers (3) employed or retained in any capacity by any candidate or political parties, including coalitions and party-list groups.

The State's interest in allowing equal opportunities for candidates in reaching out to voters by leveling the playing field - achieved through regulation of the time, place and manner of communicating political or campaign messages - has long been recognized since National Press Club v. Comelec. In fact, the Supreme Court has justified legislations of this nature under the Constitution's social justice provisions guaranteeing equal access to opportunities for public service to everyone.

While there is no question on the rule prohibiting mass media personalities, such as actors and newscasters, who are candidates, from working as such during the campaign period, a similar restriction on others who are not candidates but merely supporters or workers of candidates is unreasonable. A celebrity candidate who continues to do his or her high profile work clearly gives undue advantage over other candidates who are not similarly situated; the constant exposure allows him or her to become well acquainted with voters. Not only that, it makes the regulatory limits on broadcast time and print space useless as against these candidates. The same is true of non-candidate celebrities and other media personalities who actively campaign for or against a candidate during their shows.

Requiring non-candidate celebrities or media personalities to resign or abstain from work under pain of penal sanctions for campaigning for or against a candidate, other than through their movie or television programs, invades the realm of constitutionally protected speech. The strictures of Section 6, par. 6.6. of the Fair Elections Act, as implemented by Sec. 36 of Comelec Resolution 8758, suffers from overbreath for stifling more speech than is necessary. When a celebrity endorses a candidate in a legitimate political ad or performs any act to generate support for such candidate, he or she engages in political speech protected by the Constitution. The law in question, however, in effect penalizes that speech by barring the celebrity from engaging in his or her means of livelihood, even though for a limited period only. Failure to resign or take a leave of absence from work would constitute an election offense punishable by fine and imprisonment of up to six years.

The law does not only regulate the time, place and manner of the speech involved, but targets the content itself. It in effect restricts political speech by celebrities because it forces them to choose between engaging in political speech or their means of livelihood. To pass constitutional muster, the law must be justified by a compelling or overriding government purpose and the means employed must be necessary to achieve that purpose. As previously mentioned, it is now settled that the State has vital interest in having fair or level playing field among candidates in reaching out to voters, but the manner the questioned law seeks to achieve its objective does not appear to be necessary for it is not the least restrictive means of doing it.

The equalization of political speech and opportunities for reaching out to voters is no longer served here because the celebrity cannot be said to be still furthering a candidate's campaign by simply engaging in his or her normal work. True, the celebrity, by expressing support for a candidate, would henceforth be identified with that candidate, but identification or association cannot be justified as furtherance of a candidate's campaign anymore than a candidate choosing a certain network or newspaper for broadcast or publication of his or her political ads constitutes furtherance by that network or newspaper of the candidate's campaign.

What makes the questioned provision even more unreasonable is the fact that it applies as well to celebrities and media personalities who work for a candidate in capacities that do not necessarily expose them to the public, such as being a political or legal adviser, a consultant or a speech writer, since the law covers those who work in any capacity. The law is also vague as to what the term "campaign volunteer" means. If a celebrity cooks for the staff of a candidate or hosts meetings in his mansion, could he be considered a campaign volunteer? If so, how will that possibly obscure role, although performed by a well-known personality, give a candidate undue advantage over others, as does the adviser and consultant?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Dismal Lack of Campaign Finance Reform in the Philippines

While the United States is still abuzz with the US Supreme Court's recent ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission - which removed the prohibition on campaign spending by corporations and unions directly from their coffers, in a latest round of more than a century of debate to reform campaign finance - campaign finance laws in the Philippines have remained unchanged for decades.

Money, as an essential component of politics, needs to be regulated for its corrupting influence and, peculiarly in the Philippines, to level the playing field between moneyed and cash-strapped candidates. It is a given that one cannot successfully wage a decent and successful campaign without sufficient funding, for reaching out to voters and getting one's message across, not to mention the logistics needed in maintaining a political campaign, necessitates money. But when campaign finance is not regulated - as to source, extent and manner of spending - it becomes a problem.

The most pernicious effect of loose or unregulated campaign funds is the corrupting influence huge contributors exert on candidates once elected into office. Debt of gratitude becomes a factor in the grateful official's conduct in office, whether expected or not. More often than not, however, the generous donor expects a quid pro quo; a return on investment, if you will.

A simple illustration will show how unregulated campaign funds factor into the public functionary's conduct. A person who is elected mayor in a city, for example, is the beneficiary of huge campaign contributions from businessmen. When these businessmen-contributors apply for a license in setting up new business or when legislative measures are considered in the city council that will affect their pocketbooks - such as the imposition of new or higher taxes - the mayor-beneficiary will certainly be clouded in his judgment as payback time beckons.

Even in the unlikely scenario that the contributors expect nothing in return, the grateful official will likely protect the interests of his benefactors for fear of a backlash, by displeasing them or deterring others from making huge donations to his campaign in the future.

The other problem of unregulated campaign funds is the inequitous situation it creates between the moneyed and cash-strapped candidates. While the affluent has access to unlimited resources in reaching out to voters, the candidate of small means struggles to get his or her message across, which makes politics in the Philippines largely an affair for the wealthy few.

Finally, even if it were to be assumed that a candidate spends his or her own money in the campaign, there is that danger of him or her recouping the expenses once elected into office by pursuing nefarious "under-the-table" transactions and other corrupt practices.

Ever since Batas Pambansa Bilang 881 (Omnibus Election Code), the country's basic election law, came into effect in 1985, there has only been one legislation that introduced changes to campaign finance in the Philippines, which is Republic Act No. 7166 or the Electoral Reform Law. Even then the only reform introduced, aside from the penalties imposable for violation thereof, is the increase in the amount of campaign expenditures that may be incurred by a candidate, by increasing it from P1.50 for every registered voter in the constitutency for which a candidate filed a certificate of candidacy to P10.00 for the president and vice president, P3.00 for other candidates with a party, P5.00 for other candidates without a party, and P5.00 for political parties.

A bill introduced in the House of Representatives in 2007, which seeks to punish political turncoatism and impose limits on donations and expenditures by individuals and corporations, and in the Senate in 2004 by former Senator Ralph Recto (also deals with political turncoatism, creation of a state subsidy fund to augment the campaign activities of accredited political parties, and imposes limits on contributions), never saw the light of day.

Interestingly, the target of regulation in our existing laws is the spending aspect only. Our election laws are notoriously silent on any limit on contributions which go to the core of corrupting elected officials. Any person or business entity not disqualified by law may contribute any amount to a candidate's coffers. Although the law imposes limits on the amount and type of campaign expenditures, and candidates are required to report all contributions, there is nothing that regulates the excess contributions. After the elections are over the excess pretty much becomes discretionary funds of the candidates. It is no wonder then that Congressman Mikey Arroyo could say with a straight face that campaign contributions are among the sources of his increased net worth when questioned about his Statement of Assets and Liabilities.

Even with the existing limits on expenditures, however, it is no secret that candidates have always conveniently and flagrantly ignored them. Based on Comelec's election statistics for the 2007 national and local elections, there are about 45,294,430 registered voters nationwide. At a limit of Php 10.00 per registered voter, presidential and vice presidential candidates for that election should have spent only a maximum of P450,294,430.00 - a far cry from the P5 billion that one needs to be elected president, according to a 2008 report by the Pera't Politika Working Group, which is a consortium of public interest organizations formed to monitor election spending. The same report states that the expenditure for senatorial races ranges between P150 million and P500 million, P10 million for mayor, and P15-150 million for governor. It should be noted that these figures go way beyond the limits imposed by law.

As if lack of campaign finance reform is not enough, existing regulations are rendered meaningless for want of effective enforcement. Not one candidate has yet been penalized for violating spending limits. Not that I find pleasure in seeing someone punished, I'd be happy to know if Comelec can point to particualr cases. And even if it can, such cases would surely be dismally few and involve largely unknown candidates, compared to the hundreds of candidates who routinely violate the strictures on campaign spending. According to a 2004 article by Glenda M. Gloria, entitled "Selling a Candidate," cited in Pera't Pulitika's report, the media earned more than a billion pesos from political ads for the 2004 elections in just a span of four months. This is a tell-tale sign that spending limits have been violated, yet the Comelec has not taken any action against those responsible.

This early, presidential candidate Sen. Manny Villar has already reportedly spent P543 million in political ads on TV, putting him among the top 20 television advertisers. There's no telling how much he would spend more come formal campaign period. What is certain, however, is that we would see the same deluge of television, radio, and newspaper advertisements which would gobble up huge sums of money. But after elections are over, candidates will once again doctor the contribution and spending reports they will submit to Comelec, and the latter will simply file them away and pretend that the law has not been violated.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Comelec's Flawed Reasoning

In a 26-page decision, the Commission on Elections’ (Comelec) Second Division junked the disqualification case filed against Erap Estrada by ruling that the constitutional prohibition on reelection to the presidency found in Article VII, Section 4 applies only to the incumbent president.

According to Commissioner Nicodemo Ferrer, who penned the decision, “respondent Joseph 'Erap' Estrada no longer holds a public office; more importantly, he is no longer the president and wields none of the vast powers of this position. He poses no danger to anyone. Because of this prevailing status, a simple application of the rule will lead any reasonable and logical person to conclude that the prohibition against the reelection of 'The President' does not apply to Joseph Estrada.”

The constitutional provision in question is as follows: “Section 4. The President and the Vice-President shall be elected by direct vote of the people for a term of six years which shall begin at noon on the thirtieth day of June next following the day of the election and shall end at noon of the same date, six years thereafter. The President shall not be eligible for any re-election. No person who has succeeded as President and has served as such for more than four years shall be qualified for election to the same office at any time.”

While it is true that Estrada is no longer president and the phrase “the president” on the second sentence of section 4 seems not applicable to him, the decision conveniently disregarded the adjective “any” before the word reelection on the same sentence. Any reelection clearly means election again either immediately after the expiration of one’s term or after an interval.

If it were the intention of the framers of the Constitution that the prohibition applies only to the sitting president, then the phrase “any reelection” would not have been used for in that case the adjective “any” would be useless. In contrast, the use of the definite article “the” before “president” presents no anomaly or tension with the interpretation of an absolute ban on reelection. The second sentence of section 4 would simply mean that once someone is elected as president an ineligibility to run for president again attaches during his or her incumbency and in the future, that is when he or she is no longer president. According to former Comelec Chairman and Constitutional Commissioner Christian Monsod, a person elected as president only gets one shot at the presidency.

In defending his bid for reelection, Estrada insists that it is the third sentence of section 4 that applies to him, rather than the second sentence. Recall that the third sentence disqualifies any one who has succeeded as president and has served as such for more than four years from being elected as president at any time. Estrada claims that he served the presidency for less than four years and, therefore, not ineligible to be elected as president. The third sentence, however, applies only to one who became president not by election but by the operation of the rule on presidential succession for two reasons, viz: first, the provision speaks of one who has “succeeded” as president; second, in prohibiting such person from becoming president again, it uses the phrase “shall [not] be qualified for election” instead of “shall [not] be qualified for reelection” simply because not having assumed the presidency via election, it would not be correct to use the word “reelection.”

The second division further justified the decision to allow Estrada to run for president by saying that “in the end, it is the Filipino people who would act as the final arbiter on whether they would have Estrada sit again as president. It is the electorate’s choice of who their president should be. The better policy approach is to let the people decide who will be the next president.”

This reasoning disregards the fact that the Constitution is an embodiment of the people’s will. While the people did not directly draft the Constitution it is the people that ultimately gave it life and binding force when they ratified it in a plebiscite. Thus, when the Constitution imposes disabilities on certain persons from becoming public officials, it is simply expressing the people’s will on who they want to run for public office. So what will is Ferrer talking about?

Besides, following Ferrer’s reasoning, if indeed it is a better policy approach to let the people decide who will be the next president then why not apply the same reasoning to other candidates that they have unilaterally disqualified for being nuisance candidates? It should be noted that these candidates meet the minimum qualifications, and do not suffer any disability, under the Constitution. To say that a person should be allowed to continue his or her candidacy and let he people decide is like saying never mind if that person is disqualified, just let the people decide if they want to elect him or her to public office.

Such a flawed and dangerous proposition, not to mention double standard as far as other candidates are concerned, disregards the basic principles of republicanism where the people’s will is expressed not only at the polls, but equally important in the institutions of democracy it created.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

FVR's Mistaken View of Constitutional Violation

While I was scanning the news, I came across a statement from former President Fidel V. Ramos claiming that the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) violated the Constitution in issuing a call not to vote for candidates who support the controversial Reproductive Health (RH) Bill. According to Ramos, the CBCP's campaign violates the people's right to freedom of conscience and belief by imposing its view on them.

Conceivably, FVR was referring to freedom of religion or the free exercise clause under Article III, Section 5 of the Constitution, which prohibits the enactment of a law or any governmental act that prevents the free exercise of religion. An elementary principle in constitutional law, however, will show that Ramos's statement is incorrect.

The fundamental rights enumerated in Article III of the Constitution (Bill of Rights) can only be violated when State action or governmental conduct is involved. The Bill of Rights is meant as a check against exercise by the government of its immense powers; as a balance between individual liberty and governmental power. Thus, one will see that the enumeration of rights in Article III are directed against the enactment of laws, law enforcement functions, criminal prosecutions, imposition of penalties, etc., which are within the domain of governmental functions.

The CBCP's statement urging voters not to vote for candidates in favor of the RH Bill does not constitute action by the State. On the contrary, it should be viewed as an exercise by its members of their religious freedom and free speech rights, which are guaranteed in Article III. The very constitutional provision that FVR says the CBCP is violating in fact grants the latter and its members the right to adhere to a particular religious belief (about the claimed immorality of artificial birth control) under the free exercise clause and to express such belief under the free speech clause.

The CBCP, or any other religious group for that matter, has every right to campaign for or against a particular legislation, candidate or governmental action that it deems contrary to the tenets of its religion. The free exercise of religion clause under the Constitution guarantees this right.