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.