A recent political ad carried this truncated quotation from Chief Justice Reynato Puno: ". . . 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."
The clear suggestion of the quotation is that constitutional requirements must yield to popular vote. Is that what Chief Justice Puno meant?
Justice Puno is in no position to answer the question now, but the Supreme Court spokesperson has said, presumably with authorization of Puno, that his statement must be read in context. I shall therefore try to read it in context.
The cited case was about Fernando Poe, Jr whose qualification for the presidency had been challenged on the ground that he was an illegitimate son of a Filipino father by an alien mother. The argument was that an illegitimate child follows the citizenship of the alien mother. Puno's reading of the Constitution and of jurisprudence on citizenship, however, was correct: what determines Philippine citizenship of an illegitimate child is the citizenship of the father provided that paternity is clear. For Puno, Poe's Filipino paternity was clear. Hence, he had no hesitation in affirming that Poe, Jr was a natural born Filipino citizen qualified to run for the presidency.
Puno also recognized that in evaluating the suitability of a candidate for the office being sought, the Supreme Court is guided only by the Constitution. The Court does not pay attention to constitutionally "irrelevant impediments" such as, to quote Puno's Prologue, "the disapprobation of political loyalty in our temples of justice, elimination of all invidious discrimination against non-marital children."
It is a different matter, however, for voters. Even if a candidate is constitutionally qualified, he may yet be rejected by the electorate. Voters look for other values than those that are enumerated among the qualifications for President and will consider even those which are constitutionally "irrelevant impediments."
Now to the quotation in the ad. It has been snipped from the Epilogue of Justice Puno to his separate opinion in the Poe case. The complete Epilogue says: "Whether respondent Fernando Poe, Jr. is qualified to run for President involves a constitutional issue but its political tone is no less dominant. The Court is split down the middle on the citizenship of respondent Poe, an issue of first impression made more difficult by the interplay of national and international law. 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."
How "indecisive" was the Court? Puno was the only justice who categorically held that Poe possessed the citizenship qualification. Three others held that Poe was not qualified; but the majority held that the issue of citizenship could only be definitively settled in an "election contest" should Poe win in the election. Puno, therefore, had to concede to what the majority wanted, namely that the voters must first act before the Court could pass on constitutionality. Thus he said, "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."
But Puno himself was of the thinking of Justices Carpio and Tinga who categorically wanted the citizenship issue settled before the elections, contrary to what the majority wanted. Justice Carpio said, "The conduct of an election necessarily includes the initial determination of who are qualified under existing laws to run for public office in an election. Otherwise, the Comelec’s certified list of candidates will be cluttered with unqualified candidates making the conduct of elections unmanageable.”
More picturesquely Justice Tinga put it thus: "Let the people decide" is "the battle cry of those among us who opt to take the path of least resistance – to let the sovereign will chart the course of the Philippine political landscape. That argument is also a malaise, whether caused by academic sloth, intellectual cowardice or judicial amnesia, which has unfortunately plagued this Court. It is an easy cop-out that overlooks the fact that the Constitution is itself an expression of the sovereign will. The Filipino people, by ratifying the Constitution, elected to be bound by it, to be ruled by a fundamental law and not by a hooting throng."
Tinga added, "I harbor no pretensions of being wiser than our people when it comes to political questions. The questions raised, however, are not political but legal, and the people, by the same Charter to which they bound themselves, have reposed upon the members of this Court a duty to perform and an oath to uphold, to answer the hard legal questions and to blaze new trails in jurisprudence. . . . I see no reason why the Court should shirk from its constitutional obligation and allow the electorate to squander its votes on an ineligible candidate."
Briefly, therefore, as the sovereign people themselves have decided when they ratified the Constitution, whether a person is qualified to become President or not is decided not by ad hoc popular vote but by the Supreme Court.
2 November 2009