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Term-limits petition at SC has transcendental importance for the nation

July 11, 2019


First of 2 parts

First word

FIVE lawyers and three concerned citizens joined together last Monday, July 8, 2019, to file at the Supreme Court a special civil action for mandamus to compel the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to enforce the provisions of the Constitution on the term limits of elective officials under Sections 4 and 7, Article VI of the Charter.

The group asked me to join the petition because they have learned of my keen interest and research on the subject through various columns on term limits that I published in the Manila Times.

I readily agreed because in truth this civil action is what I have secretly been hoping for — that similarly concerned citizens, including lawyers, would be roused by the open mockery of the Constitution to take the issue to the Supreme Court. I did not instigate the action by professionally hiring legal counsel; rather I appear to have helped provoke it through my writing.

This civil action is one whose time has surely come.

32 years in coming

It is now 32 years since our people ratified the 1987 Constitution in a national plebiscite on Feb. 2,1987 with 76 percent of the vote.

Eleven nationwide elections have been held since our fundamental law came to life because of our people’s exercise of popular sovereignty.

Beginning with the third and fourth elections, termed-out elective officials (senators, representatives and local officials) have persistently and routinely filed their certificates of candidacy for the same office that they had already served to the limit. They were permitted to run by the Comelec without regard for the term limits expressly provided by the Constitution and which the election commission is duty bound to enforce.

In this fashion, scores of termed-out officials and politicians have used the advantages and perks of incumbency to win more terms in office illegitimately. And many of these officials continue to serve under false pretenses to this day.

My fellow petitioners and I tell ourselves that the Supreme Court will not fail to hear our petition.

The high court will surely not refuse to hear a humble and earnest petition by ordinary citizens who belong to no political alignment, with no bias for the administration or the opposition, and who chiefly want to see order and right restored in our constitutional system, so that citizens can regain their confidence to participate as voters or candidates in national elections.

What petitioners are seeking

The petition seeks two salutary results from the hearing of its cause.

First, it hopes to persuade the high court to issue an order to the Commission on Elections to enforce the letter and spirit of the provisions of the Constitution on term limits for elective officials as embodied in Article VI, Sections 4 and 7.

Second, the petition hopes to persuade the high court to formally reverse its ruling in Socrates v. Comelec, Sandoval v. Comelec, and Adovo v. Comelec, which has caused so much confusion and the setting aside of the term-limit provisions of the Constitution

Should their petition find favor, the petitioners pray that the high court will declare the election of termed-out legislators and local officials as unconstitutional, and order them to vacate their offices to pave the way for the election of fully qualified aspirants.

The petitioners pray that through the granting of their petition, the Comelec will hereafter stop giving due course to the candidacy certificates of termed-out senators, representatives and local elective officials, effective in the upcoming elections in May 2022, and elections thereafter.

Why we can win this argument

The lawyers in our group are experienced litigators and legal researchers.

I contribute to this effort my 20 years of experience as a journalist, 14 years in the public service as a presidential adviser and speechwriter (to two presidents), and specialization in public policy research and development.

We are aware that we face in this litigation the combined might and influence of sitting officials and even some members of the high court itself.

We are undaunted by the relation of forces.

We have reviewed all the issues, arguments and facts in this case, and we are convinced that we can argue this case successfully in court.

Term limits perhaps will not find a more tenacious and resourceful advocate than this group.

Arguments for reversal of SC ruling

Of the many arguments for the reversal of Socrates v. Comelec, I consider the following as the most compelling and persuasive, perhaps even dispositive.

Dispositive is a fact or point of law which brings about the settlement of a contested issue.

1. The 1987 Constitution has a clear policy of term limits for all elective officials, from the president, to senators, to representatives, to local officials.

The president has one term, and no reelection.

A senator can serve two terms (not more than two).

A representative can serve three terms (not more than three).

A governor, mayor, board member and councilor can serve three terms (not more than three).

Term limits are integral to the entire architecture and design of our constitutional system.

If we waver on term limits, the constitutional order will be infirm.

Since the Constitution was ratified in 1987, our duly elected presidents have dutifully observed and honored the no-reelection rule.

Why should junior officials, like a senator, representative or local government official, be allowed to circumvent the term-limit rule?

If our president can honor it without fail, why do senators and other lower officials fail to honor the rule?

2. In failing to enforce the term-limit policy in national elections, the Commission on Elections is manifestly guilty of dereliction of duty. Dereliction of duty is abandonment of duty.

The constitutional commission has failed its sworn duty to “enforce and administer all laws and regulations relative to the conduct of an election, plebiscite, initiative, referendum and recall.”

It has failed to exercise its original jurisdiction over the qualifications of candidates to run for office.

By abandoning its duty, the Comelec has thrown our election system into chaos and uncertainty, and disfigured the quality of service in elective office.

It has twisted the values, attitudes and practices of Philippine political culture.

3. In the text of the Constitution, the term limit provisions decree a lifetime ban on termed-out officials from their earlier office. Once the term limit is reached, the official cannot run for the same office again.

The argument that some of the members of the Constitutional Commission (ConCom) that drafted the 1987 Charter did not intend a lifetime ban, and only wanted a temporary suspension of service, is spurious and untenable. The constitutional ban is expressed in prohibitory language: “No senator can serve more than two consecutive terms.”

The constitutional text means exactly what it says. If the words of the Constitution are clear, you must follow them.

The three basic rules of statutory interpretation are: the literal rule, the golden rule and the mischief rule.

According to the literal rule, it is the task of the court to give the words to be construed their literal meaning regardless of whether the result is sensible or not.

The literal rule is the primary and dominant one. The golden and mischief rules are merely other main principles of interpretation.

Lord Brougham of England put the issue matter-of-factly when he said: “If we depart from the plain and obvious meaning, we do not construe the act but alter it…and are really making the law and not interpreting it.”

This is what happened to the phrase “not more than two terms” in the Socrates v. Comelec ruling.

Socrates v. Comelec has indubitably caused the most vexations and misunderstandings in our electoral politics. It has disfigured entire institutions, particularly the Senate.

I shall discuss the shortcomings of Socrates v. Comelec and other issues in my next column.

(To be concluded on Saturday)

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