SC’s ruling final: Grace can run
Edu Punay (The Philippine Star) - April 9, 2016 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines – By declaring Sen. Grace Poe eligible to run for president but skipping questions regarding her citizenship and residency status, the Supreme Court is effectively leaving it up to the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) to handle possible poll protests in case she wins.

Justices of the high court have conceded failure to come up with a clear majority ruling on the citizenship issue in dismissing appeals on an earlier decision allowing Poe’s presidential bid.

In full session in Baguio City last April 5, the magistrates maintained their 7-5-3 voting on whether Poe is a natural-born citizen qualified to run for president under the Constitution.

But nine justices – or a majority – maintained their position that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) committed grave abuse of discretion in canceling the certificate of candidacy (COC) of the senator due to supposed material misrepresentation in her citizenship and residency qualifications.

The nine were Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno and Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr., Diosdado

Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Jose Perez, Jose Mendoza, Marvic Leonen, Francis Jardeleza and Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa.

The six justices in the minority were Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, Arturo Brion, Mariano del Castillo, Estela Perlas-Bernabe and Bienvenido Reyes.

But on the issues involving Poe’s citizenship and residency, only seven justices voted in favor of the senator – that she is presumed to be a natural-born citizen despite being a foundling.

The seven were Sereno, Velasco, Bersamin, Perez, Mendoza, Leonen and Jardeleza.

Five magistrates have taken the position that Poe is not a natural-born Filipino, citing her failure to establish Filipino blood lineage as required by law. The five were Carpio, De Castro, Brion, Reyes and Bernabe.

Three other magistrates – Peralta, Del Castillo and Caguioa – held that it was premature to settle the citizenship issue, which could only be determined by the PET in an election protest against Poe should she win the election.

SC rules require that if all 15 justices deliberated and voted on a case, a majority of eight votes are required for a petition to be considered either approved or rejected.

In his dissenting opinion, Brion said the qualifications of Poe have yet to be resolved in a possible PET case.

“No legal bar exists for a qualified petitioner to question Poe’s qualifications after the elections should she win,” he said.

‘Gross violation’

Brion called the majority ruling a “gross violation of the law,” as it allowed the possibility of one who is not a natural-born Filipino to occupy the presidency.

“The majority gave the electorate a run around by allowing Poe to run without first examining if she is indeed qualified,” he said.

“Citizenship cannot be presumed, claimant must be able to prove she is a Filipino citizen,” he explained.

Carpio, who also voted against the senator, said “the issue of Poe’s citizenship remains hanging.”

The senior magistrate has also warned of possible repercussions of the ruling on election results.

“The majority will allow a candidate with unsettled citizenship to be elected president... The ruling of the majority will lead to an absurd result,” he explained.

Carpio reiterated his stand that the eligibility of Poe should be determined with certainty and finality before the elections on May 9.

“All qualifications of those running for the presidency must be resolved by Comelec prior to elections... Otherwise, all nuisance candidates must now be allowed to run,” he argued.

In her separate dissenting opinion, De Castro expressed belief the ruling could jeopardize the conduct of the election.

She also stressed an election victory for Poe would not erase the questions on her eligibility.

“The delay in the ruling on citizenship will only invite instability in the conduct of the coming elections,” she pointed out.

“There is no majority ruling that Grace Poe is a natural-born citizen. There is no majority ruling that foundlings found here are natural-born Filipinos,” Reyes said.

Sereno said there were only 12 justices who voted on the issue since three had abstained and should not be counted.

However, a reading of the separate opinions of the justices also showed a 7-6-2 vote on the issue of whether Poe has met the 10-year residency requirement for the presidency.

There were also only seven of the nine justices in the majority who opined that Poe would meet the 10-year residency requirement under the Constitution.

They did not include Peralta and Mendoza, who said the issue must be resolved only before the PET.

When the SC ruled on the case last March 8, the two magistrates did not clarify such position as they only concurred in the ruling and did not issue separate opinions.

Peralta said he shared Caguioa’s view that discussions on the issue are “premature, the same being cognizable only after she had been proclaimed as winner of the presidential elections and through a petition filed in the PET, and not the Comelec, with the precise purpose of contesting what she had stated as her qualifications.”

Moving on

With the final ruling, Sereno said it is time for the candidates to move forward and for the voters not to be distracted by cases pending with the court.

“The majority believes that the nation’s interest is best served if the legal controversy over the Comelec’s actions of preventing petitioner from running for office in May 2016 is immediately terminated,” Sereno said in her concurring opinion.

“It serves no good purpose for baseless howls of protest to amplify today’s ambient noise. No one is benefited except those who want to ‘game’ judicial processes for political ends,” she said.

The Chief Justice said the high court should respect whoever is chosen by the nation to be its new leader.

“The sovereign choice on who will be the next president of the Philippines must be respected by this court. Only after this choice has been made may we potentially step in,” she pointed out.

“Needless to say, the expression of this electoral choice would necessarily affect how this court will decide the issues brought before it,” she added.

Sereno also pointed out that under the Constitution, the SC’s role has limitations. “For the implicit fundamental premise of the Constitution is that while this Court may err on who should be the rightful leader of this country, the people, on this matter, can never be in error,” she stressed.

“That is why this court must not even indirectly attempt to substitute its will for that of the electorate; it must remain politically neutral, and so should the Comelec,” the Chief Justice pointed out.

Sympathy votes

A source said the final SC decision allowing Poe’s presidential bid may have been based not just on legal grounds, but also on “pity.” 

“Many (of the justices) sympathized with (Sen. Poe) because a ruling declaring her not a natural-born would lead to her removal from her current post as senator,” the insider explained.

“Yes, there was discussion on that (effect on Poe’s status as senator). It was mentioned during deliberation,” the source added.

The source, also a member of the court, bared that such sympathy might have played a big factor in the SC decision on the case – especially since the justices were expected to have a close voting.

The source, however, could not tell exactly who among the justices had voted based on sympathy or pity.

The insider only recalled that sympathy for Poe was evident during oral arguments on the case. The source cited public admission by some justices that they could relate with Poe’s situation as a foundling either by advocacy or personal relation.

One of the justices revealed during one of the hearings that he grew up without a father.

The source sees nothing wrong with this, as the motto “those who have less in life should have more in law” has always guided the high tribunal in many of its rulings.

But the insider lamented the justices’ agreeing with Poe’s position that errors in her COC were merely “honest mistakes” and not material misrepresentation.

It was a “shallow point,” compared to legal arguments raised by the Comelec and by Poe’s detractors, the source said.

In its ruling approved by a majority of nine justices and which became final last Tuesday, the high court cited the presumption accorded to foundlings like Poe by international laws as natural-born instead of strictly applying the blood lineage requirement in the constitution.

The SC held that Poe is probably natural-born as she was found at a Catholic church in Iloilo and possesses “typical Filipino features such as height, flat nasal bridge, straight black hair, almond shaped eyes, and an oval face.” – With Evelyn Macairan

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