SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - February 4, 2016 - 9:00am

Think about it: if the disqualification cases against Sen. Grace Poe had gone straight to the Supreme Court last year, everything would have been settled with finality by now.

OK, considering the pace of the SC, this is also iffy. Still, if the cases did not have to go to the Commission on Elections first, there’s a good chance that ballot printing would have started by now, with no doubts about the qualifications at least of those running for president. It would have saved the nation a lot of political uncertainty, and the Comelec could have busied itself with other pressing matters in preparation for the May polls.

Whatever decision is reached by the Comelec, either the candidate or the petitioner in a disqualification case goes to the SC anyway. The SC disregards Comelec rulings. So why waste time, effort and people’s money for useless Comelec deliberations?

All Comelec divisions were unanimous in their decision to disqualify Poe. The cases went to the SC anyway, where Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno is arguing passionately for the case of foundlings.

Even Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte is not yet home free despite the unanimous decision by a Comelec division to junk all the disqualification cases against him. The petitioners can still seek a reconsideration of this ruling, after which the cases will go to the full Comelec, whose decision will also be open to a motion for reconsideration. Then the cases can go to the SC, regardless of the entire Comelec’s decision.

By the time all legal remedies have been exhausted and the SC comes up with a ruling that is final and for execution, the May elections would have long been over.

And because the SC some years ago did the unprecedented and reversed its own supposedly final, executory decision, there is a possibility that the disqualification cases could become bogged down in perpetual litigation.

This wouldn’t be a problem if both Poe and Duterte are included in the ballot but lose with the disqualification cases still waiting for a final SC ruling. The tribunal may just archive the cases, explaining that the candidates’ defeat has rendered the cases moot, as the SC did in the disqualification case filed against presidential candidate Joseph Estrada in the 2010 race. Erap placed an impressive second in that race. Without so-called “necro-politics,” he might have won.

In the current race, both Poe and Duterte are strong contenders. Consider the scenarios if either of them wins and is later disqualified.

We have a poll body that is inutile in deciding on the qualifications of candidates. Why does it bother with the work? This situation is absurd and a waste of time and public resources.

* * *

Foreign investors have also complained that business regulatory bodies are just as emasculated as the Comelec, with all decisions appealable to the courts. Comelec rulings at least are directly elevated to the SC. In business disputes, rulings of regulatory bodies can go to the regional trial court first before going up to higher tribunals. Resolving business disputes with finality can take a decade or two. This wreaks havoc on investments.

Aware of this problem, investors from several countries now require the inclusion of a clause in contracts, especially big-ticket ones involving the Philippine government, that in case of a dispute, the issue will be subjected to international arbitration. But even with this clause, decisions by foreign arbitral tribunals have been challenged before Philippine courts when it comes to implementation, such as in the amounts to be paid by one party to another.

The SC has been criticized for poking its nose even into areas where it has no expertise, and failing to get the needed expert advice, such as in the case of its sweeping ban on genetically modified organisms. The GMO ban has affected not only field-testing of pest-resistant and higher-yield crops but also importation of products such as animal feed.

Responding to environmental groups, the SC has even ordered executive offices to clean up Manila Bay. Everyone wishes that this would happen, but the judiciary is encroaching on executive functions here.

With the high tribunal accepting anything and everything piled on its plate, it’s little wonder that it has a gargantuan caseload and can’t decide anything quickly enough.

* * *

SC justices will probably explain that they are merely carrying out their constitutional duty. I’ve written about the constitutional provision that was not in any of the previous charters of the land, cited to me by several current and retired SC justices themselves.

The provision states that judicial power includes the “duty of the courts of justice” to determine “whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the Government.”

Admittedly, there are many cases wherein orders or decisions smack of grave abuse of discretion, such as in electoral protests. But if the SC will be the final arbiter anyway, why waste time, effort and public funds by bringing poll protests first to the Comelec and the House and Senate electoral tribunals?

Because of the time it takes for protests to reach the SC and get a final ruling, those who unlawfully occupy an elective post can finish nearly the entire term before the real winner is installed. That’s robbing voters of their will.

The SC has also rendered the Comelec useless in regulating campaign finance and bringing sanity to the party-list system. Perhaps one day the SC will even count the votes.

Charter change would have best been accomplished under President Aquino, who was seen to be genuinely uninterested in perpetuating himself in power. Miffed by the SC, P-Noy said he wanted to clip “judicial overreach” and for a while seemed ready to go along with Cha-cha. But he made sure his mother’s Freedom Constitution would remain untouched under his watch by threatening, every time there was a serious move for economic Cha-cha, to propose a Charter overhaul that would allow him to seek a second term.

So economic Cha-cha is currently as dead as the Bangsamoro law. The SC appears unwilling to practice some self-restraint in accepting cases. And here we are, faced with uncertainty over the presidential race.

It’s too late for the current administration, but the next one may want to sit down with Congress and the SC to discuss this state of affairs. If the gods of Padre Faura are unwilling to give even an inch to have their vast powers clipped, Cha-cha will need serious consideration.


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