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Yes, the Supreme Court can!

Publication Date : 01-06-2014

 

 “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws.”

So goes the first section of the Bill of Rights of the Philippine Constitution, heralding our rights to due process and equal protection. These twin rights are intended to safeguard our people, especially the poor and the powerless, from the tyranny of government.

Due process protects all persons, whether citizen or alien, natural or juridical, and enables them to enjoy three inalienable possessions: life, liberty and property.

It has two aspects: substantive and procedural. Substantive refers to the objectives and intrinsic validity of laws and executive actions.

Procedural refers to the means or methods to carry out the objectives. Good intentions should be attained only by equally good methods.

Basically, due process “hears before it condemns, proceeds upon inquiry and renders judgment only after trial.” For lay people, it simply means the right to be heard prior to being judged.

In the legal world, however, it goes beyond this simple concept. Legally, due process can be satisfied only by (1) an impartial court (2) clothed with the legal power or jurisdiction over the “subject matter of the controversy” (3) and over the “person of the defendant” (4) who must be given full opportunity to be heard (5) before being judged.

At times, these five requirements are easy to grasp. For example, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada went to the Supreme Court alleging a violation of his right to due process when the Office of the Ombudsman initially ignored his request to be furnished certain documents detailing his alleged involvement in the pork barrel scam. Seeing his point and to avoid delay, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales promptly sent him the documents he had sought.

At other times, they irritate and frustrate.

Example: the Sandiganbayan (SBN) is clothed by law with the power to hear and decide cases involving public officials. But there are millions of public officials with thousands of possible cases. Citing gaps in the law, lawyers routinely question the SBN’s jurisdiction over their clients’ specific cases. And when rebuffed, they elevate the matter to the Supreme Court.

If they succeed, all proceedings would be invalidated for lack of jurisdiction or authority to decide such cases.

Equal protection is the constitutional guarantee against favoritism and discrimination. It requires even treatment of all persons similarly situated. It mandates laws to be equally enforced and applied.

However, equality is not absolute because factual situations are not always the same and need classification. For instance, aliens are classed differently from citizens; they cannot vote or be voted to public office because they owe no allegiance to our country. Also, as a class apart, senior citizens are granted 20-per cent discount.

Equal protection becomes an issue whenever special treatment is accorded and the reason for the divergence or classification is challenged. For example, in the plunder case against then President Joseph Estrada, his lawyers questioned the creation of a Special SBN Division to try his case exclusively.

As background, the SBN is composed of several divisions of three justices each. The compositions change when the division memberships are rotated as vacancies occur (due to retirements) and are filled up with new appointees.

The frequent changes in composition delayed Estrada’s trial. Thus, the Supreme Court created a Special Division whose composition was fixed and unaffected by the rotations. Up to this day, former senator Rene A. V. Saguisag is still assailing the creation of this Special Division that tried and convicted his client for the alleged violation of these twin rights.

Aping this example, some defence lawyers in the Ampatuan massacre case cried foul after the Supreme Court cleared the docket of Presiding Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes and assigned her assisting judges so she could focus on this trial. Why, they ask, should their clients be singled out without any perceptible differentiation from others similarly situated?

Search for solution. Frustrated over the complexities of these twin rights, many readers, citing Singapore and Malaysia as models, pose authoritarianism as the instant solution. However, we tried that during the martial law years and it did not work in our milieu. Worse, it caused more injustices and deprivations. I think our people will not exchange their hard-won freedoms for the harsh efficiencies of strongman rule.

An innovative and courageous judiciary, backed by a vigilant citizenry, can redefine these rights. The Constitution did not give due process and equal protection precise definitions. It left the judiciary wide latitude in interpreting them according to the peculiar needs of each case.

Accordingly, these rights have been construed from time to time by introducing judicially-invented classifications, distinctions and differentiation. Indeed, jurisprudence “must be stable but it cannot stand still.” Our Supreme Court can revisit age-old rights to keep them in step with our digital and biotechnological revolutions.

In sum, I am confident the Supreme Court has the will and the weapons to simplify legal processes and allow good governance and the sterling growth of our economy (that impressed the recently-concluded World Economic Forum) to take root and endure changes in political leadership. Yes, the Supreme Court can.


 

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