Interesting times for the Supreme Court

Published September 19, 2018, 12:05 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat



J. Art D. Brion (RET.)
J. Art D. Brion (RET.)

Our system of government operates on the separation-of-powers principle.  Although simply demonstrated rather than explicitly expressed in our Constitution, the principle is undisputed.

Under this principle, the Supreme Court is assigned the task of interpreting the Constitution and of ruling on the boundaries of the powers granted to the departments and the constitutional bodies. The Constitution stresses the weight of this judicial task by explicitly labelling it a “duty.”

The court is ideally an apolitical body.  The cases it handles, however, involve matters undisputedly political in character, particularly when the court demarcates the finer boundary lines between or within the executive and the legislative departments whose daily fare involves policies and politics. In these types of cases, nobody usually would admit defeat: he or she should have won if the Court had been fair.

A high-profile petition currently with the court is the validity of President Duterte’s Proclamation No. 572 that invalidates the amnesty President Aquino granted to Senator Trillanes: the Senator allegedly failed to comply with the prescribed amnesty standards.

The case, many would say, is political because the senator is an unrelenting critic of President Duterte. To protect himself, the senator filed a petition for certiorari and prohibition with the court to nullify Proclamation No. 572, with a prayer for injunctive relief to prevent the proclamation’s enforcement.

The Supreme Court promptly acted by denying the injunctive writ prayed for, observing that factual matters are involved; it stated that “only a trial court, and in certain cases, the Court of Appeals are trier of facts.” Thus, “the Makati RTC should be given leeway in exercising its concurrent jurisdiction to hear and resolve the pleadings/motions filed by the parties as regards the legality of Proclamation No. 572.”

The Court also observed, apparently as direct justification, that it saw “no extreme and urgent necessity” for the issuance of a writ, and at the same time required the respondents to comment on the petition within 10 days.

The court interestingly mentioned its concurrent jurisdiction with the regional trial court, perhaps because they both exercise the power of judicial review over the constitutionality of acts of the executive and the legislature. The disputed act that Senator Trillanes disputes is an executive act, and hence falls within their concurrent power by constitutional and statutory definition.

The petition now with the court, in fact, should have been filed with the lower courts under the principle of hierarchy of courts after the court found that it rests on unsettled questions of fact.

Under this principle, when jurisdiction is concurrent (in this case, over the petition for certiorari), the primary recourse within the judicial hierarchy should be with the lower courts to avoid burdening the higher courts. This is particularly true when questions of fact are involved.

The court’s resolution, however, did not actually refer the Trillanes petition to the lower courts for disposition; it merely recognized that the petition involves questions of fact appropriate for lower court disposition, and then directed the respondents to comment on the petition. Thereby, the court clearly indicated its continued claim over the petition and its intent to grant the petitioner a full hearing, apparently without giving due course to the petition.

Why the court would so act is understandable to those who know the court well: it might have purposely refrained from touching the main petition because four justices – JJ. Carpio, Leonen, Tijam, and Gesmundo – were not in attendance.  This kind of action, to my mind, is collegiality at its best and should be lauded, not faulted.

Unavoidably, however, the court’s resolution raises the question: Can the lower courts now decide whether the proclamation gave renewed life to the previously dismissed Trillanes cases as basis for his arrest? Wouldn’t their action on these cases depend on the validity of the Proclamation No. 572 whose constitutional merits the Supreme Court has yet to touch?

I cannot comment on how the lower courts can best resolve the dilemma they now face.  I can point out, though, the possibility that the high Court may simply wait for the comments and thereafter, through a fuller court, dismiss the petition without prejudice under the view that indeed unresolved factual issues are involved and the appropriate handling court should be the lower courts. This court response will of course bring the senator back to square one.

The court may also simply rule on the merits of the petition on the basis of the parties’ submissions, factual and legal, in the parties’ comments and responses. Can the court do this when it is not a trial court?

Of course, it can, under established rulings that rules of procedure are at all times subject to the court’s authority. Due process, too, would have been observed if the parties are accorded the full opportunity to fully interact through their pleadings. The petitioner may understandably raise a howl, but only if he loses. (He will keep quiet, of course, if the ruling goes his way; due process and the rule of law have been observed, he would say.)

The court may likewise call for oral arguments and thereby impliedly allow the introduction of evidence for or against the grant of the petition. This eventuality may compel Senator Trillanes to remain for some time in the Senate premises, a move that is not without its costs to his modus operandi; his Senate stay depends on pure hospitality which he may not abuse by playing politics within its premises. This much the Senate president has already made clear.

Beyond these procedural possibilities, I dare not say more lest I violate the sub judice rule against comments on the merits of pending judicial matters. I can only add that the Trillanes case comes just as the 2019 political season is opening.  I am sure there will be more controversial cases to come as this season heats up.

Interesting times, indeed, especially for an apolitical court!

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