Q and A on the Comelec leadership

MY COLUMN LAST SUNDAY, BATTING for transparency in energizing the leadership of the Commission on Elections to enable it to “finally reform and automate our archaic election system, and conduct credible, speedy and peaceful elections,” has elicited some interesting questions that deserve immediate answers.

Leader or jurist’ Question: “Chief Justice, you said that, ideally, the Comelec chair must be a visionary leader and a great lawyer at the same time. But ideals are difficult to come by. If a choice must be made, who would be a better Comelec head: a great lawyer who is a so-so leader, or a visionary leader who is not so great a lawyer?”

Answer: The latter. I think that, more than anything, the Comelec needs a leader (not just a manager) who will relentlessly pursue a clear vision and mission, and show, by personal example, the values of integrity, independence, transparency, accountability, probity and competence.

Mainly, the Comelec is mandated to “enforce and administer” all election laws. Now, the enforcement of these laws demands innovative leadership, executive ability and InfoTech know-how, and not necessarily deliberative or legal skills. In fact, the chief executive of our country, the president, is not even required to be a lawyer. Note also that I titled my last column “Choosing credible Comelec leaders,” not “Comelec jurists.”

Of course, the President is assisted by a phalanx of lawyers—notably, the secretary of justice, the presidential legal counsel and the solicitor general—who were chosen for their presumed legal acumen. Similarly, the Comelec chair should be complemented by commissioners who are well versed in election law to enable the poll body to perform its judicial functions credibly.

Many years ago, the legal credentials of Christian Monsod were challenged, on the ground that he did not actively practise law as required by the Constitution. Liberally interpreting the catchwords “practice of law,” the Supreme Court held that his legal management experience was sufficient to qualify him as Comelec chair. Though heavily criticized by the bar and the academe, this hairline 8-to-7 decision was vindicated, because Monsod—assisted by some commissioners cum legal eagles, notably Haydee Yorac—showed adroit executive skill in conducting honest, orderly and peaceful elections during his watch.

Ban on reappointments. Question: “Why does the Constitution ban reappointments?” Answer: The prohibition, whether to the same post of commissioner or to the higher position of chair, is designed to assure the independence and integrity of the Comelec. Commissioners, who aspire for reappointment or, worse, for promotion to the chairmanship, are vulnerable to the partisan wiles of the president (who holds the power to appoint) and of the members of the Commission on Appointments (which wields the authority to confirm appointments).

Question: “Why do appointees serve only the unused portion of a term, not the entire seven years provided by the Constitution?” Answer: In “Gaminde vs Commission on Audit” (Dec. 13, 2000), the Supreme Court said that an appointee may sit only for the “unexpired balance of the term” of the predecessor to preserve the “two-year interval between the expiration of terms.”

The 1987 Constitution states that of the seven Comelec commissioners to be first appointed, “three Members shall hold office for seven years, two Members for five years, and the last for three years.” Thereafter, every new member would have a seven-year term. The Court wanted to maintain the two-year interval in the terms of the seven commissioners. In this way, the president, who normally serves only six years, will not be able to anoint all seven members; again, to safeguard the poll body’s independence.

However, President Macapagal-Arroyo became an exception because, by a constitutional quirk, she would be able to serve a total of nine and a half years—three and half (January 2001 to June 2004) as the successor to the unexpired term of President Joseph Estrada, and six (July 2004 to June 2010) as elected President. Consequently, she would be able to appoint all seven Comelec members.

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Barangay elections. I believe that GMA was ill advised in proposing the postponement of the barangay elections, scheduled on Oct. 29, 2007, to August 2008. In “David vs Comelec” (April 8, 1997), the high court unanimously struck down two petitions to defer the holding of the barangay elections scheduled on May 12, 1997. It described the petitions as “subtle but nonetheless self-serving propositions to lengthen governance without a mandate from the governed.”

The proposed postponement would have allowed the incumbent barangay officials to hold office longer than the terms of the president, senators, representatives, governors and mayors. Worse, all the Sangguniang Kabataan elected in 2002 would be over-aged by August 2008. Finally, what will happen to the millions that the Comelec has already spent in preparing for the elections? By scuttling the postponement, the Senate may have saved GMA from another splitting legal headache.

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