‘Blundering idiot’ or ‘honest disagreements’

WHY DO towns want to be converted into cities? Why do existing cities oppose their conversion? Why do remote islands, like Dinagat, want to become provinces? The answers have economic and legal dimensions, which, unfortunately, inflicted collateral damage on the Supreme Court.

Economic dimension. The Local Government Code (LGC) grants to local government units a generous share of the national taxes via the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA). For example, the 122 cities in the country collectively get 23 percent of the IRA, which is divided among them.

The actual share of each city depends to a large extent on the number of existing cities, such that when the number of cities increases, the proportionate share of each one decreases. Hence, existing cities zealously guard the creation of new ones because the latter dilute their share of the pot.

Understandably, towns want to be converted into cities because they will share a much bigger income from the IRA of only 122 cities, and no longer from the IRA divided among 1,500 towns. More IRA largesse means more funds for socio-economic development and, of course, more salaries, more allowances and more perks for local officials.

By the same token, the Province of Dinagat Islands was created so it could enjoy full IRA as a separate province instead of just sharing a portion of the IRA of its mother province, Surigao del Norte. Additionally, it could elect a separate set of provincial officials and a new member of Congress, with separate pork barrel.

Legal dimension. The Constitution states, “No province, (or) city… may be created… except in accordance with the criteria established in the local government code.” The LGC, on the other hand, provides that a town may be converted to a component city only if it (1) generates from local sources an average annual income of P100 million, and (2) has an area of at least 100 sq. kms, or a population of at least 150,000.

Although 16 towns failed to generate P100 million income, Congress authorized them to be converted into cities via 16 “Cityhood Laws.” In League of Cities v. Comelec (Feb. 15, 2011 and April 12, 2011), the Supreme Court, by a razor thin 7-6-2 vote, reversed its earlier decision and upheld the constitutionality of the Cityhood Laws. Speaking through Justice Lucas P. Bersamin, the majority of seven resolved that these laws effectively amended the LGC and exempted the towns from the P100 million-income requirement.

The minority of six led by Justice Antonio T. Carpio nixed the amendment, arguing: “Each Cityhood Law states that if any of its provisions ‘is inconsistent with the LGC,’ the other provisions ‘shall continue to be in full force and effect.’ The clear and inescapable implication is that any provision in each Cityhood Law that is ‘inconsistent with LGC’ has no force and effect—in short, void and ineffective. Each Cityhood Law expressly and unequivocally acknowledges the superiority of the LGC and that in case of conflict, the LGC shall prevail over the Cityhood Law.” (bold types in original).

On the same date, April 12, 2011, the Supreme Court in Navarro v. Ermita, voting 9-6, also reversed its earlier decision and upheld the creation of Dinagat province even if it failed to comply with an LGC requirement for the creation of new provinces, namely, an area of at least 2,000 sq. kms., or a population of at least 250,000. (The primary requirement—income of P20 million—was met.) Writing for the majority, Justice Antonio Eduardo B. Nachura held that the “land area requirement shall not apply where the proposed province is composed of one or more islands.”

The dissents of Justices Carpio, Arturo D. Brion and Diosdado M. Peralta stressed that Dinagat failed to comply with both the area and population requirements. Further, the SC-approved exemption from the area requirement was void because it was sourced only from an implementing regulation of the Oversight Committee, not from a law.

Collateral damage. But that is not the complete story. Justice Carpio claimed the “Court has made history with its repeated flip-flopping.” He explained that on Nov. 18, 2008, the SC, by a 6-5-4 vote, already declared the Cityhood Laws unconstitutional. This decision “became final after the denial of two motions for reconsideration… An Entry of Judgment was made on 21 May 2009.” However, on Feb. 15, 2011, the SC ignored these facts and voted 6-4-3 (with two vacancies) to reverse itself and to uphold the constitutionality of the Cityhood Laws.

Similarly, the Dinagat conversion was already held unconstitutional on Feb. 10, 2010. After two motions for reconsideration were denied, the decision became final. Judgment was entered on May 18, 2010. Despite these, the Court “violated its own Rules,” recalled the Entry of Judgment, somersaulted and declared the conversion constitutional, so the dissents said.

Justice Roberto A. Abad rued that the dissents “tend to picture the Court as a silly, blundering idiot which cannot make up its mind.” He explained that “the shifts… were the product of honest disagreements.” In 2009 alone, seven justices retired but their replacements, using their independent discretion, did not necessarily adopt the views of their predecessors. In all, 23 justices participated, three of whom changed sides. Given the close votes, the reversals (he refused to call them “flip-flops”) could not be avoided.

“Blundering idiot” or “honest disagreements.” You judge the judges.

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