Disagree, but not disobey

Several congressmen are restive. They are dismayed by many alleged “flip-flopping” decisions of the Supreme Court and are threatening to disobey some of these and to impeach the justices for their “bad” rulings.

Two SC decisions. The lawmakers are especially enraged by: (1) Belgica vs Ochoa (Nov. 19, 2013) that outlawed their Priority Development Assistance Fund and (2) Reyes vs Comelec (June 25, 2013) that upheld a ruling of the Commission on Elections unseating Regina Ongsiako Reyes in the House.

Their rage is articulated by Rep. Reynaldo Umali who, in a privilege speech, labeled the justices as “judicial despots … for undermining [their] coequal counterpart branches of government, both the legislative and the executive…”

He recalled that in LAMP vs DBM (April 24, 2012), the Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the PDAF. Yet a year later, he said, it “flip-flopped” and unanimously declared it unconstitutional “in total disregard of the doctrine of stare  decisis…,  forgetting that the judiciary has its own pork barrel system called Judiciary Development Fund…”

Umali also attacked the Court for ousting Reyes after she had been proclaimed winner by the Board of Canvassers (BOC), in alleged disregard of prior court rulings that the proclamation (1) divested the Comelec of jurisdiction to unseat the winner, and (2) automatically devolved such power solely on the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET).

Reyes vs Comelec. Readers are familiar with the PDAF decision, but to understand the Reyes case, let us rewind the facts very briefly. On March 27, 2013, the Comelec First Division cancelled Reyes’ certificate of candidacy (COC) for representative of Marinduque. By such cancellation, Reyes ceased to be a candidate.

The First Division held that by her marriage to an American, Reyes lost her natural-born Filipino citizenship and, thus, was not qualified to be a lawmaker. Contrary to her claim, she did not regain her citizenship because she failed to (1) to take an oath of allegiance to the Philippines, and (2) to renounce her American citizenship, as required by Philippine law.

On May 14, the Comelec en banc, voting 6-1, affirmed the First Division’s ruling. The affirmation became final and executory on May 19.

Despite such cancellation, Reyes, whose name was printed on the automated ballot, gathered the highest number of votes, with Lord Allan Velasco placing second. On May 18, the BOC proclaimed her the winner. On June 5, she took her oath of office.

On June 5 also, Reyes sued the Comelec in the Supreme Court, accusing the poll body of exceeding its jurisdiction in canceling her COC. She argued that after she was proclaimed winner, the Comelec lost its jurisdiction over her.

On June 25, the Court, voting 7-4, issued its questioned resolution, penned by Justice Jose Portugal Perez, upholding the Comelec. Later, it denied Reyes’ two motions for reconsideration. It pointed out that under the Constitution, the HRET is “the sole judge of all contests relating to the election, returns and qualifications of [House] Members.”

Thus, it held that the Comelec’s jurisdiction ends and HRET’s begins only after winners become House “Members,” that is, after they have (1) been proclaimed, (2) taken their oath of office, and (3) assumed office on June 30 of the year following their election, when they start serving their term.

Consequently, the Court concluded that the Comelec still had jurisdiction to rule on Reyes’ qualifications when the commission issued its decision on May 14, which became final on May 19.

Clearly, the Court’s resolution was not whimsical or baseless; it had legal and logical moorings; it cited many precedents. So, with due respect, I cannot understand why it ignited a congressional conflagration and fomented threats of disobedience. Criticize, yes; disobey, no.

Rule of law. True, legislators have the right to disagree with the Court. Dissenting justices criticize the majority’s rulings. Journalists do, too. So may any citizen. However, such right is not a license to disobey the Court.

Indeed, we all have the right to disagree, but not to disobey. This is especially true for litigants who seek the intervention of the Court. They cannot refuse to obey on the guise that, in their opinion, the Court is wrong.

I have many times disagreed with the majority when I was an associate justice. When I was chief justice, I persuaded my colleagues to vote with me during our internal deliberations, but I did not begrudge those who differed from us. Now, as a retired jurist, I have critiqued decisions and “flip-flops.” But I have always honored and followed them.

Yes, congressmen may criticize, attack and bemoan. But I respectfully submit that under the rule of law, they are duty-bound to follow the decisions of the Court, whether they agree with these or not.

After all, they are not helpless. They hold the purse, they legislate laws, they have oversight powers, they determine the jurisdiction of courts, and at times, they can even change jurisprudence.

Most important, they can impeach the justices, but only for “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.” Not for their decisions, opinions or votes, even if these may later turn out to be erroneous.

By the same token, lawmakers can be disciplined only for their “disorderly behavior.” Not for their bills and votes in Congress, even if these may later turn out to be unwise.

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