Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Estrada Returns

Estrada Returns

Given rising election fever, the imperative to confront the issue of former President Joseph Estrada cannot be timelier. The implications of Estrada’s recent survey rankings hinge on three words within the Constitution. That sides have been taken opposite the statutory verbiage attest to the urgency of settling between sovereign will and stolid statutes.

More than simply the presidency, it is our democracy being wagered. That Estrada was the last president popularly elected through processes untainted by charges of cheating cannot be denied. Should there be a repeat reinforcement of popular will, the resurrection of trust in suffrage facilitates the restoration of democratic institutions waylaid under Gloria Arroyo.

Surveys depict Estrada a frontrunner. If that reflects emergent reality then it reflects sovereign will. Against the Constitution it overwhelms the novel “constructive resignation” paradigm that entered jurisprudence and institutionalized invasive powers to peek into a president’s mind and infer sacrosanct intent.

Fortunately, should sovereign will challenge law, preambles arbitrate.

On Estrada’s eligibility to seek the presidency as a former president and private citizen to whom political rights were restored, the relevant constitutional provisions are Section 4 of Article VII.

To wit, “THE President shall not be eligible for ANY REELECTION. No person who has succeeded as President and has served as such for more than four years shall be qualified for election to the same office at ANY time.” (Caps supplied)

The second sentence applies to Arroyo. It’s irrelevant. Unfortunately the three highlighted words can aggravate into an impasse.

In a legal opinion in conjunction with other arguments, Atty. Aquilino Pimentel III says the article “The” in the phrase “The President” can refer only to the “particular holder of that title”, the incumbent.

More than semantics, the article “The” identifies and specifies. Had “A President” been written, then the terms include former and incumbent executives. Within the same sentence with the adjective “any”, the latter, universally encompassing, ambiguity results between specificity and universality.

Some label this simplistic. However, in legal construction, where laws don’t specify, no specification applies. Inversely, Dean Jorge Bocobo wrote, “It does not say “A” President, or “Any President”, or “All Presidents”. It says THE President.” Nothing can be more specific.

Those arguing ineligibility say “any” encompasses all elections, immediately or after intervening terms. They similarly invoke legal construction where absent qualifications, none applies.

Combining “specificity” with the term “reelection” is the crux of the issue. Backstopped by Former Chief Justice Andres Narvasa, former SC Justice Serafin Cuevas, Ateneo Law Professor Alan Paguia, U.P. Professor Randolph David, Former Justice Minister Estelito Mendoza, Attorneys Jose and Jay Flaminiano and former Senator Rene Saguisag, Pimentel says the “incumbent’s advantage” underlies the “reelection” prohibition. Accordingly, the incumbent is pinpointed. Because of the specificity of “The President”, Pimentel’s argument turns formidable.

Former Constitutional Commissioner Rev. Joaquin Bernas, S.J. disputes Estrada’s eligibility. Others abdicate to judicial prerogatives.

Amid the discord, there is relief. Writing on constitutional limitations, Thomas McIntyre Cooley, the 25th Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote, “The Constitution does not derive its force from the convention which framed it, but from the people who ratified it. The intent to be arrived at is that of the people.”

In Lambino et al, vs. COMELEC (G.R. 174153, October 25, 2006), “The intent to be arrived at is that of the people, and it is not to be supposed that they have looked for any dark or abstruse meaning in the words employed…”

“Where there is controversy in the interpretation of the Constitution, it is not only the intent of the framers that must be considered but the intention of the people who ratified it”.

In Tecson and Desiderio versus COMELEC (G.R.161434, March 3, 2004), concurring with ponente Justice Jose Vitug, Chief Justice Reynato Puno wrote, “…the better policy approach is to let the people decide who will be the next President. For on political questions, this Court may err, but the sovereign people will not. To be sure, the Constitution did not grant to the unelected members of this Court the right to elect in behalf of the people”.

Further concurring, Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez likewise wrote, “This right to choose cannot be subtly interfered with through the elimination of the electoral choice… Disqualifying a candidate, particularly the popular one, on the basis of doubtful claims does not result to a genuine, free and fair election. It results to violence.”

Nothing is more eloquent. On political questions, the sovereign people cannot err.