I write this column as a guide to the oral arguments that will be held today in the Supreme Court on the Comelec decisions disqualifying Grace Poe. I have weighed in on many issues on these cases but for today’s column, out of respect for the Court, I will refrain from putting forward my opinions.
Several points should be kept in mind during these arguments. Foremost of this is that the Supreme Court is not a trier of facts. Second is that the case now pending with the Court is a Rule 64 petition from a decision of the Comelec en banc. Both of these considerations mean that the proceedings before the Court will be limited to oral arguments, and that the parties are no longer allowed to present any additional evidence that was not yet formally offered before the Comelec when the cases against Poe were heard by the Comelec’s two divisions, in the first instance, and its En Banc, on motion for reconsideration.
It is therefore interesting how the Court will handle this issue, in the event the much-speculated DNA evidence on Poe’s parents or relatives is acquired during the Court proceedings. Will the Court remand the cases back to the Comelec for the reception of evidence? Or will it receive and appreciate the DNA evidence itself, in order to settle Poe’s citizenship once and for all?
As to the evidence already presented before the Comelec, the rule is that the findings of fact of the Comelec on this evidence are binding on the Supreme Court, unless such findings were arrived at with grave abuse of discretion. In such a case, the Court may declare a different conclusion from that of the Comelec, based on its own appreciation of the same evidence. But primarily, the Court’s interest will focus on questions of law, rather than questions of fact, the latter having been largely settled and uncontested from the beginning, such as Poe’s origin of birth as a foundling, her acquisition of American citizenship, her oath of allegiance under RA 9225, and her eventual renunciation of American citizenship. These facts are not questioned; it is their effects and consequences in law and jurisprudence that are at the heart of the oral arguments.
Because the case brought to the Supreme Court is a Rule 64 petition from unfavorable resolutions of the Comelec, Poe must show that the Comelec acted with grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction. Poe must show to the Court that Comelec did not merely commit an error of law when it ruled that she is not a natural-born citizen and that she has not been a Philippine resident for the past 10 years immediately prior to the May 9, 2016 elections. She must show that the Comelec did so with grave abuse of discretion.
Indeed, there is no hard and fast rule that clearly draws the distinction between a mere error of law and grave abuse of discretion. Although jurisprudence has laid down what, in theory, would constitute a mere error of law, on the one hand, and one committed in grave abuse of discretion, on the other, that same jurisprudence has taught us lawyers that such a distinction is more a principle of law than an immutable rule. Consequently, the primary question in the oral arguments would be whether or not the Comelec’s ruling that Grace Poe is not natural-born and a 10-year resident are such blatant and palpable errors of law, consequently making them acts that constitute grave abuse of discretion.
These are the procedural standards, or what amounts to standards, that the Court will consider in this landmark case on citizenship and presidential qualifications.
Substantially, however, the main issues that will interest the Justices are of course the matter of Poe’s citizenship and residency themselves. The citizenship issue invites several questions on how the wording of the 1935 Constitution on citizenship should be treated. We have already been given a preview of the kind of questions most likely to be asked on this subject when the members of the Senate Electoral Tribunal grilled the lawyers of Poe and her opponents. However, the main question will always be whether or not Poe is a natural-born citizen under the Constitution.
Does the 1935 and subsequent Philippine Constitutions exclude foundlings—who by layman definition cannot identify their birth origins—from ever being recognized as natural-born citizens? Can a liberal interpretation of the 1935, 1973, and 1987 Constitutions allow preponderance of evidence or substantial evidence, fortified by reasonable presumptions, to establish natural-born status? Or do these Constitutions necessarily require, as others claim, conclusive evidence, or proof that is beyond question and doubt? Is a birth certificate, and the presumption of regularity in its execution, the only acceptable document and presumption in determining one’s status as a natural-born citizen? Or are there other evidence and presumptions that could be considered, especially in circumstances where the standard evidence and presumption are patently inapplicable?
On the subject of Poe’s residency, the main question will be whether or not Poe meets the 10-year residency requirement for presidential aspirants. Was Grace Poe already a resident of the Philippines as early as May 9, 2006, even before she has re-acquired her Philippine citizenship under RA 9225? When does establishment of Philippine residency start for aliens, or former Filipinos who are eventually repatriated by taking an oath of allegiance under the Citizenship Re-acquisition Act or RA 9225? Is a Bureau of Immigration certification the exclusive proof of Philippine residency of aliens, or of former Filipinos yet to be repatriated under RA 9225? Does Philippine residency of repatriated Filipinos only start on the day they take their oath of allegiance under RA 9225?
One final issue of specific interest is the question of whether or not Poe committed material misrepresentations when she declared in her Certificate of Candidacy that she is a natural-born citizen and a 10-year resident of the Philippines before the 2016 elections. For one’s CoC to be canceled on the ground of material misrepresentation, it must be proven that such misrepresentation was knowingly made, i.e., deliberately, willfully, misleadingly, and maliciously. In short, it must be proven that Poe knew from the very start that she was not a natural-born citizen or a 10-year resident. The question the Court may ask is whether or not there can be material misrepresentation in asserting a fact that, in itself, consists of a difficult question of law that has kept even legal experts divided in their opinions.
Hopefully, the Court will finally put an end to all these issues that has divided not only legal experts, but the nation as well. Whatever this decision, we should all accept as, in our legal system, the final word on the interpretation of the Constitution is the Supreme Court.
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