Congress needs crash courses

An irate Speaker of the House has threatened to abolish the Court of Appeals, or to reduce its budget to one peso. Of course, he has the power to do neither, in the first case, because it would take a majority of both Houses to pass the repealing law that would bring about the appellate court’s demise, and not the Speaker’s fiat alone. In the second case, the Constitution does not allow Congress to reduce the budget of the Judiciary that, by the way, receives less than one percent of the national budget!

What is clear though is that the Speaker is in a foul mood because Congressman Rodolfo Fariñas was earlier in a foul mood!  Fariñas, who has had a long-running spat with the Marcoses in Ilocos Norte, commenced an investigation involving tobacco growers and producers.  Without a doubt, he wanted the Marcoses embarrassed and nailed, and so he summoned employees of the provincial government, expecting them to implicate Governor Imee Marcos.  He questioned his witnesses—and they gave him answers he did not like.  According to his own legal lexicon, that mismatch between the answers he wanted and the responses he got constituted contempt—and he ordered the provincial officials detained, no matter that their detention has caused operations of some sections of the provincial government of Ilocos Norte to grind to a halt. 

That alone provokes an interesting question.  When is an answer contemptuous?  Refusing to answer may not even constitute contempt—because the law does grant a witness the right to refuse to answer some questions.  And good American precedent teaches that a witness may likewise refuse to answer a question that has nothing to do with the legislation that Congress has set its sights on.  In this case, Fariñas found the answers contemptuous because they were not to his liking.

As for hearings in aid of no legislation, the televised year-long Binay investigations amply showed us just how pointless some investigations can be— and how fruitless, in terms of the passage of law!

Seeking relief from the Court of Appeals, the petitioners were granted a provisional release order. Aside from bragging that they would defy the Court, Fariñas’ allies in the Lower House have also threatened to scuttle the appellate court itself.

First, a lesson in social theory.  Power is not self-legitimating.  He who has power does not necessarily have the right to wield it.  The Mautes had tremendous fire-power, but it was criminal and morally bankrupt of them to have all but ruined the beautiful city of Marawi.  A petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed by persons detained through an exercise of legislative power is a challenge to legitimacy.  It raises the valid question whether or not jailing the witnesses was a legitimate exercise of power.  In a society where reason prevails, this should be a welcome opportunity to address the issue and to resolve it.  Rather than throw tantrums, the members of Congress should be eager for the opportunity to argue the law, to expostulate on the Constitution! 

You need two things in a law-ordered society: law and force.  You need force; otherwise, observance of the law depends on the fickle goodwill of citizens—and that would make law effete.  You need law, because then the wielding of force by the powerful would always be legitimate.  The legitimacy of the government’s war on the Mautes rests on this most important philosophical distinction: the distinction between facts and norms, between facticity and validity.

And now, for the Constitution.  The writ of habeas corpus was historically born from a reaction to the excesses of absolutism.  It is the antithesis to absolutist claims, whether these be the claims of hereditary monarchs or elected “monarchs.”   The Rules do not confer on the Supreme Court exclusive jurisdiction over petitions for writs of habeas corpus, although the Constitution vests original jurisdiction in it.  This only means that a humble Regional Trial Court in some province in the recesses of the archipelago may issue a writ of habeas corpus to which the mighty Congress must yield.  That is the very essence of the Rule of Law and the actualization of the fundamental tenet of our democracy: Ours is a government of laws and not of men.

It is infantile, to say the least, to see in a writ of habeas corpus a challenge by a court to the might of Congress.  Everyone is in awe of Congress’ might.  Their Honors in the Lower House need not fear that the Filipino nation is oblivious of the “augustness” of the Chamber.  But it is exactly the very definition of the Rule of Law that President, Congress and Court alike yield to the majesty of the law.  And the law ordains that when a citizen is detained, jailed or otherwise deprived of significant and fundamental liberties, he may turn to the courts and ask them to inquire into the legality of the power that restrains him.  That is exactly what the Court of Appeals did.  

It is a pity indeed that once more we have missed a tremendous opportunity to engage in meaningful discourse on the crucial issues of law, rights and government and have chosen, rather, to take the stance of bullies.  The situation could have provoked intelligent conversation on the power of the courts vis-a-vis the powers of Congress in the discharge of its obligation to legislate.  We could have examined the hierarchy of rights and asked whether the right of the legislature to exact answers purportedly in aid of legislation took precedence over certain freedoms and liberties.  Instead, what we have now is “canto boy” talk!

When Congress exercises its power of the purse—no matter that recent events have shown that some of its members have helped themselves to it beyond the purview of law—no justice or judge begrudges Congress from paring off requested increases in budgetary allocations for the judiciary.  Justices of the Supreme Court even submit to the summons of the budget committees and appear before the chambers of Congress to defend their budget proposals.  Such is the working of a democracy.  And as much a working of a law-governed system is the court’s power to issue writs that even a mighty Congress must heed!

Either this—or we concede the fundamental proposition of autocracy: He who wields power can never be wrong!

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Topics: Fr. Ranhilio Callangan Aquino , Congress needs crash courses , Speaker of the House , Court of Appeals , Judiciary budget , Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas
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