Supreme Court gives Duterte more power with Boracay case win

Lian Buan
Supreme Court gives Duterte more power with Boracay case win
'This space for the democratic rights of the people is getting smaller and smaller every time the Court sides with the government in power,' says human rights lawyer Edre Olalia

MANILA, Philippines – The government’s victory in the Boracay closure case at the Supreme Court has further expanded the powers of the Duterte administration – a development that worries the human rights sector.

The en banc voted 11-2 to uphold the constitutionality of President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to shut down Boracay for 6 months to rehabilitate the island.

The 11 justices went as far as upholding the constitutionality of Duterte’s Proclamation No. 475 that placed areas in Boracay under a state of calamity to prepare it for closure and rehabilitation.

In doing so, the justices dismissed the petition of Boracay workers that sought to invalidate the closure on two grounds: it violated people’s right to travel, and misused the state’s police power as it related to the jobs that workers lost when the island was closed.

Police power

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), which represented the petitioners, argued that Duterte did not have the authority to use police power since that power belongs to the legislative and not the executive branch.

“The Court ruled that Proclamation No. 475 was a valid police power measure,” said Supreme Court spokesperson Brian Keith Hosaka.

Asked how the Court ruled on the argument that police power is a legislative function, Hosaka said he has yet to receive the full copy of the decision written by Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo.

Only Associate Justices Marvic Leonen and Benjamin Caguioa dissented.

It’s not clear whether the concurring justices agreed with the ruling on police power, or if they voted only on the result.

The High Court could have dismissed the petitions on the argument that they are already moot since Boracay had already reopened on October 26, 2018.

But by upholding the state’s police power, NUPL president Edre Olalia said that the Court narrowed the scope of the Bill of Rights in favor of the “overstretching powers of the State.” 

“If our court sustains the expansion of the broad powers, where does that leave the ordinary citizens? So this space for the democratic rights of the people is getting smaller and smaller every time the Court sides with the government in power,” said Olalia.

The Court also ruled that the constitutional right of people to travel was not impeded, contrary to the claim of the petitioners.

“The impact of the said proclamation on the right to travel was temporary and merely incidental to the intended rehabilitation of the island,” Hosaka said.


Olalia said that while the declarations of the SC could empower Duterte to use the broadened police power for other purposes, not dismissing it on the basis of being moot was a good thing because it clarified guidelines.

But Olalia said they had expected more votes in their favor instead of just two.

“We don’t hesitate to file a case just because of the possibility that we will lose. After all we measure our victories not only by what the Court says [or] whether you win or not, but by educating the people about the issue and trying to empower them about the pros and cons. That’s our ultimate barometer whether we have performed our roles as human rights lawyers,” said Olalia.

The High Court announced the decision after the en banc session on Tuesday, February 19, the same day it announced that a majority of 9 justices also voted to uphold the constitutionality of the third extension of martial law.

The latest victory is a continuation of Duterte’s winning streak in the SC, never having lost in cases before the Court except for a slight hiccup when justices compelled his government to turn over drug war documents despite earnest resistance.

Olalia and the NUPL also lost in the martial law extension case, having represented the leftist lawmakers who wanted to stop the third extension.

The lawyer remained unfazed. “Maybe we cannot achieve justice today, maybe not tomorrow, but sooner or later it will come,” he said. –

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.