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SC sets another hearing, moves slowly on Grace Poe case

TAKING THEIR SWEET TIME. The Philippine Supreme Court.

File photo courtesy of SC-PIO

MANILA, Philippines – Will candidate Grace Poe stay in the presidential race or not? 

This question continues to be left unanswered as the Supreme Court plodded through issues surrounding her eligibility cases in its 4th oral arguments on Tuesday, February 9.

The earliest that the Court is expected to hand down a decision is in March.

Not far from the Supreme Court, in Plaza Miranda, Poe kicked off her campaign rally with a cloud of uncertainty hovering over her as well as her supporters.

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) has canceled Poe’s certificate of candidacy (COC) because she supposedly lacks 10-year residency and is not a natural-born citizen, basic requirements for the highest public office. She elevated these cases to the Supreme Court.

As if removed from the urgency of the situation, the Court has scheduled another hearing on February 16 after which the parties are to file their memoranda.

This appears to be a reprise of the timeline of Fernando Poe Jr’s citizenship case which the Court resolved in March 2004, only 2 months before the elections. While the Court is after a “full ventilation of the issues,” it is not, however, isolated from national events.

Prolonged, repetitive

The oral arguments have been prolonged, becoming repetitive at some point as some justices have turned these into part lectures, consuming hours dwelling on issues that had already been aired and responded to by the counsels.

“Theoretically, justices can do anything they want during an oral argument. After all, they are the final arbiters,” says former judge and Supreme Court administrator Zenaida Elepaño, who lectures on the conduct of oral arguments. Elepaño has attended most of the oral arguments on Poe.

Ideally, however, it should be a “common quest for more knowledge and enlightenment about the issues and how a resolution can be arrived at that applies the law squarely to the facts of the case,” she explains.

In the Philippine setting, the justices exchange views mainly through their decisions, dissents and reflections – all written. Rarely do they debate among themselves in their weekly en banc deliberations because their agenda is full, considering their huge loads of cases. Thus, the oral arguments have served to be the justices’ sounding boards as well as opportunities for them to answer each other or comment on colleagues’ views albeit obliquely.

DUE PROCESS. Justice Francis Jardeleza (right) in a file photo.

File photo by Rappler

Due process, survey

In Tuesday's latest round of oral arguments, which stretched to more than 4 hours, Justice Francis Jardeleza fixed his attention on 2 things: first, that the Comelec failed to discuss evidence in its decision; and second, in doing so, it may have deprived Poe of due process.

“You didn’t make findings of fact in your decisions,” Jardeleza told Comelec Commissioner Arthur Lim, the poll body’s counsel. “You decided on a question of law. I’m asking for facts.”

To which Lim, whom Jardeleza acknowledged as a “seasoned litigator,” replied: “We made specific findings of facts. The facts were admitted…A judge is not required to discuss each evidence in detail... It’s a matter of style. What is primordial is we grappled with the question: is a foundling a natural-born citizen?”  

As for due process, Lim said that the camp of Poe did not ask for extensive hearings and her lawyer, George Garcia, described it as a simple case anchored on international laws.

Jardeleza, a former solicitor general, said he has “agonized” over this case and remains to be “bothered” and “conflicted” because it is a difficult one with no precedents to guide the Court.

Justice Bienvenido Reyes, who spoke for the first time in this series of oral arguments, appeared to be on the side of Poe and said that she apparently filled up her COC in  “good faith” but she was “not familiar with the intricacies of law.” He cited the decision of the Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET) saying Poe is a natural-born citizen.

Lim replied that the SET decision came after Poe filed her COC for president and that it is not yet part of the law of the land because it is still pending before the Court.

Reyes also raised a point not directly related to the case, that Poe leads the latest surveys.

This may be an indication that some of the justices have an eye on surveys when they make their decisions.

Justice Lucas Bersamin also spoke for the first time and clarified issues regarding dual citizenship.

Leaning towards Poe

So far, the views of 3 justices, all appointees of President Benigno Aquino III, show they are leaning towards Poe: Chief Justice Maria Lourdes SerenoJustices Marvic Leonen and Jardeleza.

They do not necessarily agree with each other, however, on the reasons for their positions.

Sereno uses adoption laws to show that foundlings are natural-born citizens although Justice Antonio Carpio has disputed this. Jardeleza relies on an expansive interpretation of due process and the rules on evidence. Leonen has said that the Court should defer to a popular political process, elections. (READ: Leonen: Should SC let people decide first on Poe?)

Three justices are expected to decide against Poe – Carpio, Teresita de Castro and Arturo Brion – based on their dissents in the SET case. (READ: Why did SC justices vote to disqualify Poe?)

Justice Mariano del Castillo is in charge of the case and will write the decision. –