Santiago vs. Comelec – will the Supreme Court overturn its decision?

(Original post: 31 March 2006; update – Lambino petition for people’s initiative dismissed) In Santiago vs. COMELEC, the Supreme Court ruled that Republic Act No. 6735, also known as the “People’s Initiative and Referendum Act”, is “incomplete, inadequate, or wanting in essential terms and conditions insofar as initiative on amendments to the Constitution is concerned.” This decision was affirmed in the subsequent case of PIRMA vs. Comelec.

There are well-founded opinions that the sufficiency of R.A. 6735 will again be brought to the Supreme Court as a result of the on-going signature campaign through the barangay assemblies [it’s now with the SC, courtesy of Sigaw ng Bayan]. DJB notes how JDV predicted a “parliamentary utopia” in four months, while MLQ3 writes about the “perfect plan” to effect Charter Change [see also “Lobbying the Supremes”].

The Santiago decision is penned by Chief Justice Davide, with Chief Justice Narvasa, and Justices Regalado, Romero, Bellosillo, Kapunan, Hermosisima, Jr. and Torres Jr. concurring in the decision. On the other hand, Now Chief Justice Panganiban, and Justices Puno and Francisco, concurred in the result (dismissal of the petition), but believed that R.A. 6735 is not deficient (Justices Melo and Mendoza joined the concurring separate opinions). Justice Vitug is of the opinion that there was no need to determine the sufficiency of R.A. 6735. From the foregoing list of Justices, only Chief Justice Panganiban and Justice Puno remain in the present Supreme Court (which now includes Justice Velasco).

So, if the issue reaches [as it now is with] the Supreme Court, will the Supreme Court overturn Santiago?

As mentioned earlier, the decision in a possible petition directly involving R.A. 6735 could go either way – sustain or reverse Santiago – and the decision will still have sufficient basis. In fact, the dissenting opinions of Puno and Panganiban contain sufficient discussion that may serve as the basis of the present Supreme Court should it choose to reverse Santiago.

However, in my humble opinion, Santiago should, and will, remain.

First – the Supreme Court need not decide this issue. The proposed amendments entail an extensive and systematic changes in Articles VI (The Legislative Department) and VII (The Executive Department), as well as other related provisions, of the Constitution. This constitutes a revision, and not merely an amendment (please refer to discussion of Justice Isagani Cruz in yesterday’s Inquirer). It is settled that, with respect to the Constitution, people’s initiative is limited to amendments, not revisions. Therefore, any petition – through people’s initiative – involving a change of the system of government from presidential to parliamentary is contrary to Article XVII, Section 1 of the Constitution, and there’s no need to revisit R.A. 6735. [Through the concept of auto-limitation, the people, by ratifying the 1987 Constitution, limited the exercise of people’s initiative only to amendments]

Second – assuming that revisiting Santiago is inevitable, it should be sustained. R.A. 6735 extensively discussed and provides for the mechanism in initiative for ordinary laws. With respect to the Constitution – which is the fundamental law and is the basis of all laws passed by Congress – R.A. 6735 is seriously deficient. While the Constitution is the highest law of the land, it received only scant consideration by Congress when it passed R.A. 6735. It may be true that the INTENT of R.A. 6735 is to include initiative for the Constitution. However, when the plain text of the law is seriously defective, no amount of intent or interpretation will save it. Besides, the Constitution specifically granted this power on Congress – not the COMELEC or the courts.

Both the Constitution and the Supreme Court have stabilizing functions. The Constitution, while not irrepealable, should withstand time and generations. It should be changed only when it is indubitably shown that there’s a need to change it. It should not be changed to serve the purpose of only a few, and the people must first undertand these changes through extensive and meaningful debates and consultations. Right now, it’s the other way around: draft the proposals first, then try to make the people understand – or give a semblance that they understand through signatures.

With respect to jurisprudence, there have been instances when the Supreme Court changed its stand. Labor is the obvious example. However, the issue on people’s initiative with respect to the Constitution does not affect an ordinary law. It concerns the fundamental and hightest law of the land. The Supreme Court already said that it’s insufficient and it’s up for Congress to fill the gap. This is explicitly stated in the Santiago decision:

“We feel, however, that the system of initiative to propose amendments to the Constitution should no longer be kept in the cold; it should be given flesh and blood, energy and strength. Congress should not tarry any longer in complying with the constitutional mandate to provide for the implementation of the right of the people under that system.”

So, what did Congress do?

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