Dissension in the Court: December 2010

The following are decisions promulgated by the High Court in December 2010 where at least one Justice felt compelled to express his or her dissent from the decision penned by the ponente.

In this episode, the search for truth takes center stage.  “What is the truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths? Are mine the same as yours?” (from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar).

1.            You Can’t Handle the Truth (Mendoza, Corona, Brion, Bersamin, Perez, Leonardo-de Castro and Peralta vs. Carpio, Carpio-Morales, Nachura, Abad and Sereno)

Acting on a campaign promise which was ultimately incorporated into his inaugural speech, President Benigno Aquino issued his first Executive Order creating the Philippine Truth Commission of 2010 tasked, among principally, to “seek and find the truth on, and toward this end, investigate reports of graft and corruption of such scale and magnitude that shock and offend the moral and ethical sensibilities of the people, committed by public officers and employees, their co-principals, accomplices and accessories from the private sector, if any, during the previous administration; and thereafter recommend the appropriate action or measure to be taken thereon to ensure that the full measure of justice shall be served without fear or favor.”

Not long after the issuance of Executive Order No. 1, two petitions were filed with the Supreme Court, one by a taxpayer and another by legislators, questioning the legality of the creation of the Truth Commission.  In December 7, 2010, the Supreme Court promulgated its decision in Louis “Barok” C. Biraogo vs. The Philippine Truth Commission of 2010 / Rep. Edcel C. Lagman, et al. vs. Exec. Sec. Paquito N. Ochoa, Jr., et al.

The Honorable Justice Jose C. Mendoza began by disposing of the legal standing issue, confirming that the petitioner-legislators had the requisite standing to challenge Executive Order No. 1 as they are allowed to question the validity of any official action which, to their mind, infringes on their prerogatives as legislators.  As for “Barok” Biraogo, although the Court conceded that he is a nontraditional plaintiff, he does possess the requisite legal standing given the transcendental importance of the case.

The Court discussed the possible legal bases that could support the creation by the President of the Truth Commission and resolved each of these as follows:

  • The creation of the Truth Commission cannot be supported by Section 31 of the Revised Administrative Code which grants the President the power to restructure the internal organization of the Office of the President.  Restructuring implies the reorganization of already existence bodies or offices.  As the Truth Commission is a new office, that provision of the Revised Administrative Code is unavailing.
  • The creation of the Truth Commission cannot be justified by the President’s power of control. Control is essentially the power to alter or modify or nullify or set aside what a subordinate officer had done in the performance of his duties and to substitute the judgment of the former with that of the latter.  This power is different from the power to create public offices.
  • The creation of the Truth Commission cannot find statutory basis in Presidential Decree No. 1416, as amended by P.D. No. 1772, which granted the President the continuing authority to reorganize the national government, including the power to group, consolidate bureaus and agencies, to abolish offices, to transfer functions, to create and classify functions, services and activities, transfer appropriations, and to standardize salaries and materials, since this law was issued only in relation to providing for a transition towards a parliamentary form of government.  That statute therefore, is functus oficio.
  • The creation of the Truth Commission, however, can be justified under the Constitutional authority of the President to ensure that all laws be faithfully executed, which includes therefore the power to create ad hoc committees to conduct investigations and other fact finding activities.

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