Last Tuesday at the resumption of the hearing of the oral arguments on the Commission on Elections’ (Comelec) cancellation of Senator Grace Poe’s certificate of candidacy and her disqualification from the presidential race, Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes P. A. Sereno asked Comelec member Arthur D. Lim, “If you’re saying that foundlings are not natural born citizens, have you thought about the impact on the rights of all foundlings?”
The Comelec’s decision on Ms. Poe’s candidacy was based on her not being a natural born Filipino citizen. Both the 1935 and 1987 Constitutions say that citizens of the Philippines are those whose fathers or mothers are Filipino citizens. As the biological parents of Ms. Poe are unknown, it is unknown if either one was a Filipino citizen when Ms. Poe was born. Until she is able to show evidence that her father or mother is or was a Filipino citizen, the Comelec considers Ms. Poe a non-natural born citizen.
Ms. Sereno observed that many countries recognize foundlings are citizens. That does not make local foundlings natural born citizens of the Philippines. Many countries have divorce laws. That has not allowed divorce in the Philippines.
It seems CJ Sereno has been influenced by the pleadings of Sen. Poe’s lawyers and perhaps by the story Ms. Poe’s sympathizers have told the public. The lawyers’ pleadings and the story are woven around the fact that Baby Grace was abandoned by her parents days after she was born.
Sympathizers of Ms. Poe have even put out a full-page ad in the daily newspapers in defense of the foundling.
“When you hear the word foundling, feel for all the children who have been abandoned in toilets and trash cans, doorsteps and alleyways, convents and empty fields, churches and elsewhere — who can never aspire to be congressmen, senators or even president if they are not considered natural born Filipinos,” the ad tells the readers. Ms. Poe’s lawyers and defenders of foundlings seem to be invoking the principle that those who have less in life should have more in law.
But the issue before the Supreme Court is not about the plight of the foundlings; it is about the nature of Ms. Poe’s Filipino citizenship and its implication to her qualification for the presidency of the Philippines. In the first place, Baby Grace was not abandoned in a toilet, trash can, doorstep, alleyway, convent, or open field. She was found in the holy water font of Jaro Metropolitan Cathedral, the seat of the archdiocese of Jaro whose archbishop at the time was the Most Reverend Jaime Sin. Baby Grace was first given to the heiress of a wealthy sugar baron who subsequently entrusted her to the newly wed showbiz celebrities Fernando Poe, Jr. and Susan Roces.
The affluent couple eventually adopted her and raised her in comfort, if not in luxury. She spent her high school years in a convent school known as the exclusive girls’ school for the rich. Ms. Poe herself said, “If I didn’t live there (United States) I would not have experienced nonentitlements, being an ordinary citizen.”
Besides, the impact of declaring foundlings as non-natural born citizens is not as great as Ms. Sereno thinks it is.
I know personally a foundling who was admitted into the Philippine bar. An American — by blood, physical features, and citizenship (he was a lieutenant-colonel in the US Armed Forces when he came to the country with the US liberation forces — founded a law firm in the Philippines in 1946. At about the same time another American citizen who also served in the US Armed Forces during World War II established a certified public accounting company. Both men achieved prominence in their respective profession, their firms becoming among the biggest in their respective field. Their American citizenship is public knowledge.
Another foreign national practiced medicine in the country. I also know personally an American citizen who was elected mayor of a town in Northern Luzon, although his American citizenship was kept secret from his constituents.
If foreign nationals can practice law, public accountancy, and medicine in the country or be elected to public office, many foundlings with unmistakable Filipino features can aspire to be lawyers, certified public accountants, doctors, and even mayors, and congressmen, contrary to the fears of Ms. Sereno and the defenders of foundlings.
There must be a large number of foundlings who are practicing law or public accountancy or occupying sensitive government positions whose citizenship was never questioned because their physical features are unmistakably Filipino, they never became citizens of another country, and they never aspired to be president of the Philippines.
At one point in the hearing last Tuesday, Commissioner Lim asked Ms. Sereno, if her advocacy is for foundlings. The Chief Justice replied, “My advocacy is for the rule of the law.”
Philippine laws are silent on foundlings though.
While those who have less in life should have more in law, still a law that evens things up for them has to be passed. The 13th Congress enacted a law, RA 9442, that entitles persons with disabilities to a 20% discount in certain service establishments such as hotels and restaurants.
Ms. Sereno said, “The Court now has to categorically answer the question about her (Poe’s) status because the pronouncements we will make will affect many others.” True, judicial decisions interpreting the laws form part of the legal system. As there is no law on foundlings, the Supreme Court has no law to interpret and therefore is unable to answer the question on Ms. Poe’s status.
Ms. Sereno cites cases wherein the Filipino citizenship of foundlings was presumed. That does not make it right. The Supreme Court is not infallible. It has reversed many of its decisions, Ms. Sereno herself a party to some of those reversals.
The Constitution is explicit as to who is a natural-born Filipino citizen. The law may be harsh on foundlings but it is the law. To remedy the adverse situation, the law has to be amended or replaced. But the power to amend or replace laws is vested in the Congress of the Philippines, not in the Supreme Court.
Associate Justice Marvin M. V. F. Leonen suggested that the issue should be thrown to the electorate. That is in consonance with the opinion of Retired Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban which opinion the ALL4GP Movement quotes in its series of ads in daily newspapers. Mr. Panganiban has written several times in his column in the Inquirer that “doubts on legal issues involving elections and popular sovereignty should be solved in favor of letting the people decide them freely through the ballot.”
The suggestion raises many questions. Who are the people who can vote? Who can run? Can any piece of paper be considered a ballot? Who will count the votes?
The people cannot just freely decide. Certain rules have to be set.
If the honorable Panganiban and Leonen say the existing rules on eligible voters, ballots, and ballot counters should be followed, that would be selective application of the rules governing elections. Besides, the people had decided once — on Feb. 2, 1987.
On that day 76.37% (or 17,059,495 voters) favored ratification of the final draft of the 1987 Constitution. To set aside the provisions of that Constitution would be to thwart the will of the people.
It would be strange for the President elected not in accordance with the electoral process defined in the 1987 Constitution to say on his inauguration: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully and conscientiously fulfill my duties as President of the Philippines, preserve and defend its Constitution…”
It matters not to me whether the president is a natural born citizen of the Philippines or a naturalized Filipino. It is his or her loyalty to the country that counts. Loyalty to the country and love of the Filipino people do not arise out of circumstances of birth. They spring from one’s character.
Ms. Poe renounced her fidelity to the country of her birth. And now she implores the highest court of the land to recognize her as a natural born Filipino citizen so that she can be president of the country she abandoned to live with her American husband. That is the character of the person who is asking the Filipino people to be their leader.
Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is member of Manindigan!, a cause-oriented group that takes stands on national issues.