SECTION 17, article VI of the 1987 Constitution provides the explicit procedure and the body that will hear and judge all contests or questions regarding the qualifications of members of Congress. It reads:
“THE Senate and the House of Representatives shall each have an Electoral Tribunal which shall be the sole judge of all contests relating to the election, returns, and qualifications of their respective members. Each electoral tribunal shall be composed of nine members, three of whom shall be justices of the Supreme Court to be designated by the chief justice, and the remaining six shall be members of the Senate or the House of Representatives, as the case may be, who shall be chosen on the basis of proportional representation from political parties and the parties or organizations registered under the party-list system represented therein. The senior justice in the electoral tribunal shall be its chairman.”
It is this provision that the nation must now turn to in hearing and resolving the questions about Sen. Grace Poe’s alleged lack of qualifications (concerning citizenship and residency) for membership in the Senate.
In settling this question, the Senate electoral tribunal will also resolve whether Ms. Poe is qualified to run for president or vice-president in the May 2016 election.
A forthright hearing of facts
By filing a quo warranto petition with the SET questioning Senator Poe’s qualifications to sit in the Senate, Radio commentator Rizalito David has done the deed that many of us have long been expecting and hoping for. He has opened the door for an honest and forthright hearing and determination of the facts and the issues concerning Ms. Poe’s background. This can bring to an end the wide-ranging debate and speculations about her, which have raged over the past few months and left many transfixed and frustrated.
Of Mr. David’s own background, there isn’t much to tell other than that he is a radio commentator and sometime socio-political analyst, was a candidate for senator in the 2013 elections, and that he served at one time as a former legislative research officer of Sen. Francisco Tatad, when my Times colleague served in the Senate.
Who encouraged David to file the petition, or helped him raise the P50,000 filing fee is irrelevant to the validity of the petition. The interesting point is that many people, according to David, contributed to the filing fee.
In his quo warranto petition, David argued that Poe is ineligible to hold a Senate seat because she is a foundling and, therefore, not a “natural-born citizen.” The 1987 Constitution requires senators to be natural-born Filipinos.
From what has already been published in the press and reported in the media, there is evidently substantial basis for David’s petition. Pundits, private lawyers and academics have come up with detailed statements that laid out their belief that Ms. Poe should be unseated in the Senate, and that she cannot run for certain offices in the 2016 elections.
Related to this is also the allegation that Ms. Poe was not qualified and was illegally appointed as chairman of the MTRCB or censors board in 2010, because he was an American citizen at the time.
This is a difficult case because the Senator is very popular with the Filipino public, and, if surveys can be believed, she enjoys a high favorability rating with the populace.
Without doubt, she will mount her defense or counterattack along this line of being first in the hearts of her countrymen.
The electoral tribunal must not evade the issue, because this is a matter concerning the rule of law, and rule of law has been one of the things that the Aquino administration has repeatedly violated during the last five years.
In grasping the nettle of Poe’s status and qualifications as a sitting senator and a prospective candidate in the 2016 elections, the SET must turn the discussion into an examination of (1) original principles concerning qualifications for high public office, and (2) records of Ms Poe’s birth, parentage, and citizenship in two countries.
Popularity as a defense
In reacting to the petition, Senator Poe has predictably defended herself by invoking the number of votes that elected her to the Senate. She declared her intent to fight off any attempt to unseat her from the Senate and keep her out of next year’s elections.
“I believe that I am not alone in this fight. I have my countrymen as my inspiration especially the more than 20 million Filipinos who elected me to the Senate. They are the reason why I am here and it is only proper to fight for their decision,” she said.
Continuing, she explained: “I am actually relieved that a petition has been filed so that I can answer the questions on my citizenship and residency. It is an opportunity for the truth to come out and for this issue to be resolved once and for all.”
Finally, she offered an assurance that she is Filipino by birth and by choice. “I assure the 20 million plus fellow Filipinos who voted for me, as well as the rest of the country, that their confidence in me is not misplaced. I remain truthful to our countrymen. I am a Filipino by birth, abode and choice.”
As an infant, Ms. Poe was reportedly found abandoned in a holy water font at the Jaro Metropolitan Cathedral in Iloilo.
In his petition, Mr. David contended: “Being a foundling, her parents are not known and cannot be presumed as Filipino citizens, hence she cannot claim or acquire the status of a natural-born citizen.”
Defense based on a heresy
Ms. Poe’s defense of invoking her votes in 2013 and popularity needs rethinking if she is going to win this battle.
The appeal to popularity and numbers is a political heresy, to quote another lady, who made a big name for herself in politics, former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher said: “The desire for justice imposes very firm requirements on the politician. First, a recognition that he can never be above the law.
“Justice also requires those in public life to repudiate a number of fashionable heresies.
“The first heresy is that if only a determined minority gather together in large enough numbers to bully or intimidate others, the law either will not, or cannot, be enforced against them. The inference is not only that there is safety in numbers but that this brings with it some kind of immunity from the legal process. It does not.”
Strong words indeed from the Iron lady.
A violation of the Constitution cannot be wiped away by votes, or PCOS votes in Ms. Poe’s case.