“An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to Correct it.”
–John F. Kennedy
President Kennedy said those words in an address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association, on April 27, 1961, in New York City.
The full passage deserves to be quoted here because they express the temperament of a statesman and his approach to public policy, and because they bear much relevance for our public life today in light of (1) a president who cannot admit error, and (2) senators who are unable to see their duty to the Constitution and the nation.
JFK said: “No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary. I am not asking your newspapers to support the Administration, but I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people.
“This administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: ‘An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.’ We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.”
SET ruling riddled with error
If you read the 32-page majority opinion and the four concurring opinions supporting the majority verdict, you hear one refrain running in all of them like a line from a song, “ Grace Poe-Llamanzares as a foundling is a natural-born citizen.”
The entire reasoning of the senators to support their vedict of dismissal of the petition to rule Mrs. Llamanzares unqualified revolves around the theme that Ms. Poe is a foundling and as such should be officially recognized as a natural-born citizen of this country, and should enjoy the rights and privileges of a citizen, including becoming a senator and presumably the right to run for President.
There is a worm, however, in this reasoning. And it’s a big one. Ms. Poe is not a foundling. She was never registered as a foundling.
According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), you won’t find Grace Poe among the 4,350 foundlings registered in its records from 1950 to the present.
Atty. Manuelito Luna, counsel of Mr. Rizalito David, who filed the quo warranto case for Ms Poe’s disqualification as a senator of the republic, dug up the fact through able research. He says there is a law that requires that foundlings or found children must be officially registered. No such registration was performed for Baby Grace.
In Ms. Poe’s first birth certificate, there is a note that says a certain Edgardo Militar claimed to have found her. But that is all. There is no formal certification and no registration with the proper authorities in Ilo-ilo.
Consequently, there is no legal basis for Ms. Poe and her defenders to say that she is a foundling. What is known is simply a lot of folklore and some anecdotal tales about her alleged discovery in a church.
Is Grace Poe really a foundling?
In a column last September, when I first wrote about Sen. Grace Poe-Llamanzares, I posed the question whether Ms. Poe is really a foundling
(“Is Grace Poe really a foundling?,” Manila Times, 21 September 2015).
I wrote then:
“If ever I get the chance to meet Sen.Grace Poe in person, I will ask her the following question:
“ ‘Madam senator, I hope you will not be offended, but I have to ask you this question because it is bugging a lot of people: Are you really a foundling? Can you prove that you are one?’
“The question has to be presented in these existential terms because the question of the senator’s identity has really become that serious. And the fate of our nation and the sanity of next year’s presidential election could hang in the balance.”
I questioned the veracity of the founding story, because, first, Ms. Poe submitted contradictory birth certificates to the Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET).
And because, second, when Ms. Poe announced her candidacy for president at UP Diliman, she dropped mention about being a foundling altogether.
My query did not receive a response from the Senator and her publicist.
It turns out that proving that Grace Poe is a foundling could be as difficult as proving that she is a natural-born Filipino.
The patent falsehood of the foundling story undercuts completely the majority ruling of the Senate tribunal.
A reversible error
To be fair to all nine members of the tribunal, I mention the theoretical possibility that each or all of them could change their minds. The reality is that, with some of them, change is an impossibility; but there are a few for whom a reversal of judgment is possible and even likely.
At the Saturday forum at Annabel’s last Saturday, November 28, the featured guests were Mr. Rizalito David (petitioner in the SET case) and his lawyer Atty. Manuelito Luna.
Atty. Luna said declaratively, the SET majority ruling is a “reversible error.” Meaning that it can be reversed by SET itself during the review, because the erring senators can correct their erratic judgment, if they wish. It can also be reversed by the Supreme Court when it reviews the case and the ruling, because David and his counsel will take the matter to the High Court for review. There is precedent of the SC overturning an electoral tribunal’s decision on the grounds of grave abuse of discretion.
Senators explain their vote
Sen. Nancy Binay, among the senator members of SET, has little explaining or revising to do, because she took the most sensible course. She took to heart the arguments and opinions of the three SC justices in the panel. She chose to follow the Constitution, as is her duty.
Her senatorial colleagues in the tribunal did not see their duty with the same simplicity. They had a more sexy view of their powers.
Sen. Tito Sotto grandly explained his vote this way: “I voted for all the orphans, foundlings, and adopted children in the Philippines. It was not a vote for Grace Poe. A disqualification vote would have serious repercussions on many of our countrymen.”
Sen. Loren Legarda, for her part, attempted to explain the vote of the five senators who constituted the tribunal majority that dismissed the petition.
She explained that the five senators recognized that Poe, as a foundling, is a natural-born Filipino. But she gave assurances to the public that she studied the facts well and even wrote her own opinion on the case.
In his three-page opinion, Sen. Bam Aquino declared that “logic dictates” that foundlings are neither naturalized nor stateless, but natural-born Filipinos.
Sen. Pia Cayetano, who voted with the majority, still has not come up with her concurring opinion.
She only said “But I have a separate opinion explaining my vote which will be made available to the public soon.” That opinion may never get written because of the overwhelming swing of public opinion against Ms. Poe.
Sen. Cynthia Villar appears to be the hardliner of the bunch. She insists that they had a right to make a political decision, because senatorial membership in the tribunal is mandated by the Constitution. Their very presence in there makes their work as jurors political not judicial.
Much of the senatorial rationalization betray the amateurism of the senators and their legal staffs. They have no clue about Ms. Poe’s problematic status as a foundling. Still less did they imagine the depth of legal reasoning and scholarship that the learned SC justices would bring to their opinions.
The contrast between the shallowness of the senators and the erudition of the justices is embarrassing. You wonder how these senators pole-vaulted themselves into the Senate.
A no-win situation
The senators are in a no-win situation. If they insist on their original verdict and do not correct their error, they will entomb themselves in a monumental mistake.
If they wait for the Supreme Court to nullify their decision and tar them with grave abuse of discretion, they will enter their names in the annals of Philippine jurisprudence.
For three senators especially – Senators Pia Cayetano, Loren Legarda and Tito Sotto—it is a dreadful prospect. They are already in judicial annals for their acceptance of DAP money in the impeachment of former chief justice Renato Corona, as recorded in the Supreme Court decision on the Disbursement Aceleration Program (DAP).
They will be making legal history a second time around.
Fortunately for the senatorial five in the SET case, their error of judgment is reversible. They can correct the error before it becomes a mistake.