There is that temptation to treat the Supreme Court as a gathering of men and women of extraordinary wisdom.
Indeed, its reticence (well, at least until recently: I’ve always found it highly improper for Supreme Court spokesmen to expound on rulings; see my 2011 BusinessWorld article “Speechless spokesmen preferred”) and erudition of its members (four have foreign graduate degree law training: Sereno, Brion, Leonen, and Jardaleza; six placed in the top ten of the Bar exams: Carpio, Velasco, Brion, Bersamin, Leonen, and Jardaleza), contribute naturally to the Court’s deserved mystique.
And yet, for all that, the job of a Supreme Court justice is quite limited.
For all the education and self-declared profound knowledge of history, social sciences, mathematics, policy making, governance, or any other type of esoteric field out there, the mandate of a Supreme Court justice is actually quite modest: to determine the constitutionality of “any treaty, international or executive agreement, law, presidential decree, proclamation, order, instruction, ordinance, or regulation.”
And the forgoing can be done, meaning the authority of a Supreme Court justice comes into play, only when there are “actual controversies involving rights which are legally demandable and enforceable” brought before the Court.
Finally, the Supreme Court can function only as a Court; meaning it does not act through individual justices.
Granted, the Supreme Court has that ill-considered power to look at “grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the Government.” But that hardly serves as license for the Supreme Court or any of its justices to do what he or she wants.
The “grave abuse” clause essentially arose as a reaction to the Martial Law cases, where the “political question” doctrine was overstatedly perceived as limiting the powers of the Court.
From that piece of historical context should be added the fact that the Supreme Court is duty bound to look at the actual wording of the Constitution. Only in cases of real ambiguity can the Supreme Court look to other areas upon which to base its rulings: from the Constitution’s purpose (discernable from the Preamble, then Article II, and finally the overall theme and structure of the Constitution), to the intent of the framers therein (the people’s designated drafters being the Constitutional Commission members, whose debates and discussions accompanying the Constitution’s creation are available public record).
Constitutionalist (and former Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court) William Rehnquist pointed out that just “because a particular activity may not have existed when the Constitution was adopted, or because the framers could not have conceived of a particular method of transacting affairs, cannot mean that general language in the Constitution may not be applied to such a course of conduct.”
In other words, a Supreme Court justice cannot deviate from or substitute his own “wisdom” for that expressly or implicitly embodied in the Constitution.
The reason for emphasizing the Supreme Court’s limited powers is that ultimately the Court and its individual members are there merely to serve The Filipino People.
It is The Filipino People that authored the Constitution. The Supreme Court exists and possesses the power it has only because The Filipino People created it and allowed it such powers.
And when we say The Filipino People, we are talking here not only of those presently living but also those that passed on before us and those yet to be born.
Filipino constitutionalist Justice Isagani Cruz once wrote, “The Constitution is the basic and paramount law to which all other laws must conform and to which all persons, including the highest officials of the land, must defer. No act shall be valid, however nobly intentioned, if it conflicts with the Constitution. The Constitution must ever remain supreme. All must bow to the mandate of this law. Expediency must not be allowed to sap its strength nor greed for power debase its rectitude. Right or wrong, the Constitution must be upheld as long as it has not been changed by the sovereign people lest its disregard result in the usurpation of the majesty of the law by the pretenders to illegitimate power” (see his Philippine Political Law).
Indeed, as Rehnquist says, there is the temptation that “non-elected members of the federal judiciary [to] address themselves to a social problem simply because other branches of government have failed or refused to do so. These same judges, responsible to no constituency whatever, are nonetheless acclaimed as ‘the voice and conscience of contemporary society.’”
Yet, such should never be tolerated, much less allowed.
To paraphrase Rehnquist, The Filipino People “are the ultimate source of authority; they have parceled out the authority that originally resided entirely with them by adopting the original Constitution.”
Should the Supreme Court arrogate unto itself powers it never had, substituting its discretion over that of the Executive or Congress, creating policy through its rulings, then that is nothing else but a “judicial oligarchy.”
Jemy Gatdula is the international law lecturer at the UA&P School of Law and Governance and Executive Director of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations.