Blog Lecture No. 20: Political Question

Now back to the real world and its problems…

Today, let us discuss the doctrine of political question.

What is a political question?

When faced with a justiciable controversy, the Philippine Supreme Court could dismiss the case because the issue involves a political question and necessarily begs off deciding it.

In the case of Sanidad vs. Comelec (G.R. L-44640, 12 October 1976), the Philippine Supreme Court had the occassion to define it as such:

At the threshold, it is necessary to clarify what is a “political question”. It must be noted that this device has been utilized by the judiciary “to avoid determining questions it is ill equipped to determine or that could be settled in any event only with the effective support of the political branches.” According to Weston, judges, whether “personal representatives of a truly sovereign king, or taking their seats as the creatures of a largely popular sovereignty speaking through a written constitution, derive their power by a delegation, which clearly or obscurely as the case may be, delineates and delimits their delegated jurisdiction. . . . Judicial questions . . . are those which the sovereign has set to be decided in the courts. Political question, similarly, are those which the sovereign has entrusted to the so-called political departments of government or has reserved to be settled by its own extra-governmental action.” Reflecting a similar concept, this Court has defined a “political question” as a “matter which is to be exercised by the people in their primary political capacity or that has been specifically delegated to some other department or particular officer of the government, with discretionary power to act.” In other words, it refers to those questions which, under the Constitution, are to be decided by the people in their sovereign capacity, or in regard to which full discretionary authority has been delegated to the legislative or executive branch of government.

What the h@%% does this mean?

Just focus on the last sentence. A political questions are those which, under the Constitution, are to be decided by the people in their sovereign capacity, or those issues that belong exclusively to the other branches of government.

To the layman, it may be a simple question of politics. It may be a very loose definition but if you want to see it this way, so be it.

What could be examples of these “political questions”?

Constitutional amendments, impeachment grounds, legislative wisdom in enacting some law, the choice of a particular official to fill a post are possible issues which the Supreme Court can beg off deciding because they are political questions.

Is this doctrine still applicable?

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on which side you are on) not anymore, with the 1987 Constitution.

With the landmark case of Oposa vs. Factoran (G.R. No. 101083, 30 July 1993), the Supreme Court has already said:

It must, nonetheless, be emphasized that the political question doctrine is no longer the insurmountable obstacle to the exercise of judicial power or the impenetrable shield that protects executive and legislative actions from judicial inquiry or review. The second paragraph of section 1, Article VIII of the Constitution states that: “Judicial power includes the duty of the courts of justice to settle actual controversies involving rights which are legally demandable and enforceable, and to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the Government.”

How is this relevant now?

(And this is just an opinion only.)
I believe that with the junking of the poltical question doctrine, even the wisdom of all legislative and executive actions (including the finding of guilt by the Senate in an impeachment case, even the stubborn will of a sitting president to hold on to power) CAN be reviewed and overturned by the Supreme Court, for as long as a petitioner can show an actual controversy.

What is a justiciable controversy, then?

According to the Constitution, it is an actual controversy involving rights which are legally demandable and enforceable, and to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the Government.

Hence, a petitioner has to show either 1) his legally demandable and enforceable right or 2) a grave abuse of discretion on any government agency (including Congress or the Executive Branch)

What does this mean?

You can just imagine the immense power the judiciary has. With this all-encompassing jurisdiction, it can easily be considered as most powerful all the other branches of government. This jurisdiction, coupled with its inherent power to interpret laws (hence, possibly engage in “judicial legislation”), makes the judiciary mightily powerful, indeed. I realized this early in my law studies. It is only now that I put it in writing.

Ok, but what about that case where the substantial propriety of the Estrada Articles of Impeachment was not resolved or that case where Congress was prepared to defy the Supreme Court’s ruling that that Davide impeachment was unconstitutional?

On the first case, it was Senate (as the impeachment court) not the Supreme Court that denied this move by the Estrada lawyers to junk the articles of impeachment. Here, the Senate cited courtesy of a co-equal body. This was not a case of the Supreme Court bowing to Congress. It was a case of the Senate giving courtesy to the House, as a co-equal body.

On the second case, the constitutional impasse was resolved when Congress itself junked the impeachment move against Chief Justice Hilario Davide.

But with these “powers,” who will check the Judicary?

You better ask Atty. Alan Paguia that question…

Seriously, though, Supreme Court Justices could be impeached. But then again, the Supreme Court, could theoretically review this impeachment…

Moreover, it’s one thing to have such jurisdiction. It’s another thing to actually enforce any decision the Judiciary may come up with…

Oh, well!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Blog Lecture No. 20: Political Question

  1. Sam

    Hi Atty., mga tanong lang po: Does a people’s uprising (i.e. the EDSA revolutions) can be considered as political question? How did the Supreme Court justified the assumption to office of GMA via a people’s uprising? Can the dictum “Salus Populi Est Suprema Lex” be applied, to justify a peoples uprising or to constitute a political question?

  2. By definition, it is a political question kasi, these are issues that belong to the people in their sovereign capacity.

    However, the Supreme Court’s review power in this regard is only limited to the actions of government. If it is the people themselves, I don’t think the Supreme Court can question that.

    So in a sense, you’re right. May isa pang issue na political question na hindi pwedeng dinggin ng Korte Suprema…

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