MANILA, Philippines – The Supreme Court (SC) yesterday allowed appointed government officials seeking to run in next year’s elections to stay on in their posts and actively campaign even after filing their certificates of candidacy (COC).
In an 8-6 vote, the SC declared as unconstitutional a provision in the Omnibus Election Code prohibiting an appointive government official from discharging his functions after filing his COC.
Under Section 66 of the Omnibus Election Code that was applied in the third paragraph of Republic Act RA 9369 or the Poll Automation Law, any appointive government official “shall be ipso facto resigned upon filing of COC.”
The high court also nullified similar rules and provisions, including the provision of Resolution 8678 issued by the Commission on Elections (Comelec).
In the majority ruling penned by Associate Justice Antonio Eduardo Nachura, the high tribunal said the prohibition against appointive government officials is discriminatory.
“In considering persons holding appointive positions as ipso facto resigned from their posts upon the filing of their COCs, but not considering as resigned all other civil servants, specifically the elective ones, the law unduly discriminates against the first class,” the court said.
The SC said the prohibition made a “substantial distinction between those who hold appointive positions and those occupying elective posts.”
“(It) does not justify such differential treatment,” the SC said.
The high court said Congress has not shown a compelling state interest to restrict the fundamental right to equal protection “on such a sweeping scale,” SC spokesman and lawyer Jose Midas Marquez explained.
Among those who expressed dissention over the ruling was Chief Reynato Puno.
In his 70-page dissenting opinion, Puno said “there was no violation of the equal protection clause because substantial distinctions exist” between elected and appointive officials.
He added the classification is consistent to the purpose of the law because another purpose of the differential treatment is to respect the mandate of the sovereign will.
The SC allowed the petition of election lawyer Romulo Macalintal questioning the legality of the prohibition against appointive officials.
Macalintal filed the petition last October in behalf of Department of Environment and Natural Resources Undersecretary Eleazar Quinto and DENR Director Gerino Tolentino, pointing out the advance filing of COCs was provided under the new Poll Automation Law only for the purpose of printing the names of the candidates in the ballots to be used in the automated elections.
In the petition, they argued the election law should consider them resigned from their posts only upon the start of the campaign period, not upon the filing of their COCs.
State lawyers led by Justice Department Agnes Devanadera had agreed with the argument of Macalintal, pointing out the need to reconcile the conflicting provisions in the poll automation law.
Devanadera, as Solicitor General, made a 44-page comment on the petition filed by Macalintal, stressing the need for the SC to resolve the issue.
For her part, Devanadera took the opportunity to declare her bid to represent the first congressional district of Quezon province in the next year’s elections.
“If there was no SC decision like that, I would not file my candidacy because I don’t want to leave the Maguindanao massacre case hanging,” Devanadera said, referring to the multiple murder cases filed against accused mass murderer Datu Unsay town mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr.
Devanadera said leaving the high profile criminal case to a new Justice chief might be detrimental to the prosecution of the case.
“I can assure the people that even if I join the election, I can continually work to make sure that justice is served to the victims of the massacre,” she said.
Malacañang welcomed the SC ruling, saying the Cabinet officials would be able to work a few more months and allow President Arroyo more time to look for their replacements.
“We are certainly relieved by it. Many of the Cabinet officials who have been considered as resigned if there was no such ruling from the SC would now be able to lend a few more months of credible service to the country and the people,” Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs Gabriel Claudio said.
“It will also give the bureaucracy more time to find the best and the most qualified replacements,” he said.
Claudio said the Cabinet officials are “not anxious to go on premature campaigning so they can focus on helping the President carry the work of governance.”
“Of course they are cautioned not to be seen as using the resources of their respective offices,” he said.
There are around 17 Cabinet officials who were expected to file their COCs seeking various elective posts in next year’s elections.
Among them are Cabinet Secretary Silvestre Bello III, who is running for senator under Lakas-Kampi-CMD, and Presidential Management Staff chief Hermogenes Esperon seeking a congressional seat in Pangasinan.
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Raul Gonzalez is also running as mayor of Iloilo City and Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya Jr. is seeking to return to his congressional seat in Camarines Sur.
Sources, on the other hand, revealed Vice President Noli de Castro would end his political career and return to broadcast journalism.
“He is not running for any elective position, he did not file any COC. He is returning to private life,” said an official close to the Vice President.
The source said that when De Castro received the lifetime achievement award from the Philippine Movie Press Club last Sunday, he hinted that the award might signal his return to broadcasting.
De Castro repeatedly distanced himself from talks that he would join the ruling party as standard-bearer.
He also denied reports that he would run as mayor of Quezon City or seek another term in next year’s elections. –Edu Punay (The Philippine Star) with Paolo Romero, Pia Lee-Brago