How the Supreme Court decided on key public interest issues

Bulatlat looks back at the decisions of the high court which affect the public the most, and the Filipino people’s fundamental rights and welfare.

Related story: All eyes on Supreme Court justices as they hear petitioners vs Anti-Terror Law


An independent judiciary is integral in a democratic society. After the ouster of former president Ferdinand E. Marcos, the framers of the 1987 Philippine Constitution included provisions guarding freedoms fought for by those who resisted the former dictator.

While safeguards against another tyrannical rule have been inserted in the highest law of the land, administrations after Marcos attempted to cling on to power. Even as the Constitution explicitly states the civilian authority is supreme over the military, succeeding administrations still resorted to militarist approach in dealing with social injustices. Some of the Martial Law era doctrines have remained, and are being used against critics and ordinary folk.

When President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office, he has been unapologetic about his admiration for Marcos. In fact, Duterte seems to be going by the dictator’s playbook – doing all means to control the legislature and even the judiciary.

Bulatlat looks back at the decisions of the high court which affect the public the most, and the Filipino people’s fundamental rights and welfare.

As the SC deliberates the petitions questioning the Anti-Terror Law this week, the Filipino people hope that the magistrates will decide in their favor.

SC affirms, extends thrice Mindanao martial law

Eleven justices voted to uphold President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao in June 2017. Three of the justices voted to limit the declaration to Marawi City, the site of clashes between government troops and Islamic State-inspired Maute and Abu Sayyaf group.

Only Associate Justice Marvic Leonen objected to the ruling, saying there was no factual basis for martial law.

Petitioners, which include opposition lawmakers, progressive leaders and four women from Marawi City asserted that the President could have addressed the crisis even without declaring martial law, saying the conflict was confined within Marawi City.

Opposition lawmaker Edcel Lagman said facts that the president cited in justifying martial rule before Congress were not sufficient to support his act. Lagman said in his petition that the attack on Marawi was “actually an armed resistance” and not a rebellion because it was an attempt to prevent the government from arresting Abu Sayyaf Group leader Isnilon Hapilon.

Duterte placed Mindanao under martial law on May 23, 2017, following clashes between Maute and government troops.

The following year, the high court upheld the one-year extension of martial law in Mindanao, saying it has no power to review a decision of Congress, and serious threats to security remain in the south.

Voting 10-5 in session, the justices dismissed for lack of merit the consolidated petitions of former Commission on Elections chairman Christian Monsod, former Commission on Human Rights chairperson Loretta Ann Rosales, a group of congressmen led by Albay 1st District Rep. Edcel Lagman and another group led by Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate and Anakpawis Rep. Ariel Casilao seeking to stop the one-year extension of martial law.

Lagman said the SC decision would “embolden President Duterte to continue violating the rule of law.”

In a vote of 10-5, the Supreme Court upheld the second extension of martial law in Mindanao, six months longer than its first extension. Almost the same justices who voted in favor of the first extension also voted in favor of the second.

Human rights groups documented more human rights abuses in different parts of Mindanao since the declaration of martial law.

Kabataan Partylist Rep. said, “This SC will go down in history as the Court that chose to turn a blind eye to the reality of the political situation, allowing another fascist leader to rise into dictatorship.”

In February 2019, the high court again upheld the constitutionality of the third extension of martial law in Mindanao.

Voting 9-4, the high court junked the petitions seeking to nullify the extension filed by the Makabayan bloc of the House of Representatives, a group of human right lawyers led by Christian M. Monsod, and lumad teachers from Mindanao.

Former Bayan Muna Partylist Representative Neri Colmenares said the SC decision opens the path for the move to place the entire country under martial law even without any threat on public security.

In a span of two years under martial law, rights group Karapatan documented 800,000 cases of human rights abuses, which include 93 activists killed and more than 1,400 arrested and detained.

Affirming the quo warranto petition against CJ Sereno

The ousting of former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno through a quo warranto petition filed by the Office of the Solicitor General was seen as the sprawling of a “red carpet for dictatorial rule” under the present administration.

The quo warranto petition stemmed from an argument that Sereno failed to submit her statement of assets, liabilities and net worth as set by the Judicial and Bar Council. However, the former chief justice and her supporters argued that the applicant’s SALN is not an absolute requirement per the 1987 Constitution.

In an 8-6 en banc decision penned by now retired associate justice Noel Tijam, the high court found Sereno disqualified from holding the office of the Chief Justice, declared the position vacant, and directed the JBC to begin its application and nomination process.

Sereno has been vocal about her concern on the Duterte administration’s so-called “war on drugs.” This has earned the ire of the president.

In 2016, months after Duterte’s inauguration as president came a list of officials, including judges, allegedly involved in the illegal drug trade. Sereno told judges not surrender to the authorities without an arrest warrant duly issued by local courts.

In his public speech, Duterte warned Sereno to not interfere or he will declare martial law. He also openly called Sereno his enemy.

Supporters of Sereno see her ouster through quo warranto as a dangerous precedent that can be used against critics of the executive.

Critics saw Sereno’s ousting through a quo warranto petition – a first of its kind – as an attempt to undermine judicial independence to railroad tyranny and create a climate of fear to those who dare to dissent.

On Sen. Leila De Lima’s arrest

In a vote of 9-6, the SC decided to reject the petition of Sen. Leila De Lima for lack of merit.

De Lima asked the High Court to nullify the warrant of arrest issued against her by Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court Judge Juanita Guerrero, citing lack of jurisdiction and to stop conducting proceedings on the case filed against her.

The SC said it is the Muntinlupa RTC that has jurisdiction over her case and not the Sandiganbayan.

The SC then ordered the lower court to continue with the pending case against De Lima who is detained at the custodial center at Camp Crame.

De Lima is accused of being involved in the illegal drug trade inside the New Bilibid Prison while she was the secretary of the Department of Justice from 2010 to 2015.

But according to the dissenting opinion of Associate Justice Benjamin Caguioa the information itself has “glaring defects” as it does not validly charge De Lima with any unlawful act under Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

“It is highly lamentable that the majority of the members of the Court have put their imprimatur to this insidious manner of phrasing an Information concerning illegal drugs offenses to detain an unsuspecting individual. The real concern is this: if this can be done to a sitting Senator of the Republic of the Philippines, then this can be done to any citizen,” Caguioa said in his dissenting opinion.

Critics of the government meanwhile believed that the case against De Lima is politically motivated.

Since the beginning of his term Duterte never minced his words against De Lima.

His rage against the senator stemmed when in 2009, De Lima probed the alleged links between Duterte and the so-called Davao Death Squad. This was during De Lima’s term as commissioner at the Commission on Human Rights.

In his public speech, Duterte threatened that De Lima would be jailed for alleged ties with drug convict Jaybee Sebastian. True enough, in just less than a year, De Lima was arrested and detained.

At the start of her term as senator, De Lima also criticized Duterte’s war on drugs and has initiated talks with the United Nations to investigate the drug-related killings in the Philippines.

Conduct of warrantless searches and seizures of illegal drugs in vehicles based solely on an unverified anonymous tip

In a vote of 11-3, the SC ruled that any tip from an anonymous source not verified by the police “could not be a legal basis for an intrusive search of a vehicle for illegal drugs.”

The ruling acquitted and ordered the immediate release of Jerry Sapla, a jeepney passenger who was arrested in January 2014 in Tabuk, Kalinga province, for possession of four bricks of marijuana.

He was convicted by the Tabuk City Regional Trial Court of violating Section 5 of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act in January 2017. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and a fine of P5 million. This was upheld by the Court of Appeals but lowered the fine to P1 million.

This prompted Sapla to elevate his appeal to the SC.

According to news reports, the local police acted on a tip they received from an anonymous source that a certain man would transport marijuana from Kalinga to the province of Isabela. Another anonymous source gave a detailed description of the said person and the plate number of the vehicle he was allegedly riding. The police then set up a checkpoint, flagged the vehicle Sapla was riding, searched it and found the bags of marijuana.

The decision came under an administration where a campaign against illegal drugs hasled to the thousands of killings, disappearance, arrest and detention of small time drug offenders.

The ruling said, “When the Constitution is disregarded, the battle against illegal drugs becomes a self-defeating and self-destructive enterprise. A battle waged against illegal drugs that tramples on the rights of the people is not a war on drugs; it is a war against the people.”

SC upholds constitutionality of Bayanihan law

The Supreme Court junked the petition questioning the constitutionality of some of the provisions of Republic Act 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act.

In his petition, lawyer Jaime Ibañez asserted that the law is partly unconstitutional as it granted the president “legislative authority to exercise power other than what is necessary and proper to carry out the declared national policy.”

The petitioner also asked the high court to prohibit the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases from enforcing its guidelines on community quarantine, as these are supposedly an “invalid delegation of legislative authority” and in violation of due process and equal protection clauses.

The high court, however, dismissed the Petition, saying “it failed to show grave abuse of discretion committed by the respondents.” Only Associate Justices Marvic Leonen and Samuel Gaerlan dissented from the majority opinion.

Approved on May 23, 2020, the Bayanihan Act granted the president authority for three months to realign funds to distribute emergency cash aid to the poor, and impose stiffer penalties for local officials refusing to comply with emergency measures.

SC shields President’s health records

The Supreme Court dismissed the petition seeking to disclose medical records of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Voting 13-2, the high court said petitioner Dino de Leon “failed to establish the existence of a clear legal right that was violated, or that he is entitled to the writ of mandamus prayed for.”

A writ of mandamus compels a tribunal, corporation, board, officer or person to perform a ministerial duty which was unlawfully neglected.

In his petition, De Leon maintained that Section 12, Art. VII of the 1987 Philippine Constitution requires the President to inform the public of the state of his health in case of serious illness. He added that under section 7 of Article III, the people have the right to be informed of matters that affect them.

Without requiring the respondents to comment, the SC said in its decision that the petitioner’s allegation that the President is seriously ill is “unsubstantiated and is based merely on petitioner’s surmises and conjectures regarding his perception of the declining health of the President.”

De Leon quoted news reports where Duterte admitted to having Myasthenia Gravis, Buerger’s Disease, GERD, Barrett’s Esophagus, “spinal issues” and “daily migraines” as well as reports on alleged psychological issues of the President based on court records.

Two magistrates objected to the ruling of the majority.

In his dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa noted that the high court acted with “undue haste” in dismissing a petition that requires a more in-depth study.

“As Filipinos are literally facing death in the face, they deserve more from the Court than this almost cursory manner of disposition of a crucial issue,” Caguioa said in his dissenting opinion.

Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, meanwhile, said that deciding an unprecedented petition that could lay down foundational doctrines without any comment from the respondents could set an “atrocious precedent.”

“It undermines our independence and makes this Court vulnerable to a charge that we have ceased to be a sentinel of the fundamental rights of the sovereign people and enrobed ourselves with the garments of servility,” Leonon said.

Mass testing

Amid a raging pandemic and the apparent lethargic government response, public health advocates from the Citizens Urgent Response to End Covid-19 called on the Supreme Court to compel concerned state agencies to conduct proactive mass testing, efficient contact tracing and isolation, and effective treatment. All of these were long recommended by health experts both here and abroad, in order to cut the chain of transmission of the dreaded virus.

The Supreme Court, however, said it is neither their job to say what the law is nor dictate how another government branch should do its job, “no matter how dire the emergency.”

In a lone dissenting opinion, Justice Marvic Leonen said the petition warrants a comment from respondents as ruling on these issues will have a significant impact on the social, political, and economic aspects of the country.

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers – National Capital Region, whose member-lawyers assisted the petitioners said the high court’s decision has left the people’s right to health and to information up in the air.

As of now, the Philippines is still grappling with the impacts of the COVID-19, with people’s hope being pinned on vaccines that have yet to come. The country’s testing capacity has declined over the past month, despite experts and government officials alike estimating a surge in the number of new COVID-19 cases during the holiday period.

More than half of these testing centers are also located in the National Capital Region, denying those in far-flung communities access to timely and accurate results.

There are now more than 520,000 cases of COVID-19 in the Philippines.

Petition to release political prisoners vulnerable to Covid*

The SC belatedly decided on the urgent plea of the families of political prisoners who are vulnerable in contracting the novel coronavirus in congested jails. The petition asked the SC to temporarily release 22 political prisoners who are elderly, have illnesses and pregnant amid the surging cases of Covid-19 in jails.

Filed in April when political prisoner Reina Mae Nasino was still pregnant, the SC released its decision in September 2020.

In its decision, the SC treated the petition as an application for bail. It directed the lower courts, where the political prisoners cases are pending, to conduct the necessary proceedings and resolve these immediately.

While waiting for the decision to be released, Nasino gave birth to River Emmanuelle on July 1, 2020. The lower court in Manila did not grant her motion twice to take care of her underweight baby inside prison or under hospital arrest. They were separated after a month. River contracted pneumonia and died in October last year.

In her separate opinion, Associate Justice Amy C. Lazaro-Javier said there should be relief given to baby River.

For Kapatid, a support group of friends and relatives of political prisoners, the SC decision only means longer wait for the sick and the elderly as lower courts need to conduct hearings.

SC blocks higher taxes for POGO

Voting 13-1, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) industry, stopping the government’s move to tax POGOs.

Only Associate Justice Marvic Leonen dissented from the majority decision.

The SC issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) barring the Department of Finance (DOF) and Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) from imposing a five-percent franchise tax on all bets collected by POGOs.

The five-percent franchise tax on POGOs’ gross bets or pre-determined minimum monthly revenues, whichever is higher, is identified as a major funding source under the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, also known as Bayanihan 2.

The law allots a P165.5-billion fund for pandemic response and recovery. Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon earlier said this would include an estimated P17.5 billion the government could expect from POGO tax collections.

The high court acted on the petition filed by 14 foreign-based POGOs.

President Duterte himself has publicly defended POGOs, saying the industry is “clean” amid reports of money laundering, trafficking and prostitution.

In a Senate hearing in March 2020, the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) revealed that P14 billion of the P54 billion in transactions by POGOs from 2017 to 2019 was linked to “suspicious activities.” (

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