HOWIE SEE IT: The Letter and Spirit of the Constitution

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By Atty. Howie Calleja

Our country has seen a multitude of Vice-Presidents eventually become Presidents, whether through the death or incapacity of their Commander-in-Chief, or because they appealed to the electorate to elect them to the highest office in the land. In the case of the former, we’ve seen situations as far back as the death of former President Manuel L. Quezon making way for Vice-President Sergio Osmeña Sr to assume the office, with the latest example being former Vice-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) assuming former President Estrada’s remaining term, and then being reelected. As can be clearly seen, there have been many instances, and no prohibition, of VP’s gunning for Malacañang’s top office, but no instances of the converse. Plainly speaking, never before has a President attempted to be reelected as the second-highest executive official.

A man unfamiliar with our Constitution may dissect this to be because Presidents have their thirst quenched with the executive branch but this is, in fact, to be because the highest law in our land addresses it indirectly: Article 7, Section 4 of the 1987 Constitution not only provides for the process of electing our President and VP, as well as their term limit, it also specifically states “The President shall not be eligible for any reelection.”

Of course, we’ve seen former Presidents make their way into the House of Representatives under the present Constitution (as per GMA), but never the Vice-Presidency. So, wouldn’t GMA’s reelection into “lower office” as legislatures be directly contrary to this provision, as well? Actually, no. The direct prohibition of Presidents’ reelection is specific only to the same position – that is, the Office of the President. Even the drafters of our Constitution accepted the interpretation that a President would “only be banned from reelection to the same office, at any time during or after their term of office.

It can be remembered that, upon GMA’s bid for a seat in the House of Representatives, two disqualification cases were filed against her on the same Article. The Commission on Elections (Comelec) had dismissed these cases, and the Supreme Court eventually issued a resolution in favor of GMA. However, we are now faced with a new situation: Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Panelo has stated that President Duterte is “open” to running for the Office of the Vice-President. So, as the constitutional provision does not directly forbid it, would he be allowed into “lower office” as GMA was? Absolutely not. The Office of the Vice-President is not comparable to a position in the House of Representatives that GMA sought for. It is, so to speak, a heartbeat away from the Presidency. To be clear the succession of The Vice President to the President is to continue to serve the unexpired term of the office while that the Speaker is only on an interim basis until new elections can be called for purpose of filing up the vacancy.

There is a reason we have a single term for Presidents, while Vice-Presidential terms are much less restrictive. The very idea of more restrictive term limits on President (who may only serve one term and not be re-elected to the Office of the President), as compared to Vice-Presidents who may serve up to two terms and even a Presidential term, has been recognized by the drafters to be because “six years is long enough for a good President to implement his programs and, with the constraints built around the Presidency, a bad one would not succeed in accomplishing his evil designs.”

What would happen if whoever runs with Duterte on the ticket would be declared incapacitated or, God forbid, even die? Duterte would then be named President. By allowing Duterte to run for Vice-President we would be putting him in a position a stone’s throw away from continuing his terror regime. The very intent of the provision on restrictive term limits was to prohibit another Marcos – an extension of a term based on a single man’s narrative – it is clear that the spirit of the Constitution is that no President can place himself in office for more than one term.

Basic statutory construction principles state ut magis valeat quam pereat or the Constitution is to be interpreted as a whole. No one provision of the Constitution is to be separated from all the others, to be considered alone, but all provisions bearing upon a particular subject matter are to be viewed, considered and to be so interpreted as to effectuate the true intent and purposes of the instrument. In interpreting the Constitution, we look at both the letter and the spirit of the law: in placing a maximum limit of one term and a clear prohibition against the reelection of the President, the Constitution seeks to prevent a repeat of an authoritarian and dictatorial regime.

While it is true that there is nothing unconstitutional in urging Duterte to run for Vice-President in the 2022 elections, it would be unconstitutional if he actually runs for the position. The act of him filing his certificate of candidacy for reelection in October, while he is still the sitting President, is exactly what the Constitution prohibits. The letter and spirit of the Constitution prohibits any person to be placed in power perpetually and having access to unlimited resources of the government to promote his/her own political agenda.

What the Constitution prohibits directly, we cannot circumvent it by doing it indirectly. The Constitution is the embodiment of the will of the people, and as such, it is the highest and most supreme law of the land to which all other legal documents and legal regulations bow down to. Nothing can go against it, not even the President.