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Signals from the Supreme Court

(Article published in the Sep 14,2005 issue of Manila Standard Today)

         The Supreme Court is the fixed keel of the ship of state.  By design, its weight and shape keep the vessel upright, preventing it from capsizing due to wind and wave.  At the same time, running lengthwise from bow to stern, the keel moderates the directional changes ordained by captain and crew.  But unlike the sail that flaunts its glory for all to see, the keel, below the water line, goes about its crucial task unnoticed by those watching from the shore.

          Be that as it may then, in these days of turbulence and turmoil, effective estate planning nevertheless demands that practitioners correctly read how the keel of the ship of state is moving and shifting.  For one cannot properly plan beyond the storm unless he or she is able to read correctly, from the Supreme Court, how, if at all, the legal system has moved and which direction the ship of state is facing when the seas once more calm down.

          High profile cases are the natural sources of signals from the Supreme Court on where the legal system is headed.  The most recent one, to my mind, is the Supreme Court’s decision on the five petitions brought before it to declare the revised value-added tax law, R.A. No. 9337 unconstitutional (G.R. No. 168056, 168207, 168461, 168463, and 168730).  

          The first signal, as I read the decision, is that the Supreme Court is prepared to use, as in fact it did use on 01 July 2005, its power to issue a temporary restraining order when, in its view, a law is poorly understood by the public.   R.A. No. 9337 induced, quite unjustifiably, an across 10% increase in prices.  To halt the contagion of this confusion, the Supreme Court issued a TRO and in effect called a time out.  As explained by Justice Artemio V. Panganiban, “...that’s one reason among many others this Court had to issue TRO, because of the confusion in the implementation…”         

          The second signal seems that the Supreme Court is not likely to reverse long standing rulings.  Thus, changes which were made at the Bicameral Conference Committee in the final versions of the bills after they had left the Senate and the House were upheld, along the lines drawn in Philippine Judges Assoc. v. Prado (227 SCRA 703), Tolentino v. Sec. of Finance (235 SCRA 630), and Fariñas v. Executive Secretary (417 SCRA 503).   The power of the Senate to drastically alter a revenue bill from the House was sustained, following Tolentino.

          On the substantive issues, the Supreme Court drew on the authority of People v. Vera (65 Phil 56), and  Edu v. Ericta (35 SCRA 481), among other cases, to sustain the authority to given to the President to raise the VAT rate from 10% to 12% under certain defined conditions.  It refused to pass on the acceptability of the reason for the law saying, as it did in National Housing Authority v. Reyes (123 SCRA 245), that it is not for the judiciary to “pass upon questions of wisdom, justice or expediency of legislation”.  And, as expected, petitioners’ appeal to the tired slogans of due process, equal protection, uniformity and “equitability”, progressivity were disposed of by citations of authorities familiar to any bar candidate who reviewed for last Sunday’s bar examination in taxation. 

          Thus, on all issues raised that were raised against R.A. No. 9339, the Supreme Court acted as a true ballast, staying on the tack laid out by previous decisions, despite gusts of wind blowing in various directions.

          But the third, and in my view, the most important signal from the Supreme Court is found in the decision’s Conclusion.  The Supreme Court appears to be withdrawing from the high ground it took in recent years when it struck down, under the aegis of judicial review, in one decision after another starting with Manila Hotel, The PetroChemical and, recently, with PIATCO, acts of the political departments on primarily economic concerns.   In the Conclusion, the Supreme Court retreated to the safe haven of Vera v. Avelino (77 Phil 365) that was decided in 1946 when the independent republic was young and full of hope.

          Quoting Vera, the decision warned against being “overly influenced by the plea that for every wrong there is a remedy, and that the judiciary should stand ready to afford relief.  There are undoubtedly many wrongs the judicature may not correct…”

          Continuing the quote, the Supreme Court, reiterated, ‘let us likewise disabuse our minds from the notion that the judiciary is the repository of remedies for all political or social ills…”

          This was one signal correctly read by the anti-GMA forces in Congress. 

        In effect, what we hear from the Supreme Court is that, while it does not turn a deaf ear on how a political act affects the lives of mice and men, it does not consider itself bound to solve the problems of the universe.  For estate planning practitioners, this simply means that their multi-dimensional task must be approached in a multi-discipline manner; the law and its ministers at the temple of justice are just one of many players in the moving stage.