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Right to Privacy vs. Congress’ Right to Ask

(Article published in the Sep 15,2003 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

I wish Fr. Jose A. Cruz, S.J., were alive today. He was my Philosophy professor four decades ago when I was a senior at the Ateneo University’s College of Arts and Sciences and, since then up to his death, was my mentor, counsellor, and, simply, source of strength and inspiration.

We need him now, among other reasons, to make philosophical sense of the Jose Pidal investigations going on at the Senate, a reflection, I suspect, of the singular insight of existential thought,-- that man, as body and soul, is in the world but not of the world. 

The worldly Senate considering the Arroyo brothers as their own thing; Iggy and Mike claiming, “we are none of your business”.  The tension, of course, appears beyond resolve and as enduring as the “angst” inherent in an embodied spirit.

But since unlike Arthur of the Round Table, we cannot conjure up our Merlin, we have to be content with the teachings of those sitting at the High Bench.  They too have grappled with the issue and, though not as wise as Camelot’s sage, they speak of what is the law, which, in some cases, may be  what is correct.  Two of their decisions, I submit, are:

The first is Bengzon, Jr. v. the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee (203 SCRA 767).  This ruling enforced the Constitutional rule that inquiries of the Senate and House of Representatives or any of their respective committees must be “in aid of legislation” (Sec. 21, Art. VI, Constitution).  










 
         Citing US precedents, it recognized that this power to conduct investigations is inherent in lawmaking, it is broad, and it indeed includes probes to expose corruption, inefficiency or waste.

The Supreme Court quoted, with approval, the US case of  Watkins v. US (354 US 178): “But broad as this power inquiry is, it is not unlimited. There is no general authority to expose the private affairs of individuals without justification in terms of the functions of Congress. Nor is the Congress a law enforcement or trial agency.  These are functions of the executive and judicial departments of government. Investigations conducted solely for personal aggrandizement of the investigators or to ‘punish’ those investigated are indefensible.”  Hence, no investigations in aid of election, please.

The other is the case of Ople v. Torres (293 SCRA 141) decided seven years later, striking down Administrative Order No. 308 issued by then President Fidel V. Ramos.  A.O. No. 308 sought to establish a national ID system, called the National Computerized Identification Reference System.

Flatly, the Supreme Court said that A.O. No. 308 violates the right to privacy.  “There is”, said the court in Ople invoking the old case of Morfe v. Mutuc (22 SCRA 424), “a constitutional right to privacy.”  It is not, however, articulated in any particular section or article, but rather, “recognized and enshrined in several provisions of our Constitution.”  It was thus a cheap shot for a supposedly honorable senator to challenge Iggy and his counsel to point to a specific provision in the constitution granting the right to privacy.

Had he done his homework, as he should have, he would have known that, in Ople, the Supreme Court saw the right to privacy underneath several provisions in the Bill of Rights, such as, Sec. 1, on due process; Sec. 2, on the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, affirmed in the later case of People v. Chua Ho San (306 SCRA 432) ; Sec. 3(1) on the privacy of communication; Sec. 6, on the liberty of abode; Sec. 8, on the freedom of association; and Sec. 17, on the right against self-incrimination.  Not only is the right recognized, it is staunchly protected by the rule making inadmissible any evidence obtained in its violation (Art. III, Sec. 3, par. 2).

In addition, the honorable senator would have also seen that Ople recognizes what it calls “zones of privacy” protected in general laws, like the Civil Code and the Revised Penal Code, as well as in special laws, including the Secrecy of Bank Deposits Act, the very law invoked by the banks at the hearings to justify their keeping mum about the Jose Pidal accounts. 

Decisions after Ople leave no doubt that the right to privacy does exist, albeit with varying consequences.  In one, it served as a protection against an unwanted intrusion by another private person, including one’s spouse.  In Ilusorio v. Bildner, (332 SCRA 169), the Supreme Court refused to grant a lawful wife the right to visit her lawful husband.  The husband, ruled the Court, “cannot be subject of visitation rights against his free choice.  Otherwise, we will deprive him of his right to privacy.”  In another, it did not serve as a bar to the audio-visual recording of the trial of the former President Estrada before the Sandiganbayan (Re: Request for Live Radio-TV Coverage of the Trial in the Sandiganbayan of the Plunder Cases against Former President Joseph E. Estrada, A.D. No. 01-4-03 SC, Sept. 12, 2001).

So where do we look in this clash of Congress’ right to investigate, assuming compliance with Bengzon, against the individual’s right to privacy when correctly invoked as in Ople?  Luckily the situation is not as insoluble as the old riddle of what happens when an irresistible force strikes an immovable object.  Sooner or later, at the instance of either the Blue Ribbon Committee or of the Arroyos, the issue will fall at the doorstep of judiciary and will therein be properly resolved.

But for now, as I responded when so asked by that sharp TV newscaster and host Katrina Constantino last Thursday morning, my sentiments lie with right of privacy.  Not only because that right is one protected by the Bill of Rights, which is precisely a limitation on all governmental action, such as the Congressional right to inquire (Hutcheson v. US, 369 US 599).

But more because, I believe that what makes a man a man is not what makes him a part of the world, but rather that which sets him apart from the world, that inner sanctum of one’s being that only he, not even his God if he wills not, can enter.  That, I owe to my teacher, Fr. Cruz.

     

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