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Locus Standi: the standing of fools

(Article published in the Nov 17, 2003 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

While, undoubtedly, the constitutionality of the second impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide, Jr. which was filed by Congressmen Gilberto C. Teodoro, Jr. and Felix William B. Fuentebella with the Office of the Secretary General of the House of Representatives on 23 October 2003 was the primary issue settled by the Supreme Court in the Davide Impeachment case, just as significant, if not more, to my mind was the court’s ruling on the locus standi of those who sought to be heard.

 The Davide Impeachment case was really a consolidation of 18 suits filed by a multitude of petitioners, --some coming in individually or others as a group; over a hundred  born of women and the rest persons only by fiction of law, -- and joined in by a number of intervenors, offering themselves as either plaintiffs or respondents.  The sheer number of patriots, pranksters, professors and politicians involved qualified the event as a veritable circus, with no offense meant to professional circus performers.  No wonder the court had to call on its friends, the amici curiae, to sort things out.

 Not every clown could be given a number in a circus program and thus a rule was devised by judges a long time ago to separate those who had something to say from those who wanted to put their foot in their mouths. Thus, the rule on locus standi.  In brief, the rule requires that a person coming to court must have “a personal and substantial interest in the case such that the party has sustained or will sustain direct injury as a result of the governmental act that is being challenged”.  
 










 The purpose of the rule is ensure that the courts, which are not venues for abstract philosophical disputations or sites for inter-school collegiate debates, are confronted with “concrete adverseness which sharpens the presentation of issues upon which the court depends for illumination of difficult constitutional questions.”

 Translating the judicial prose to the poetry of my childhood days in Gagalangin, Tondo, “get the hell out, if the matter is none of your business”.  Or, better still,  “wala kang paki sa hindi mo pami”.  Enforcement of the rule was easy in our playground-streets.  A well-placed blow delivered to the skull by a lead pipe or the of a feathered arrow planted in the gut took care of that.  But not so, in the courts of justice, where some lawyer’s skulls are tougher than lead and some of their client’s guts are concretized by offal.  Hence, the need to highest court of the land to apply the rule in particular circumstances.

 Over the years, the Supreme Court has allowed parties to come to court and be heard if they are (a) citizens, (b) taxpayers, (c) legislators, with their awesome power to deliver privilege speeches unrestrained by logic or decency, or when they represent (d) an organization interested in the controversy or  (e) such a number of unorganized citizens affected by a measure, called a “class suit” most likely taking the cue from the way high school students behave in class nowadays, or in instances of (f) transcendental importance calling for judicial meditation.

 When suing as a citizen, all that is required is that the citizen has sustained or is in imminent danger of sustaining some direct injury as a result of the contested government measure.  The possibility of suffering in an indefinite way is not enough.  However, when the proceedings involve the assertion of a public right, citizenship satisfies the requirement of personal interest.

 As a taxpayer, one can sue on the basis of the claim that public funds (presumably, some of it comes from the taxes he personally paid) are illegally disbursed,  improperly spent or wantonly wasted.  He is also required to show a direct injury.  However, he need not show that he has paid the correct amount or the right kind of taxes.  He thus establishes that he is a taxpayer by buying a cedula.

 As a legislator, a suitor has standing if he claims that the official action he is questioning infringes on his prerogatives as legislator.  In at least two cases, a member of the House of Representatives, which has the power of the purse and the allegedly consequent power to oversee the picking of that purse, was recognized to have standing to maintain inviolate the prerogatives, powers and privileges vested by the Constitution in his office.  There is no need to show that he goes to office, nor, in the instances when he goes there, what he does in his office.

Organizations may also go to court to represent members especially when they are composed of substantial taxpayers (some of whom may or may not be willing to contribute substantially to election campaign funds) and the outcome of the case will affect their vital interests.  Such interest must be specific to the members.

Thus, the petition of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines was in jeopardy of not being permitted because it simply alleged as basis its duty to preserve the rule of law.  Such interest was deemed too general.  Even Ping Lacson can claim such interest.  It was only because the lawyers’s group “advanced constitutional issues which deserve the attention of this Court in view of their seriousness, novelty and weight as precedents” that the Supreme Court, after admitting to “relax its rules on standing” allowed its petition to prosper.  The Court, in conceding to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines some air time, did not say whether or not the organization’s petition contained anything in particular that was not articulated by more worthy petitioners.

“Class suits” require numbers and judging from the number of pupils in elementary and high school classes, that requirement is easily understood.  It is important, however, that all interests within the class are sufficiently represented so that a judgment on the case could bind even those who did not actually come to court.

Finally, the Supreme Court recognized that bringing a matter of “transcendental importance” will open the doors of the court.  What is of “transcendental importance” is not doctrinally defined, but, guidance can be sought from the formulation of former Justice Florentino P. Feliciano who cited certain factors that characterize such an issue.  These are (a) the character of the funds or other assets involved in the case; (b) the presence of a clear case of disregard of a constitutional or statutory prohibition by the public respondent agency or instrumentality of the government and (c) lack of any other party with a more direct and specific interest in raising the questions posed. 

I must apologize to my latin teacher for the atrocious translation in the title of this item.  But it does seem to me, without in anyway belittling the clarifications made by the Court in the Davide Impeachment case on what gives a suitor standing, that the rules on locus standi are still too loose to keep the court from being besieged and overwhelmed by frivolous petitions.

The ground of “transcendental importance” is particularly bothering and I am not able to see how it can keep out the barbarians who are already at the gates ready to pounce on high profile issues this election issues.  Take for instance, the Clean Air Act.   No one can deny how important and transcendental air is to us.  Can just about any one who claims he either anteriorly breathes it or posteriorly pass it, or both, file a suit to question any of its provisions?  No wonder the draft of its implementing regulations is still swirling in a lot of hot air.

We have to set up, if I may suggest, an effective screening process for cases that can be brought to court and to quasi-judicial agencies of government.  This is necessary to ensure that most of their time is devoted to the more crucial function of determining rights and obligations of specific parties.   Those who wish to make fools of themselves are welcome to Congress or to write columns, like this one.
  

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