Once More, With Feeling

by Juan L. Mercado

That’ s the title of a Broadway   2001 musical on vampires, of all things. Did the neon lights fit  this Supreme Court ‘s  flip-flop-flips on 16 towns that masqueraded as cities?

In a 7-6 decision, the Court  this month  whacked  16 cities  back into towns. That  reversed  it’s December 2009 decision authorizing the 16 to fund  city halls. But then  that overturned a November 2008 ruling  which  declared   the 16  cityhood laws unconstitutional.

Got  that?   No?  Hindi ka nagi-isa. Take  this judicial  zig-zag  one  “zag”  at a time. Start with the latest  “zig”, as Inquirer reported:  “SC: It’s a final no to 16 new cities

“With two justices abstaining, the Supreme Court  reversed  itself anew in the controversial case of 16 cityhood laws. This time, (the Court)  reinstated its 2008 decision that declared these laws unconstitutional.”

Antonio  Carpio is arguably the best Supreme Court chief justice we never had. The Constitution “expressly provides that no city shall be created except in accordance with the criteria established in the local government code,” Justice Carpio writes in this new decision.  “Clearly, the cityhood laws contravene the letter and intent of … the Constitution,” it adds. Congress in fact   “exceeded and abused its law-making power.” 

Justices Conchita Carpio-Morales, Arturo Brion, Diosdado Peralta, Martin Villarama Jr. and Jose Mendoza concurred. So did mint-new justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

The  clobbered 16 are:   Baybay, Leyte;  Bogo, Naga and Carcar  in Cebu; Catbalogan,  Samar; Tandag, Surigao del Sur; Lamitan, Basilan;  Borongan, Samar; Tayabas, Quezon; Tabuk, Kalinga;  Bayugan,  Agusan del Sur;  Batac, Ilocos Norte;  Mati in Davao Oriental plus Guihulngan in Negros.

The 16 opted for palusot.  They  badgered  the 14th Congress to  exempt  them from a task borne by others, i.e.to generate P100 million in local income.  President Gloria Macapgal Arroyo  winked at this cushy shortcut via exemptions by letting the 16 bills lapse into law.

The Court  shredded  a motion for reconsideration by the 16. By a 7-5 vote,in March 2009, the Court, slammed the door shut “with finality for lack of merit”. Following  Entry of Judgment, the Court  added: “No further pleadings shall be entertained.”

“We are not final because we are infallible” Justice Robert Jackson wrote of the US  Supreme Court.  “But  (we are)  infallible only because we are final.”

In the Arroyo Court, alas, “‘final’ does not mean definitive, decisive, conclusive, unchangeable or unappealable,” Sun Star noted. It can also mean “changeable, inconclusive or revocable.”

Thus,  the Court made  a U-turn on Dec. 21 last year. Prohibited pleadings were entertained. And what lacked merit morphed  into the meritorious. Read Justice Presbitero Velasco’s  reversal  ponencia.

A whiff of  scandal  surfaced.  Inquirer’s  editorial “Dear Justice,” revealed that the 16 “cities” counsel  Estelito Mendoza wrote a  “For-Your-Eyes-Only” letter” to  justices. In January 2009, Mendoza asked Justices, who didn’t participate in deliberations, be allowed to vote anyway.

“Unethical”, erupted  League of Cities vice chair Paulino Salvador Leachon. “This is completely against the law—to write the court seeking a favorable decision,” the Calapan mayor added…”We were not provided with those secret documents.”

“Mendoza did not deny the existence of the letters”, Inquirer  added. “It is clear… tthat  they tried to pull a fast one over us”

Today,  the 16 must  paint over  city hall  signs  and shed new hire. They must  yank their hands out from  Internal  Revenue Allotment of  121 other cities.

“Sweat-free” cash spurred the stampede to clone cities. In 1991, there were  60 cities. Many were of dubious viability. The total soared to 131 in June 2007.

Shell cities “strained national government’s ability to finance these units,” World and Asian Development Banks warned as early as 2000. “The small size of LGUs prevent them from generating their own revenues .”

Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr., who penned the 2009 ruling that reversed the 2008 decision, dissented — as expected. Velasco found the decision “rather startling “

Returning the Court to constitutional moorings  is indeed  startling. Now, will the Court start   breaking  free of the Sysiphus syndrome: “A perpetual circuit of never final litigations.”?

In the realm of the dead, Sisyphus was sentenced to roll a huge stone up a steep hill, Greek mythology tells us. There was an eternal handcuff. On reaching the summit, the stone would skid to the bottom.

The Carpio ponencia  may have ended that syndrome  insofar as the cities issue is concerned. What about  equally  jolting reversals,  as in the  Flight Attendants vs Philippine Airlines, to cite just  one?

The  decision  scuttled plans of  congressmen to send 27 more towns  hurtling down  Exemption Highway to become cities  It  reinforces the Court  decision to scrub Dinagat Island as 81st province.

After a  plebiscite, Dinagat had been proclaimed and officials appointed, then Gov. Geraldine Ecleo-Villaroman argued. The island’s  failure to meet criteria of land area, population and income “was irrelevant.”

This  proposition is “fraught with mischief … and creates a dangerous precedent,” snapped.   Justice Peralta  The Court would “not passively accept a fait accompli for an illegal province…. The  error should not provide the very excuse for perpetuation of such wrong…The Court should interpret and indicate what the law is and should be.”

Say that again Your Honors  please. Just “once more — with  feeling”.

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