MANILA, MAY 3, 2006 (STAR) By Raissa Espinosa-Robles, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism - (Third of a series) The fate of present efforts to change the constitution now lies in the hands of the Supreme Court (SC) much like how it was in 1973.

Back then, President Ferdinand Marcos managed to get the highest court of the land to endorse what was an anomalous ratification of a new charter he had tailor-made to suit his needs.

Today, with the Arroyo administration seemingly following Marcos’s playbook page by page, those against charter change are wary on how the Panganiban Court would act once the matter arrives at its doorstep.

Political scientist Jose Abueva, secretary of the constitutional convention (con-con) that produced the 1973 charter and who was appointed chairman of the Arroyo administration’s consultative commission (con-com) on charter change last year, makes no bones about what he expects to happen.

"My hope," he says, "is that in the event of a clear majority, an impressive number (signs the petitions asking for charter change), the Supreme Court would accept that as the people’s choice."

That implies that even if the Charter-change or Cha-cha petitioners fail to gather the required three percent of the registered voters per district, Abueva hopes the high tribunal will still endorse Cha-cha.

Last December, President Arroyo formed the con-com, which produced a draft constitution that would have her enjoying expanded clout. But trips taken by ConCom members around the country had revealed that people wanted cha-cha if only as a means of getting rid of the current administration.

According to official transcripts of con-com sessions, member Emily Marohombsar said that although they weren’t asked, "the people brought it up, they said that ‘we support charter change because we believe it would mean also a change in the regime.’"

Malacañang officials say the Palace had no hand in the draft document. In March, "citizens’ assemblies" were formed to secure millions of signatures for a "people’s initiative" to grant Arroyo even stronger powers than those proposed by the commission.

The initiative’s supporters say they will produce over 22 million signatures, which would exceed half the number of current registered voters, now at 43.5 million.

Con-com member Raul Lambino says, "I cannot stop them, they are still gathering more signatures. In fact when I talked to some governors they would like to get more than the 50 percent… to show all opposition groups that there is really a strong clamor for constitutional reforms."

After that, the plan is to ask the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to authenticate these signatures. The next step, some observers fear, is that Mrs. Arroyo would — as Marcos did more than 30 years ago, after his own citizens’ assemblies "overwhelmingly ratified" the 1973 Constitution — issue a proclamation saying the people have spoken and that their decision must be respected even by the SC since sovereignty resides in the people.

Expressions of the people’s will

Abueva himself says that the SC has already twice affirmed unconventional means of expressing the popular will. In 1986, he notes, it validated the "people power" expressed by only around a million people massing along EDSA — a fraction of the total number of registered voters.

In 2001, he adds, the high court favorably viewed a similar demonstration of "people power" and judged it as "a valid exercise of popular sovereignty."

Abueva points out how, in 2001, "they (Supreme Court justices) even had to invent a doctrine called constructive resignation."

Still, there are those like Fr. Joaquin Bernas, S.J., a constitutional law expert and one of those who had helped frame the 1987 charter, who say the current SC may yet pull a surprise — at least for those who want to change the constitution.

In a forum last week, Bernas pointed to two recent rulings issued by the SC that he says shows that "the justices are conscious of their own place in history."

On April 20, the SC partially voided Executive Order 464 that had clipped the powers of Congress to summon government officials to its inquiries. A few days later, the court followed that up with an opinion on the so-called "calibrated preemptive response" of the government regarding rallies; according to the SC, the policy had no place in the country’s "legal firmament."

These rulings have made Bernas optimistic that there would be no revision of the Constitution this year. But if such a revision "comes through," he says, "it would only mean that the Supreme Court will have approved initiative and referendum for revision."

"We can give up on the Supreme Court if that happens," he said. (To be concluded)

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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