Raising a constitutional question

posted July 10, 2020 at 12:00 am
by  Tranquil G.S. Salvador III
Raising a constitutional question"What legal vehicle must be used to question the constitutionality of a law?"


Every time there is an unpopular bill which is perceived to violate rights and oppress individuals, people come out and protest. If the public or mass action is unsuccessful in swaying the Chief Executive from signing the bill into law, it opens the floodgates to cases being filed in the Supreme Court that question its constitutionality.

Does the act of filing a petition in the Supreme Court that questions the constitutionality of the law sufficient to consider it unconstitutional? The answer is in the negative. The petitioners will have to identify the particular provisions which they claim to be unconstitutional and the legal bases for the challenge. This is very different from the challenge posed by those going to the streets to express their advocacies, or by commentators who give opinions and post on social media. Once in court, parties will have to file their pleadings and may be required to orally argue their cases. Persuading the public to side with you regarding an issue through the different media platforms does not ensure winning your case in court.

The next question is this – what legal vehicle must be used to question the constitutionality of a law? The Constitution states that judicial power includes the duty of the courts not only "to settle actual controversies involving rights which are legally demandable and enforceable" but also "to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the Government” (Section 1, Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution).

Under the said provision, it is within the powers of the courts of justice “to determine the limits of the power of the agencies and offices of the government as well as those of its officers. In other words, the judiciary is the final arbiter on the question of whether or not a branch of government or any of its officials has acted without jurisdiction or in excess of jurisdiction, or so capriciously as to constitute an abuse of discretion amounting to excess of jurisdiction or lack of jurisdiction” (Araullo v. Aquino, G.R. No. 209287). Hence, the initiatory pleading or the legal vehicle is a Petition for Certiorari under the Constitution, but not under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court which is only limited to grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction of a tribunal, board, or officer exercising “judicial or quasi-judicial functions.”

No constitutional question will be entertained by the court unless the following requisites are present, namely: (a) there must be an actual case or controversy; (b) the case is ripe for judicial determination; (c) the question of constitutionality is raised by the proper party; (d) the issue of constitutionality is raised at the earliest possible time (Funa v. Villar, G.R. No. 192791) The first requisite demands that there be a dispute or controversy that requires court intervention. The Araullo v. Aquino case declared that the incompatibility of the perspectives of the parties on the constitutionality of the law satisfies the requirement of conflicting legal rights.

Related to the requirement of an actual case or controversy is the requirement of "ripeness," meaning that the questions raised are already ripe for judicial determination. A question is ripe for adjudication when the act being challenged has had a direct adverse effect on the individual challenging it (Araullo v. Aquino citing Belgica v. Executive Secretary Ochoa). Simply said, the court cannot resolve hypothetical questions presented before it but rather, real or threatened injury to parties as a result of the challenged action. This is known as the case-or-controversy requirement, which bans the courts from deciding abstract, hypothetical, or contingent questions (Lozano v. Nograles, G.R. No. 187883).

There are various standards to determine the existence of legal standing in court on matters of constitutionality to be considered as the proper party to bring the action. One is the “direct injury test” when the person who would assail the validity of a statute must have "a personal and substantial interest in the case” such that he has sustained or will sustain direct injury as a result of the law (Araullo v. Aquino citing People v. Vera). In another case, the Supreme Court exercised leniency when it applied "transcendental importance" in controversies whose petitioners did not pass the direct injury test (Basco v. PAGCOR, G.R. No. 91649). The Supreme Court also decided to resolve the issues raised in a petition due to their "far reaching implications," even if the petitioner had no personality to file the suit. This permitted ordinary citizens, legislators, and civic organizations to bring their suits involving the constitutionality or validity of laws, regulations, and rulings (Araullo v. Aquino citing Aquino v. Comelec).

There is the “public right” as a basis for challenging a supposedly illegal or unconstitutional legislative action. This rests on the theory that the petitioner represents the public in general. The petitioner in a public action sues as a “citizen or taxpayer” to gain locus standi (David v. Macapagal-Arroyo, G.R. 171396). The petitioner may not be directly affected by the action being complained, but he must show that he is entitled to protection or relief from the Court to vindicate a public right. Hence, not any Juan or Pedro so to speak, who has something to say about the law being unconstitutional, may institute an action in court.

A challenge to a law is not always on matters of constitutionality, but also with regard to its validity. In this situation, the legal remedy is not a Petition for Certiorari but a Declaratory Relief action under Rule 63 of the Rules of Court which may be sought by the aggrieved party/ies before a breach or violation of the subject law is committed. Unlike a Petition on constitutionality of a law which may be filed in the Supreme Court, an action for Declaratory Relief is to be filed exclusively in the Regional Trial Court.

While the filing of actions in court to enforce and vindicate a right or to seek redress for a wrong is recognized in our jurisdiction, the filings of these court cases may clog court dockets, and unnecessarily increase litigation based on sometimes frivolous arguments. To avoid this situation, our legislature should always be mindful of its sworn duty to craft laws – that they are clear and do not leave to the implementing agencies the discretion to ascertain the reason and intent behind the law. In this way, abuses by those implementing the laws may be avoided. It will likewise limit the filing of cases involving the constitutionality or validity of the law. However, once the judiciary takes cognizance of the case, we have to learn to trust their diligence and competence to perform their sworn duties, since in any free society, the judiciary has the daunting task to see to it that the scales of justice are kept in the balance.

Topics: Supreme Court , Regional Trial Court , Petition for Certiorari , Constitution
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