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Philippine Supreme Court: Foundlings are Natural Born Citizens; May Run for President

Dante Gatmaytan, University of the Philippines, College of Law

On March 8, 2016, the Philippine Supreme Court promulgated a landmark decision holding that Senator Grace Poe, a foundling, is a natural born citizen and eligible to run for President in the May 2016 national elections.

Poe had been naturalized as a citizen of the United States in 2001 after being petitioned by her husband who has dual citizenship. After her father’s death, however, she gave up US citizenship and entered public life, serving briefly as the chair of the Movie and Television Regulatory and Classification Board. Thereafter, she ran as a Senator in 2010 garnering the highest number of votes.

Immensely popular, political parties have been eyeing Poe as a potential candidate either as President or as a Senator. Her status as a foundling, however, posed serious problems because according to the Philippine Constitution, a Senator and the President must be a natural born citizen.[1]

Quick to capitalize on her past, Rizalito David, a losing candidate in the 2010 senatorial elections challenged her qualifications as a Senator before the Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET). The SET is the sole judge of all contests relating to the election, returns, and qualifications of the Senate.[2] The SET has nine Members, three of whom are Justices of the Supreme Court designated by the Chief Justice, and the remaining six are Senators. The SET ruled in Senator Poe’s favor.[3]

When Poe filed her certificate of candidacy for President on October 15, 2015, a petition was filed to have it cancelled on the ground that she satisfied neither the citizenship nor residency requirements of the Constitution. The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) ruled against Poe. Three other petitions were filed to disqualify from the elections Poe on the same grounds. The COMELEC ruled against Poe as well.

Poe brought the COMELEC rulings to the Supreme Court and in a 9 to 6 ruling,[4] the Court reversed decisions of the COMELEC and held that Poe satisfied both the citizenship and the ten-year residency requirements[5] and is qualified to be a candidate for President in the May 2016 elections.

The decision is expected to boost her popularity and increase her chances of clinching the elections.

The challenge to Poe’s citizenship rested on the fact that foundlings are not expressly mentioned as citizens in any of the country’s Constitutions.[6] On this point, the majority of the Supreme Court held that “As a matter of law, foundlings are, as a class, natural-born citizens. While the 1935 Constitution’s enumeration is silent as to foundlings, there is no restrictive language which would definitely exclude foundlings either.” The Court examined the intent of the framers of the Constitution and found that there was an attempt to include foundlings in the enumeration of who natural born citizens in the Constitution. This was not carried out “not because there was any objection to the notion that persons of ‘unknown parentage’ are not citizens but only because their number was not enough to merit specific mention.”[7]

The Court could not discern any “intent or language permitting discrimination against foundlings” and instead found that all three Constitutions guarantee the basic right to equal protection of the laws and exhort the State to render social justice. It cited provisions in the present Constitution[8] that do not show any intent to discriminate against foundlings “on account of their unfortunate status.”

On Poe’s residency, the Court criticized the COMELEC for reckoning her residency from the date stated in Poe’s “sworn declaration in her COC [certificate of candidacy] for Senator.” The COMELEC said that the statement was an admission that her residence in the Philippines began only in November 2006, falling short of the ten year residency requirement.

This, said the Court, ignores case law that holds that it is the fact of residence, not the statement of the person that determines residence for purposes of compliance with the constitutional requirement of residency for election as President. The Court explained that when Poe made the declaration in her COC for Senator that she has been a resident for a period of six years and six months counted up to the 13 May 2013 Elections, “she naturally had as reference the residency requirements for election as Senator which was satisfied by her declared years of residence.” In other words Poe had written down the period that satisfies the residency requirements for Senator; but that there was evidence showing that she had established her residency earlier still.

Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno in her concurring opinion explained her approach to addressing the absence of any reference to foundlings in the Constitution. She said that in interpreting the Constitution, the Court “should strive to give meaning to its provisions not only with reference to its text or the original intention of its framers.” She cited ideals enumerated in the Preamble of the Constitution—their intent to “promote the general welfare;” to “build a just and humane society;” and to “secure the blessings of independence and democracy under the rule of law and a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace.” She concluded that any construction that would detract from these fundamental values cannot be countenanced. Using her approach, she opined that a declaration that foundlings are not natural-born citizens is unconscionable and would effectively render all children of unknown parentage stateless and would place them in a condition of extreme vulnerability. Depriving them of citizenship would leave foundlings without any right or measure of protection.[9]

This approach did not sit well with the dissenters. Justice Leonardo-de Castro argued that the enumeration of natural born citizens under the 1935 Constitution left no room for the inclusion of foundlings. The majority’s decision, by inserting foundlings among those who are citizens of the Philippines, she said; would “wreak havoc on our constitutional system of government.”[10]

Justice Antonio Carpio in his dissent argued that “any person, who is not a natural-born Filipino citizen, running for President is obviously a nuisance candidate….”[11] He argued that natural-born Filipino citizens who have renounced Philippine citizenship and pledged allegiance to a foreign country have become aliens, and can reacquire Philippine citizenship, just like other aliens, only if “naturalized in accordance with law.” He cited the policy consequence of the majority’s ruling: a natural-born Filipino citizen who has absolutely renounced and abjured allegiance to the Philippines and pledged sole allegiance to the United States, undertaking to bear arms against any foreign country, including the Philippines, when required by U.S. law, could still become the Commander-in Chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines by performing a simple act—taking an oath of allegiance before a Philippine public official—to reacquire natural-born Philippine citizenship.[12]

Those challenging Poe’s candidacy were understandably disappointed. Even before the Opinions were released, lawyers erupted with incendiary comments: “It’s a dangerous result. It’s a recipe for chaos. The Constitution was bastardized.” said one lawyer. Former University of the East Law dean Amado Valdez said that they would file a Motion for Reconsideration “on the ground of culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust.” One other challenger said that “It is the rule of law that lost.”[13]

The Court’s ruling—uncharacteristically quick—settled a legal issue that would otherwise cloud the results of the Philippines’ next presidential elections. But with astronomical stakes for the country, Poe v. COMELEC is not likely to quiet the passions that brought this case before the courts.

Suggested Citation: Dante Gatmaytan, Philippine Supreme Court: Foundlings are Natural Born Citizens; May Run for President, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Mar. 16, 2016, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2016/03/philippine-supreme-court-foundlings-are-natural-born-citizens-may-run-for-president


[1] Const., Art. VI, § 3 and Art. VII, § 2.

[2] Const., Art. VI, § 17.

[3] For a longer background on this issue, see Dante Gatmaytan, Citizenship Issues and the Presidential Elections in the Philippines, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Dec. 1, 2015, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2015/11/citizenship-issues-and-the-presidential-elections-in-the-philippines.

[4] Poe-Llamanzares v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 221697, March 8, 2016, available at http://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/pdf/web/viewer.html?file=/jurisprudence/2016/march2016/221697.pdf. There are five concurring and five dissenting opinions, an almost 700 page effort by the members of the Court. The opinions are available at the Supreme Court website at http://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/jurisprudence/2016/toc/march.php.

[5] Const., Article VII, Section 2 provides, “No person may be elected President unless he is a natural-born citizen of the Philippines, a registered voter, able to read and write, at least forty years of age on the day of the election, and a resident of the Philippines for at least ten years immediately preceding such election.”

[6] The Philippines had many organic acts but had its first Constitution in 1935 (as a condition for independence from the United States), its second in 1973 (a Marcos influenced revision), and its third in 1987 (a post-Marcos document).

[7] Justice Arturo Brion in his dissent took issue with this excerpt saying that the deliberations show that a member of the Convention thought that it would be better for a statute to govern the citizenship of foundlings, and that this was “the primary belief of the majority” and that there was no clear agreement that foundlings were intended to be part of the definition of who would be considered as Filipino citizens under the Constitution. See Poe-Llamanzares v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 221697, March 8, 2016 (Brion, J., dissenting) available at http://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/pdf/web/viewer.html?file=/jurisprudence/2016/march2016/221697_brion.pdf.

[8] The Court cited Article II, Section 11 which provides that the “State values the dignity of every human person and guarantees full respect for human rights,” Article XIII, Section 1 which mandates Congress to “give highest priority to the enactment of measures that protect and enhance the right of all the people to human dignity, reduce social, economic, and political inequalities….” and Article XV, Section 3 which requires the State to defend the “right of children to assistance, including proper care and nutrition, and special protection from all forms of neglect, abuse, cruelty, exploitation, and other conditions prejudicial to their development.”

[9] Poe-Llamanzares v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 221697, March 8, 2016 (Sereno, C. J., concurring) available at http://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/pdf/web/viewer.html?file=/jurisprudence/2016/march2016/221697_sereno.pdf.

[10] Poe- Llamanzares v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 221697, March 8, 2016 (Leonardo-de Castro, J., dissenting) available at http://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/pdf/web/viewer.html?file=/jurisprudence/2016/march2016/221697_decastro.pdf.

[11] Poe- Llamanzares v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 221697, March 8, 2016 (Carpio, J., dissenting) available at http://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/pdf/web/viewer.html?file=/jurisprudence/2016/march2016/221697_carpio.pdf

[12] Poe-Llamanzares v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 221697, March 8, 2016 (Carpio, J., dissenting) available at http://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/pdf/web/viewer.html?file=/jurisprudence/2016/march2016/221697_carpio.pdf

[13] Tarra Quismundo, SC: Poe can run for President, Inquirer.net, March 9, 2016, http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/771846/sc-poe-can-run-for-president#ixzz42k5iE9Cu.

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Published on March 16, 2016
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