The Constitution and the Rule of Law: A Return to First Principles

Manila Bulletin, November 16, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Constitution and the Rule of Law: A Return to First Principles


Byline: Alfredo L. Benipayo

IN recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to find truth in the assertion that we, as a nation, exist under the rule of law. Traditionally, the rule of law is said to prevail if our relationships with each other and with the state are governed by a set of rules, rather than by a group of individuals.

As Aristotle said, more than two thousand years ago, the rule of law is better than that of any individual. Agreeing with the Philosopher, the pre-eminent jurist, Lord Chief Justice Coke declared, The King himself ought not to be subject to man, but subject to God and the law, because the law makes him King. The fundamental concept, then, is that individuals and the government are called to submit to the supremacy of the law.

By this definition, it would probably be technically accurate to say that we do live under the rule of law. Certainly, the Constitution remains in force despite the many vocal objections to its continued existence in its present form, all the necessary statutes are in place that would ordinarily guarantee the prevalence of law, and the present occupant of Malacanang can hardly be called a dictator. And yet, even a mere glance at todays headlines gives the unsettling feeling that the existence of the rule of law is more a matter of wishful thinking than tangible reality.

Thus, when the military trucks rolled into Makati during the early hours of June 27, 2003, the troops they disgorged did not just besiege the Oakwood Apartments in their attempt to coerce the President to relinquish her position; those soldiers of the Philippine Republic blatantly disregarded the democratic processes that are supposed to determine leadership of the country. When they rigged bombs and tripwires to imperil those who would dislodge them, those sworn defenders of the people attempted to put themselves beyond the reach of the laws of the land that are supposed to bind all Filipinos, thus threatening grievous harm to the rule of law. And during all of that, these disgruntled officers kept up a constant stream of pseudoconstitutionalist demagoguery. The irony is too obvious to miss.

The problem, perhaps, lies in that we have invoked the phrase so often that it has lost all meaning, save for its totemic significance. The rule of law has become almost an amulet that we can brandish to either give a patina of legitimacy to the things we do, or to indict the acts of others. Thus, we are treated daily to the spectacle of individuals or power blocs vituperating against others for some alleged wrongdoing, while themselves making a mockery of the very rule of law they loudly proclaim to be defending. The Oakwood affair was simply the tip of the iceberg.

Subsequent events, such as the controversial attempts of some Members of the House of Representatives to impeach the Chief Justice, and the wildly divergent views taken by several legal luminaries on the question of the constitutionality of the matter, serve only to confirm just how ambiguous the concept of the rule of law has become, occasioning a long-overdue return to first principles.

First Principles

Like all things, the rule of law has two aspects: The formal and the aspirational. The first determines whether the infrastructure exists to make the rule of law possible, and the second answers the question: Do our actions reflect the desire to ensure that a rule of law truly exists?

The formal aspect of the rule of law requires a number of things, the most important of which would be:

* The existence of laws to which all persons, including government, are subject; and

* A justice system which features an independent judiciary, adheres to the doctrine of judicial precedent, and emphasizes the importance of procedures.

Even a cursory glance at the way things are in our country reveals that these elements are actually extant.

We do have a Constitution and a body of laws that, at least nominally, binds all who live and sojourn in these islands.

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