The good president
“The contest is not between us and them, but between good and evil, and if those who would fight evil adopt the ways of evil, evil wins.”
-- Thomas Jefferson
My current pet joke comes from Peter Sellers, recalling a musician friend of his being pestered for a song request by some fellow. The title being insisted was “That’s what you are.” Unfortunately, Seller’s friend couldn’t recall any tune by that name and said so. The man was badly indignant: how can anyone not know that popular song? So Sellers’ friend replied: “well, why don’t you sing it to me?” The man quickly agreed and began: “Unforgettable. That’s what you are...”
Thinking of the Constitution, I’m reminded of this story. People oftentimes assert things about it, not pausing to consider if what they think they know is actually true.
Regrettably, unlike in the Peter Sellers story, misunderstanding the Constitution comes with unfortunate real world consequences.
The presidency is one such hugely misinterpreted constitutional area.
To start, the president is not the “father of the nation” upon which us children wait for his gentle benevolence.
He is a salaried civil servant appointed by the People after a recruitment process lasting 90 days to head merely one (out of three) branches of government for a fixed term of six years. His compensation (currently at P160,924 per month, increased to P399,739 in 2019; plus benefits, including free housing) is taken from the collective contribution of Filipino citizens.
His job description is constitutionally laid out, summarized in the oath he took before assuming office.
The priority set by his oath doesn’t expressly demand he paternally cares for his subjects, alienate allies, or kill anyone he thinks has hurt Filipinos or the country.
Rather, his oath specifically commands that he “conscientiously and faithfully fulfill his duties” as president (laid out primarily in the Constitution’s Articles II and VII), “preserve and defend the Constitution” (a very important part of which is Article III, the Bill of Rights), “do justice to every man” (Preamble, Article II, and the Bill of Rights), and “consecrate” himself to “the service of the nation.”
He then ends his oath asking for the help of God.
To be a good president, not only must he achieve the policy objectives stated or allowed by the Constitution but also achieve them within the methods and processes declared or allowed by the Constitution.
Why must he do this? Why must the Constitution be followed? Because the People themselves laid out their wishes on how our society is to be run in that document. It’s so important that, to date, it’s the only Philippine law the People had a direct role in. The rest were made by their mere delegates in Congress or the president.
Also, because he promised to do so. Under oath. A man’s character is seen in how he keeps his promises.
There are, of course, like any document, the inevitable ambiguities. One of them is the president’s role vis-à-vis the other branches.
While the President is duty bound to execute the laws made by Congress, there is no provision in the Constitution that says the President must follow the Supreme Court.
The only text that says Supreme Court rulings form part of the “laws of the land” is in the Civil Code, which the Executive Branch can argue as unconstitutional for going beyond the purview of what the Constitution says.
The thing is that the Supreme Court is supreme only so far as the Judicial branch is concerned, the same way the President heads the Executive, while the Congress leads in legislation.
The role of the Supreme Court is to decide on controversies before it, of which executions of its rulings can be done. Granted, there’s the provision on the Supreme Court’s ability to rule on the constitutionality of any executive order, etc. And there is also the “grave abuse of discretion” clause.
But two things must be considered: the president and the Supreme Court are equal branches. The fact that the Constitution contains no provision whatsoever on how the Supreme Court shall impose its ruling on the president or that there’s no clause saying the president must follow the Supreme Court is illustrative of their constitutionally designed equality.
Because what if the Supreme Court interprets the constitution wrongly? It can happen. And has happened. Should the other two equal branches abide such unconstitutionality?
The fact is: all three equal branches are duty bound to uphold the Constitution, all are mandated to know how to interpret it, and apply it coordinately and properly.
Unfortunately, there’s this fact too: any of the three branches can deliberately ignore the Constitution if they want to. Nothing in our system can stop them if the officials supposed to enforce the laws are predisposed to break it themselves.
Hence why it’s of the utmost importance that all three branches are populated by individuals possessed of the humility to follow the Constitution.
The ultimate check and balance responsibility lies with the People, specially come election day.
Justice demands that the People get the leaders they deserve.
Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.