CASE IN POINT | Can Erap run for President again?

May former President Joseph Estrada run for public office despite having been convicted of the crime of plunder which carried an accessory penalty of perpetual disqualification to hold public office? The Supreme Court ruled yes, because he was granted an absolute pardon.

The next question is: can he run for President again? It is my opinion that he cannot as the prohibition in the Constitution is absolute.

Q – Former President Joseph Estrada filed his certified of candidacy for Mayor of Manila in 2013 elections. Atty. Riso-Vidal filed a petition for his disqualified contending that Estrada has been convicted of the crime of plunder and the SB imposed the penalty of reclusion perpetua with perpetual absolute disqualification. She based her petition under Sec. 40 of the Local Government Code which provides for the disqualification of person who have been sentenced by final judgment for an offense involving moral turpitude or for an offense punishable by one (1) year or more of imprisonment. Furthermore, she cited Sec. 12 of the Omnibus Election Code which disqualifies a person who has been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude from running for public office. Estrada contended that he is qualified because he was granted absolute pardon by former President Arroyo. The COMELEC decided in his favor ruling that the pardon granted to him was an absolute pardon and that he was restored to his civil and political rights. Risos-Vidal in her petition before the SC argued that the pardon was not absolute as evidenced by the acceptance of Estrada with the condition in the third Whereas Clause that he has publicly committed to no longer seek an elective position or office. She contended that the executive clemency would not have been granted without such condition, hence, when he ran for public office, he committed a breach of the pardon. She contended that even with the pardon, Estrada could not run because of the requirements under Articles 36 & 41 of the Revised Penal Code, the disqualifications must be expressly remitted in the pardon. The pardon granted did not expressly remit the accessory penalty of perpetual absolute disqualification to hold public office. She argued that it is not enough that the pardon makes a general statement that the pardon carriers with it the restoration of civil and political rights. She argued that such constraints are mandatory that shun a general or implied restoration of civil and political rights in pardons.

For his part, former President Estrada argued that he “was granted an absolute pardon and thereby restored to his full civil and political rights, including the right to seek public elective office such as the mayoral (sic) position in the City of Manila;” that “the majority decision in the case of Monsanto v. Factoran, Jr., which was erroneously cited by both Vidal and Lim as authority for their respective claims, x x x reveal that there was no discussion whatsoever in the ratio decidendi of the Monsanto case as to the alleged necessity for an expressed restoration of the ‘right to hold public office in the pardon’ as a legal prerequisite to remove the subject perpetual special disqualification;” thatmoreover, the “principal question raised in this Monsanto case is whether or not a public officer, who has been granted an absolute pardon by the Chief Executive, is entitled to reinstatement to her former position without need of a new appointment;” that his “expressed acceptance [of the pardon] is not proof that the pardon extended to [him] is conditional and not absolute;” or President back in 2009-2010; that Articles 36 and 41 of the Revised Penal Code “cannot abridge or diminish the pardoning power of the President expressly granted by the Constitution;” that the text of the pardon granted to him substantially, if not fully, complied with the requirement posed by Article 36 of the Revised Penal Code as it was categorically stated in the said document that he was “restored to his civil and political rights;” that since pardon is an act of grace, it must be construed favorably in favor of the grantee; and that his disqualification will result in massive disenfranchisement of the hundreds of thousands of Manileños who voted for him.

 Is the petition for certiorari proper? Why?

Held: No. The petition for certiorari lacks merit. Former President Estrada was granted an absolute pardon that fully restored all his civil and political rights, which naturally includes the right to seek public elective office, the focal point of this controversy. The wording of the pardon extended to former President Estrada is complete, unambiguous, and unqualified. It is likewise unfettered by Articles 36 and 41 of the Revised Penal Code. The only reasonable, objective, and constitutional interpretation of the language of the pardon is that the same in fact conforms to Articles 36 and 41 of the Revised Penal Code. (Atty. Alicia Risos-Vidl v. COMELEC, et al., G.R. No. 206666, January 21, 2015, Leonardo de Castro, J).

It is apparent from the foregoing constitutional provisions that the only instances in which the President may not extend pardon remain to be in: (1) impeachment cases; (2) cases that have not yet resulted in a final conviction; and (3) cases involving violations of election laws, rules and regulations in which there was no favorable recommendation coming from the COMELEC. Therefore, it can be argued that any act of Congress by way of statute cannot operate to delimit the pardoning power of the President.

In Cristobal v. Labrador, 71 Phil. 34, 38 [1940] and Pelobello v. Palatino,72 Phil. 441, 442 [1941] the SC declared that “subject to the limitations imposed by the Constitution, the pardoning power cannot be restricted or controlled by legislative action.” In Monsanto v. Factoran, Jr. it was also said that a pardon, being a presidential prerogative, should not be circumscribed by legislative action. The exercise of the pardoning power is discretionary in the President and may not be interfered with by Congress or the Court, except only when it exceeds the limits provided for by the Constitution.

This doctrine of non-diminution or non-impairment of the President’s power of pardon by acts of Congress, specifically through legislation, was strongly adhered to by an overwhelming majority of the framers of the 1987 Constitution when they flatly rejected a proposal to carve out an exception from the pardoning power of the President in the form of “offenses involving graft and corruption” that would be enumerated and defined by Congress through the enactment of a law. (Atty. Risos-Vidal v. COMELEC, et al., supra).

The proper interpretation of Articles 36 and 41 of the Revised Penal Code

Articles 36 and 41 of the Revised Penal Code cannot, in any way, serve to abridge or diminish the exclusive power and prerogative of the President to pardon persons convicted of violating penal statutes.

A rigid and inflexible reading of the above provisions of law, is unwarranted, especially so if it will defeat or unduly restrict the power of the President to grant executive clemency.
It is well-entrenched in this jurisdiction that where the words of a statute are clear, plain, and free from ambiguity, it must be given its literal meaning and applied without attempted interpretation. Verba legis non est recedendum. From the words of a statute there should be no departure. (Republic v. Camacho, G.R. No. 185604, June 13, 2013, 698 SCRA 380, 398). The phrase in the presidential pardon at issue which declares that former President Estrada “is hereby restored to his civil and political rights” substantially complies with the requirement of express restoration. (Atty. Risos-Vidal v. COMELEC, et al., supra).

The overbroad statement that Congress may dictate as to how the President may exercise his/her power of executive clemency is not correct. The form or manner by which the President, or Congress for that matter, should exercise their respective Constitutional powers or prerogatives cannot be interfered with unless it is so provided in the Constitution. This is the essence of the principle of separation of powers deeply ingrained in our system of government which “ordains that each of the three great branches of government has exclusive cognizance of and is supreme in matters falling within its own constitutionally allocated sphere.” (Bureau of Customs Employees Association (BOCEA) v. Teves, G.R. No. 181704, December 6, 2011, 661 SCRA 589, 604). Moreso, this fundamental principle must be observed if noncompliance with the form imposed by one branch on a co-equal and coordinate branch will result into the diminution of an exclusive Constitutional prerogative.

For this reason, Articles 36 and 41 of the Revised Penal Code should be construed in a way that will give full effect to the executive clemency granted by the President, instead of indulging in an overly strict interpretation that may serve to impair or diminish the import of the pardon which emanated from the Office of the President and duly signed by the Chief Executive himself/herself. The said codal provisions must be construed to harmonize the power of Congress to define crimes and prescribe the penalties for such crimes and the power of the President to grant executive clemency. All that the said provisions impart is that the pardon of the principal penalty does not carry with it the remission of the accessory penalties unless the President expressly includes said accessory penalties in the pardon. It still recognizes the Presidential prerogative to grant executive clemency and, specifically, to decide to pardon the principal penalty while excluding its accessory penalties or to pardon both. Thus, Articles 36 and 41 only clarify the effect of the pardon so decided upon by the President on the penalties imposed in accordance with law (Atty. Risos-Vidal v. COMELEC, et al., supra).

The third preambular clause of the pardon did not operate to make the pardon conditional.
The third preambular clause of the pardon, i.e., “[w]hereas, Joseph Ejercito Estrada has publicly committed to no longer seek any elective position or office,” neither made the pardon conditional, nor militate against the conclusion that former President Estrada’s rights to suffrage and to seek public elective office have been restored. This is especially true as the pardon itself does not explicitly impose a condition or limitation, considering the unqualified use of the term “civil and political rights” as being restored.

Jurisprudence educates that a preamble is not an essential part of an act as it is an introductory or preparatory clause that explains the reasons for the enactment, usually introduced by the word “whereas.” (People v. Balasa, 356 Phil. 362, 396 [1998]). Whereas clauses do not form part of a statute because, strictly speaking, they are not part of the operative language of the statute. (Llamado v. Court of Appeals, 256 Phil. 328, 339 [1989]). In this case, the whereas clause at issue is not an integral part of the decree of the pardon, and therefore, does not by itself alone operate to make the pardon conditional or to make its effectivity contingent upon the fulfilment of the aforementioned commitment nor to limit the scope of the pardon.
The statement “[h]e is hereby restored to his civil and political rights,” is crystal clear – the pardon granted to former President Estrada was absolute, meaning, it was not only unconditional, it was unrestricted in scope, complete and plenary in character, as the term “political rights” adverted to has a settled meaning in law and jurisprudence.

The omission of the qualifying word “full” can be construed as excluding the restoration ofthe rights of suffrage and to hold public office. There appears to be no distinction as to the coverage of the term “full political rights” and the term “political rights” used alone without any qualification. How to ascribe to the latter term the meaning that it is “partial” and not “full” defies one’s understanding. More so, it will be extremely difficult to identify which of the political rights are restored by the pardon, when the text of the latter is silent on this matter. Exceptions to the grant of pardon cannot be presumed from the absence of the qualifying word “full” when the pardon restored the “political rights” of former President Estrada without any exclusion or reservation.
Therefore, there can be no other conclusion but to say that the pardon granted to former President Estrada was absolute in the absence of a clear, unequivocal and concrete factual basis upon which to anchor or support the Presidential intent to grant a limited pardon (Atty. Risos-Vidal v. COMELEC, et al., supra).

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