CASE IN POINT: BM Julia vs BM Naval | SC explains the 3-term limit rule

In a case of first impression, the Supreme Court said quoting James Freeman Clarke, an American preacher and author:

“A politician thinks of the next election, a statesman of the next generation.”

How right was Clarke when he said such a statement? How many are still thinking of the future generation among our politicians? Let such a statement awaken the people who will soon be electing the leaders a year from now. For, there is a need for moral regeneration, not only of the leaders of our country, but even the people. Our leaders should be reminded that a “public office is a public trust,” and that “sovereignty reside in the people and all government authority emanates from them.” Whatever power every government official has is a mere borrowed power.

The case in point is all about the redistricting or renaming of a district of the province of Camarines Sur. Prior thereto, Angel G. Naval was elected three (3) times as a member of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan representing the Second District. In the 2013 local elections, he again filed his certificate of candidacy for membership in the Sangguniang Panlalawigan to represent the Third District of the province. Nelson B. Julia, a candidate for the same position questioned Naval’s eligibility considering that he was running for a fourth (4th) term which is violative of the inflexible three-term limit rule enshrined in the Constitution and the Local Government Code. The COMELEC ruled that Naval was not eligible. When the province was redistricted, the new Third District where Naval was elected and has served was composed of the same municipalities comprising the previous Second District absent the towns of Gainza and Milaor. The territorial jurisdiction which he sought to serve for the 2013-2016 is the same as the territorial jurisdiction he previously served. The electorate who voted for him in 2004, 2007, 2010, is the same electorate in the 2013 elections. Naval contended that the First, Second and Third Legislative Districts of Camarines Sur were not merely renamed but are composed of new sets of Municipalities. With the separation of Gainza and Milaor from the towns that comprised the Second District, the voters from the Third Legislative District are no longer the same ones as those who elected him in 2004 and 2007. He further invoked Article 94 of Administrative Order No. 270 prescribing the Implementing Rules & Regulations of the Local Government Code that Sanggunian Members are elected by districts, hence, the right to choose representatives of the Sanggunian pertains to each of the districts. He was elected in2004 and 2007 by the Second District. In 2010 & 2013, it was the Third District which brought him to office, hence, his election in 2013 was only his second term as SB member of the Third District. Finally, he argued that he garnered majority of the votes from his constituents whose will and mandate should be upheld. In ruling that Naval is not eligible to run for a fourth term, the SC

Held: Three (3) consecutive terms would ensure that new blood would be infused into our political system.
The constitutional provision fixes the term of a local elective office and limits an elective official’s stay in office to no more than three consecutive terms. This is the first branch of the rule embodied in Section 8, Article X.

Significantly, this provision refers to a “term” as a period of time – three years – during which an official has title to office and can serve. x x x.

The “limitation” under this first branch of the provision is expressed in the negative—“no such official shall serve for more than three consecutive terms.” This formulation—no more than three consecutive terms—is a clear command suggesting the existence of an inflexible rule. x x x.

This examination of the wording of the constitutional provision and of the circumstances surrounding its formulation impresses upon us the clear intent to make term limitation a high priority constitutional objective whose terms must be strictly construed and which cannot be defeated by, nor sacrificed for, values of less than equal constitutional worth. x x x.

x x x [T]he Court signalled how zealously it guards the three-term limit rule. Effectively, these cases teach us to strictly interpret the term limitation rule in favor of limitation rather than its exception.

In Latasa v. Commission on Elections x x x, the Court said:

This Court reiterates that the framers of the Constitution specifically included an exception to the people’s freedom to choose those who will govern them in order to avoid the evil of a single person accumulating excessive power over a particular territorial jurisdiction as a result of a prolonged stay in the same office. x x x.

x x x x

To put it differently although at the risk of repetition, Section 8, Article X—both by structure and substance—fixes an elective official’s term of office and limits his stay in office to three consecutive terms as an inflexible rule that is stressed, no less, by citing voluntary renunciation as an example of a circumvention. x x x.

Reapportionment and its Basis

Reapportionment is “the realignment or change in legislative districts brought about by changes in population and mandated by the constitutional requirement of equality of representation.” The aim of legislative apportionment is to equalize population and voting power among districts. The basis for districting shall be the number of the inhabitants of a city or a province and not the number of registered voters therein.

A fter the reapportionment of the districts in Camarines Sur, the current Third District, which brought Naval to office in 2010 and 2013, has a population of 35,856 less than that of the old Second District, which elected him in 2004 and 2007. However, the wordings of R.A. No. 9716 indicate the intent of the lawmakers to create a single new Second District from the merger of the towns from the old First District with Gainza and Milaor. As to the current Third District, Section 3(c) of R.A. No. 9716 used the word “rename.” Although the qualifier “without a change in its composition” was not found in Section 3(c), unlike in Sections 3(d) and (e), still, what is pervasive is the clear intent to create a sole new district in that of the Second, while merely renaming the rest.

In Naval’s case, the words of R.A. No. 9716 plainly state that the new Second District is to be created,but the Third District is to be renamed. Verba legis non est recedendum. The terms used in a legal provision to be construed compels acceptance and negates the power of the courts to alter it, based on the postulate that the framers mean what they say.

The verb create means to “make or produce something new.” On the other hand, the verb renamemeans to “give a new name to someone or something.” A complete reading of R.A. No. 9716 yields no logical conclusion other than that the lawmakers intended the old Second District to be merely renamed as the current Third District.
It likewise bears noting that the actual difference in the population of the old Second District from that of the current Third District amounts to less than 10% of the population of the latter. This numerical fact renders the new Third District as essentially, although not literally, the same as the old Second District. Hence, while Naval is correct in his argument that Sanggunian members are elected by district, it does not alter the fact that the district which elected him for the third and fourth time is the same one which brought him to office in 2004 and 2007.

The rationale behind reapportionment is the constitutional requirement to achieve equality of representation among the districts. It is with this mindset that the Court should consider Naval’s argument anent having a new set of constituents electing him into office in 2010 and 2013.

Naval’s ineligibility to run, by reason of violation of the three-term limit rule, does not undermine the right to equal representation of any of the districts in Camarines Sur. With or without him, the renamed Third District, which he labels as a new set of constituents, would still be represented, albeit by another eligible person. (Angel G. Naval v. COMELEC, et al., G.R. No. 207851, July 8, 2014, Perez, J).

The mere fact that the people have voted for him despite violation of the three-term limit does not mean that he can serve for a fourth term in violation of the Constitution. The will of the people cannot supplant the lack of qualification because of the doctrine of constitutional supremacy. Lest we forget, the Constitution is the supreme law. All laws and acts must conform to it, otherwise, it is unconstitutional.

Note: While the contending parties cite Latasa, Lonzanida v. COMELEC, 370 Phil. 625 [1999], Borja, Aldovino, Jr. v. COMELEC, G.R. No. 184836, December 23, 2009 and Bandillo, which all involve the application of the three-term limit rule, the factual and legal circumstances in those cases are different and the doctrinal values therein do not directly address the issues now at hand.

In Latasa, the issue arose as a result of the conversion of a municipality into a city. The then municipal mayor attempted to evade the application upon him of the three-term limit rule by arguing that the position of a city mayor was not the same as the one he previously held. The Court was not convinced and, thus, declared that there was no interruption of the incumbent mayor’s continuity of service.

In Lonzanida, a candidate ran for the mayoralty post and won in three consecutive elections. While serving his third term, his opponent filed an election protest. Months before the expiration of the mayor’s third term, he was ousted from office. He ran again for the same post in the immediately succeeding election. A petition was thereafter filed assailing his eligibility to run as mayor on the ground of violation of the three-term limit rule. The Court ruled that the mayor could not be considered as having served a full third term. An interruption for any length of time, if due to an involuntary cause, is enough to break the elected official’s continuity of service.

In Borja, the mayor of Pateros died and was succeeded in office by the vice mayor. In the two immediately succeeding elections, the latter vied for and won the mayoralty post. When he ran for the same position for the third time, his disqualification was sought for alleged violation of the three-term limit rule. The Court ruled that when he assumed the position of mayor by virtue of succession, his service should not be treated as one full term. For the disqualification to apply, the candidate should have been thrice elected for and had served the same post consecutively.

In Aldovino, preventive suspension was imposed upon an elected municipal councilor. The Court ruled that the said suspension did not interrupt the elective official’s term. Although he was barred from exercising the functions of the position during the period of suspension, his continued stay and entitlement to the office remain unaffected.

In Bandillo, a case decided by the COMELEC, Gainza and Milaor were added to five of the ten towns, which used to comprise Camarines Sur’s old First District, to form the new Second District. The COMELEC declined to apply the three-term limit rule against the elected Provincial Board member on the ground that the addition of Gainza and Milaor distinctively created a new district, with an altered territory and constituency.

A republic is a representative government, a government run by and for the people. It is not a pure democracy where the people govern themselves directly. The essence of republicanism is representation and renovation, the selection by the citizenry of a corps of public functionaries who derive their mandate from the people and act on their behalf, serving for a limited period only, after which they are replaced or retained, at the option of their principal. Obviously, a republican government is a responsible government whose officials hold and discharge their position as a public trust and shall, according to the Constitution, ‘at all times be accountable to the people’ they are sworn to serve. The purpose of a republican government it is almost needless to state, is the promotion of the common welfare according to the will of the people themselves. (Frivaldo v. COMELEC, 327 Phil. 521 [1996]).

In Tolentino v. COMELEC, 465 Phil. 385 [2004], the SC characterized the role of the electoral process in the following wise:

The electoral process is one of the linchpins of a democratic and republican framework because it is through the act of voting that government by consent is secured. Through the ballot, people express their will on the defining issues of the day and they are able to choose their leaders in accordance with the fundamental principle of representative democracy that the people should elect whom they please to govern them. Voting has an important instrumental value in preserving the viability of constitutional democracy. It has traditionally been taken as a prime indicator of democratic participation.

The importance of elections cannot therefore be over emphasized. Thus,
True, election is the expression of the sovereign power of the people. In the exercise of suffrage, a free people expects to achieve the continuity of government and the perpetuation of its benefits. However, inspite of its importance, the privileges and rights arising from having been elected may be enlarged or restricted by law. x x x. (People v. Jalosjos, 381 Phil. 690 [2000]).

Hence, while it is settled that in elections, the first consideration of every democratic polity is to give effect to the expressed will of the majority, there are limitations to being elected to a public office. Our Constitution and statutes are explicit anent the existence of term limits, the nature of public office, and the guarantee from the State that citizens shall have equal access to public service. Section 8, Article X of our Constitution, on term limits, is significantly reiterated by Section 43(b) of the LGC. Moreover, the Court has time and again declared that a public office is a public trust and not a vested property right. (COMELEC v. Cruz, G.R. No. 186616, November 20, 2009, 605 SCRA 167; Monteclaros v. COMELEC, 433 Phil. 620 [2002]).

Dean Ed Vincent S. Albano is the Bar Review Director of Albano Bar Review Center. He authored books/reviewers in Civil Law, Political,  Law, Remedial Law and Legal Ethics.