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August 27, 2014

Why is President Aquino III Obsessed with Clipping the Supreme Court’s Powers?

Has President Aquino III gone mad? Through the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), Mr. Aquino has usurped the congressional power of the purse, effectively making Congress an adjunct of the Office of the President. Not contented with his capture of Congress, Mr. Aquino would now want to clip the powers of the Supreme Court. Has he gone mad?

Instead of strengthening political institutions—the Congress, the Judiciary, the budget process, political parties, electoral process, public’s access to information—in order to make the country’s budding democracy stronger and enduring, Mr. Aquino has chosen to undermine them.

If Mr. Aquino was truly committed to a system of government that is different from the authoritarian regime that the 1987 Constitution sought to replace, he should embrace, not fight, the Supreme Court decision that ruled his Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) unconstitutional.

The Philippine Constitutional Association (PHILCONSA) was right when it described as “seditious or treasonous” President Aquino’s motion for the Supreme Court to reconsider its unanimous ruling that the DAP is unconstitutional.

“To initiate or encourage any measure to subvert or undermine or spoil the enforcement of the unanimous decision of the Court applying and interpreting the Constitution is seditious or treasonous. It is a mutiny against the Constitution,” PHILCONSA warned.

Why should Mr. Aquino seek to weaken the Judiciary, and as a by-product strengthen the Presidency, when the Philippine president is unquestionably already very powerful?  What does he gain by clipping the powers of the Supreme Court thus rearranging the present power structure?


In a tripartite system of government—the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary—the President, representing the Executive Department, is primus inter pares (a first among equals).

The President is numero uno. Within the executive department, he is a virtual dictator. He wears many powerful hats.

First, he is the Commander-in-Chief of a 129,780-strong Armed Forces of the Philippines. He commands the presidential security guards, the army, the navy and the air force.

Second, he is the peace and order czar. He commands a 196,245 police officers and men of the Philippine National Police.  In most countries in the world, peace and order is a local concern and thus implemented by local police authorities. In the Philippines, the Philippine National Police is national in scope, hence, under the direct command and supervision of the President.

Third, he supervises all local government units. The President exercises overall supervisory powers over all local government units—the 81 provinces, 144 cities, 1,490 municipalities, and 42,028 barangays.

Fourth, he is the chief executive officer (CEO) of Philippines Inc. He is the ‘boss’ of some 1.2 million national government civil servants. Compare that with Congress’ 6,084 workers (one half of one percent of the entire bureaucracy), and with the Judiciary’s 25,247 justices and court employees (about 2.1 percent of the entire bureaucracy).

Fifth, he is the chief foreign relations officer. He represents the country in all meetings of heads of states; he signs executive agreements and treaties (the latter with the approval of the Senate); and he is the face of the country to the outside world.

The powers of the President are overwhelming. He commands an army and a national police. He controls the biggest chunk of government resources (budget and manpower).

Imagine one individual exercising all these awesome powers. And because he exercises executive powers all by himself, he can decide quickly and implement decisions promptly.

By contrast, the other co-equal branches of government—Congress and the Supreme Court—are collegial bodies. By its collegial nature, decision-making is slow, often time tedious. Note, for example, how long it took Congress to approve the Reproduction Health law, and the High Court to decide on the DAP issue.

Once a law is passed, Congress has no way of compelling the President to implement it; hence, the existence of many unfunded and unimplemented laws.  Unless some concerned individuals or groups bring the case to the Supreme Court, there is no way such unimplemented laws may be enforced. Congress has no army of its own.

But even if the Supreme Court rules against the President, the High Court has no way of compelling the President to implement its decision. The Supreme Court, too, has no army of its own.

That is why honoring and respecting the rule of law is expected of all public officials. In a well functioning democracy, where public officials are guided by the rule of law, all laws of the land are implemented with  “malice toward none.” That’s why no less than the President of the Republic has sworn to ‘uphold and defend’ the Constitution of the Philippines.

Relative to the President, Congress is weaker because of its bicameral structure. In order to control Congress, all that the President has to do is control one of the two Houses of Congress.  Mr. Aquino controls both Houses.

All the foregoing discussions point to one indisputable fact: the powers of the Philippine President vis-à-vis Congress and the Judiciary are, right now, quite awesome.

On budget formulation and implementation, the Philippine president is more powerful than the U.S. President. The Philippine president has line-item veto power, the U.S. president doesn’t have.

Given the awesome powers of the presidency, Mr. Aquino’s obsession to weaken the Supreme Court, and by implication strengthen the powers of the president, is at best, quizzical, and at worst, insane.

In his final days in office, Mr. Aquino should seek to rebuild and strengthen, rather than weaken and destroy, political institutions. In addition, he should spend his limited time solving the country’s crucial problems, such as hunger, poverty, unemployment, and the crumbling public infrastructure.


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