POSTSCRIPT / May 27, 2014 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Opinion Columnist

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Will SC strip Estrada of his political rights?

RULING DUE: One Supreme Court decision with interesting political implications that is keenly being awaited is on the petition to disqualify and unseat Manila Mayor Joseph “Erap” Estrada. The ruling is reportedly due in a few weeks.

The disqualification petition pivots on two points: (1) Estrada’s conviction in 2007 of plunder which barred him from holding public office, among other consequences, and (2) the pardon granted him by then President Gloria Arroyo which restored his civil and political rights.

Petitioner former Manila Mayor Fred Lim, whom Estrada defeated in the 2013 polls, is expecting to grab back City Hall if the High Court kicks out the incumbent. (What about Vice Mayor Ishko Moreno who also expects to fill the vacancy in case it occurs?)

But if Estrada overcomes this challenge, he could be emboldened to make another bid to recapture the presidency. That would be a problem for his good friend Vice President Jojo Binay, a yellowish submarine quietly headed for the Palace by the Pasig.

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POWER TO PARDON: In Section 19, Article VII, the Constitution says: “Except in cases of impeachment, or as otherwise provided in this Constitution, the President may grant reprieves, commutations, and pardons, and remit fines and forfeitures, after conviction by final judgment.”

The President’s power to pardon, adopted from the US Constitution and traceable to the concept of the divine rights of kings, is so absolute that one can hardly find a lawyer questioning it. The devil, as they say, is in the details, in its effects.

Estrada was convicted of plunder by the Sandiganbayan on Sept. 12, 2007, and sentenced to reclusion perpetua (life imprisonment). He did not appeal his conviction, so it ripened into a final judgment.

A month later, on Oct. 25, Arroyo granted Estrada executive clemency. The grant took effect the next day, upon Estrada’s acceptance of the pardon.

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THE TEXT: To help give readers a better appreciation of the debate over the scope, intent and effects of that pardon, here is the full text of that executive clemency simply titled “PARDON”:

“Whereas this Administration has a policy of releasing inmates who have reached the age of seventy (70),

“Whereas Joseph Ejercito Estrada has been under detention for six and a half years,

“Whereas, Joseph Ejercito Estrada has publicly committed to no longer seek any elective position or office,

“In view hereof and pursuant to the authority conferred on me by the Constitution, I hereby grant executive clemency to Joseph Ejercito Estrada, convicted by the Sandiganbayan of Plunder and imposed a penalty of Reclusion Perpetua. He is hereby restored to his civil and political rights.

“The forfeitures imposed by the Sandiganbayan remain in force and in full, including all writs and processes issued by the Sandiganbayan in pursuance hereof, except for the bank account(s) he owned before his tenure as President.

“Upon acceptance of this pardon by Joseph Ejercito Estrada, this pardon shall take effect.

“Given under my hand at the City of Manila, this 25th day of October, in the year of Our Lord, two thousand and seven.

“(signed) Gloria M. Arroyo”

Estrada wrote at the bottom of the page: “Received & accepted; (his signature) DATE: 26 Oct. ’07 TIME: 3:35 P.M.”

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CANDIDACY VALID: What stands out in the one-page document is the equivalent of a court decision’s dispositive portion: “HE IS HEREBY RESTORED TO HIS CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS.” (all caps mine)

With the pardon, as far as his civil and political rights are concerned, it is as if Estrada was never convicted of plunder.

That means, among other things, that he can – as he did twice already — vote, and be voted upon.

If this interpretation is right, Estrada’s candidacies for president in 2010 and for mayor in 2013 were legal and proper, and that he may validly stay on as Manila’s chief executive.

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VOX POPULI: We must assume that this is the same verdict, the vox populi so to speak, of the 9,487,837 Filipinos who voted for Estrada as president in 2010, as well as the 349,770 Manileños who elected him mayor in 2013.

We assume further that when they voted for him, they must have been aware of his prior conviction and the subsequent presidential pardon clearing him.

With more reason, we assume that the Manila Regional Trial Court and the Commission on Elections were convinced that Estrada had indeed been “restored to his civil and political rights” when they approved his running for office.

If still in doubt of this presumption of regularity, the Supreme Court can ask former President Arroyo herself what her intention was when she pardoned Estrada and restored his political rights.

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IRRELEVANT WHEREAS: But what about that preliminary “whereas” in the document saying that “Joseph Ejercito Estrada has publicly committed to no longer seek any elective position or office”?

With due respect to lawyers holding a contrary view, that whereas in the preamble cannot nullify the controlling dispositive portion of the grant.

Look at the two other irrelevant whereases: “Whereas this Administration has a policy of releasing inmates who have reached the age of seventy (70); Whereas Joseph Ejercito Estrada has been under detention for six and a half years,”

The age of the convict has no bearing on his being qualified for pardon. One could be 29 or 59 and still qualify. Same thing with how long the convict has been detained, whether one day or one decade.

In a basic sense, without reference to the Estrada case, the president can pardon any convict (except in an impeachment case) for almost any reason — even for the flimsy fact that the beneficiary is/was a kaibigan, kaklase o kabarilan.

Pardon the KKK sample category, but we just want to emphasize that the person to be pardoned, whoever he is, must first be convicted with finality and must accept the pardon. Both of these criteria Estrada did satisfy.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 27, 2014)

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