To stand by decided matters

Siegfred Bueno Mison, Esq.

When the Court becomes Congress, as in creating judicial precedents, it is sometimes referred to in the Latin maxim stare decisis, which literally means “to stand by decided matters.” In the Philippine legal system, judicial lawmaking has long been universally accepted. All courts are generally expected to apply the law uniformly, regardless of their perspectives of fairness. After all, an orderly society demands that if one court case is resolved in a certain way today, future cases involving substantially identical conduct under substantially identical conditions should be dealt with in the same way.

In certain cases, courts can be considered as lawmakers under the rationale that when existing statutes are outmoded or manifestly unfair as applied to specific cases before the courts, courts can literally modify if not supplement the law. To achieve what courts conceive to be just and fair, such judicial precedents become part of the law—created by the court, not by Congress. The judicial decisions embodying these supposed “judicial interpretations” then become controlling for future cases, to the extent that they virtually supplant what Congress has prescribed.

Take the case of Article 992 of the Civil Code that prescribed that an “illegitimate child has no right to inherit ab intestato from the legitimate children and relatives of his father or mother; nor shall such children or relatives inherit in the same manner from the illegitimate child.” But in its latest decision, the Supreme Court ruled that grandparents and other direct ascendants are outside the scope of “relatives” under Article 992. While I have yet to see the entire decision, its ponente, Justice Leonen, reportedly said that since both marital and nonmarital children, whether born from a marital or nonmarital relationship, are blood relatives of their parents and other ascendants, a child’s right of representation should be governed by Article 982 of the Civil Code, regardless of filiation. In Article 982, the law says “the grandchildren and other descendants shall inherit by right of representation, and if any one of them should have died, leaving several heirs, the portion pertaining to him shall be divided among the latter in equal portions.” For me, as a professor of the subject for 20 years, Article 982 prescribes the general rule, while Article 992 specifies the exception. I will not dwell on whether this latest judicial legislation is wrong or right. There have been quite a few instances where the Court has exercised its power to interpret the law. While Congress has crafted many laws to respond to a situation, the law is couched in general terms that inevitably requires interpretation for it to be responsive. Other more recent judicial precedents include a case where chronic lying was included under the concept of psychological incapacity as a ground for nullity of marriage. Another example was how the Supreme Court ruled that a seaman’s death even outside of his employment contract entitles his heirs to death benefits for as long as the cause of his death existed during his shipboard contract, despite the provision in the POEA-SEC (contract) of seafarers mandating that the death must occur during the seaman’s employment.

This latest judicial pronouncement has practically abandoned the nomenclature on legitimate and illegitimate children as the decision referred to them as non-marital and marital children. While this is an outright judicial act of “amending” the law, I personally agree that these changes in terminologies (from illegitimate to non-marital) serves the common good as it removes the stigma of being called an illegitimate child, as explained in the said jurisprudence. In a statement, the Supreme Court said: “Departing from regressive conjectures about family life in favor of the best interests of the child, the Court abandoned the presumption that nonmarital children are products of illicit relationships or that they are automatically placed in a hostile environment perpetrated by the marital family.”

In the antiquated Philippine Immigration Act of 1940, I remember a legislative effort to replace the term “aliens” with “foreign nationals” for the simple reason that the former sounds degrading as if the person is from another planet! While such a change can only be amended by Congress or by the courts by way of a stare decisis, the Bureau back then exerted earnest efforts to use the more “politically correct” term of foreign nationals in its implementing rules and issuances.

Relatedly, during the time of Jesus on earth, we recall how He healed even on a Sabbath day, against the rules of the Pharisees, which resulted in a confrontation with religious leaders (Mark 3:1-6). But Jesus did not violate the law as He came to fulfill the law. Jesus showed that a loving God exists to heal the sick whenever healing is needed, with little or no regard as to schedules or prescribed calendar days. Laws were made to fulfill a certain purpose. These Pharisees obviously believed that rigid adherence to the letter of the law is more important than achieving a fair and just resolution of the matter. It is so refreshing for believers to live with God’s grace and not be confined to what the Mosaic law says. Remember the adulteress who was sent to Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees, claiming that she ought to be stoned for her crime as prescribed in the Mosaic law (John 7:53-8:11)? Jesus never said that the Pharisees were wrong, but neither did he say they were right. He chose to exemplify His teaching of grace and forgiveness by simply telling the people who gathered around the woman that the one who has no sin should cast the first stone.

When the purposes of the law are not met by strictly abiding by the words of the law, then judges are in a dilemma as to when they should consider an existing rule to be so established that its alteration calls for a legislative enactment instead of a judicial decision. Justice Leonen appears to be an action-oriented magistrate as he has penned several landmark cases that can be seen as judicial lawmaking.

In our own private capacities as parents or children, employers or workers, teachers or students, we either enforce or obey whatever rules we have in place for a fair and just outcome of any conflict. The rigid application of rules is necessary and so are their exceptions, especially when equity or fairness will be an issue. We are still given leeway and the power of choice whether to apply the rules strictly or liberally. What I was told by my mentor is that we will hardly be wrong when we stand by “decided matters.” But we will never go wrong whenever we let the Spirit within guide us which path to take. Obedience is always a matter of the heart.

A former infantry and intelligence officer in the Army, Siegfred Mison showcased his servant leadership philosophy in organizations such as the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, Malcolm Law Offices, Infogix Inc., University of the East, Bureau of Immigration, and Philippine Airlines. He is a graduate of West Point in New York, Ateneo Law School, and University of Southern California. A corporate lawyer by profession, he is an inspirational teacher and a Spirit-filled writer with a mission.

For questions and comments, please e-mail me at sbmison@gmail.com.

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