Will Philippine top court back presidential candidate Grace Poe?
MANILA–Abandoned as an infant, adopted by movie stars and now a contender for Philippine presidency.
“This is the stuff of movies, you might say,” Senator Grace Poe said last year when she spoke at the 13th Philippine Global Consultation on Child Welfare Services of the Inter-Country Adoption Board.
“But at that moment, as a new-born alone in that church, I was simply one tiny human being on the planet with the least agency and without help. I was at the complete mercy of destiny and dependent on the kindness of strangers. The slightest stroke of ill fortune could have rewritten my life story into something much different and perhaps less happy,” Poe said.
Her story started in September 1968 when a nanny Sayong Militar found an infant wrapped in a blanket at the Jaro Cathedral Church in Iloilo.
Militar took care of the child whom she named Grace. But because she had her own children, she passed Grace to wealthy Tessie Ledesma Valencia, a relative of her employer.
Valencia was a good friend of movie stars Ronald Allan Kelly Poe or Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ) and Jesusa Sonora or Susan Roces.
In 1974, the celebrity couple filed a petition before the San Juan Court to make official their adoption of Grace who was then five years old.
The San Juan Court eventually granted the adoption petition and ordered a change of name from Mary Grace Natividad Contreras Militar to Grace Natividad Sonora Poe.
Poe pursued a college degree in Development Studies at the University of the Philippines. She then transferred to Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, USA. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Studies in 1991.
That same year, she married Teodoro Misael Danila Llamanzares, a citizen of both Philippines and the United States. They started their family in the US.
In 2003, after much clamor from the public, her father, Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ) declared his candidacy for President of the Philippines in the May 2004 elections.
That same year, the qualification of her father to run for President was questioned because his mother, Bessie Kelly (Sen. Grace Poe’s grandmother) was an American citizen.
Those who questioned the citizenship of Poe’s father said FPJ made a material misrepresentation in his certificate of candidacy by claiming to be a natural-born Filipino citizen when in truth, his parents were foreigners; his mother Bessie Kelley Poe was an American and his father Allan Poe was a Spanish national, being the son of Lorenzo Pou, a Spanish subject.
Granting that the Senator’s grandfather Allan F. Poe was a Filipino, his citizenship could not transfer to his son because he was an illegitimate child.
Under the Philippine Constitution, one of the basic requirements to become President is that he or she is a natural-born Filipino, meaning either one of their parents or both are Filipino citizens.
Former dean of the University of the East Law School Amado Valdez and Atty. Manuelito Luna, two of the staunchest critics of Sen. Grace Poe, said being a natural-born Filipino is a strict requirement because running a country cannot be entrusted to a foreigner.
The Supreme Court in 2004 ruled in favor of FPJ paving his way to run in the 2004 election that was marred by controversy and reports of widespread cheating.
Like Grace Poe, her father was considered a strong candidate. He was consistently leading in surveys topped with a massive following from his fans from Luzon to Mindanao. However, FPJ lost the Presidency to Congresswoman Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
FPJ’s wife, actress Susan Roces made the famous line for Arroyo “you have stolen the Presidency not once but twice.”
Roces mentioned twice because Arroyo became President first in 2001 when then President Joseph Estrada was thrown out of office amid allegations of corruption. Estrada was the best friend of FPJ.
Then, the ‘Hello Garci’ scandal came out in 2005. It was an audio recordings of a phone call conversation between President Arroyo and then Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, allegedly talking about the rigging of the 2004 national election results particularly in Mindanao where FPJ had strong followers. Arroyo publicly apologized for the phone call but the minority in Congress attempted to impeach her. It was, however, blocked by Arroyo’s coalition.
In late 2004, FPJ was admitted to St. Luke’s Medical Center. He eventually slipped into a coma and passed away.
The Senator then opted to stay in the Philippines to comfort her grieving mother. In 2005, her family moved back to the Philippines.
A year later, she filed a petition with the Philippines Immigration Bureau to reacquire her Philippine citizenship which was granted. She was eventually given a Philippine passport.
When current President Benigno Aquino III assumed office in 2010, he appointed Poe as chairperson of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB). In 2013, Poe ran and topped the Senatorial elections.
With the 2016 elections fast approaching, Poe was wooed to become the Vice President of administration candidate Manuel “Mar” Roxas. Poe turned down the offer and eventually declared she will run as an independent Presidential candidate.
A case of deja vu
Like in her father’s case, Poe’s problem started when she declared her intention to join the Presidential race.
In 2015, a petition was filed before the Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET) to unseat her as Philippine senator over her citizenship issue.
The SET ruled in favor of Poe. The case is now pending before the Supreme Court.
However, more petitions were filed against Poe before the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), the Philippines’ election body, to disqualify her in the Presidential race. Like her father, she too made a material misrepresentation when she said she is a natural-born Filipino and her parents are Fernando Poe Jr. and Susan Roces.
The Comelec ordered the cancellation of Poe’s certificate of candidacy (COC). Poe then took the case to the Supreme Court.
While the case is pending with the Supreme Court, the Comelec pushed through with its schedule including the printing of ballots with Poe’s name.
During the oral arguments on Poe’s petition, some justices said Poe cannot be natural-born unless an evidence can be presented to prove that her parents were Filipinos.
One of the evidences to prove Poe’s parentage is the DNA test. However, Poe’s camp said DNA tests were conducted twice on different subjects but the results were negative.
“What did she do for her parents to leave her,” Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen asked during the oral arguments.
“She was a new-born baby and she did not have any moral volition at that point. It is completely the agency and moral decision of the parents to actually leave her behind,” Justice Leonen said.
He added that with the question on her status, she is being compelled to find the parents who abandoned her in the first place.
“We are here not as legalists, we are here as justices. The root word is not legal but it is just-meaning to say we do justice in accordance with law but if we can interpret law so that it can do justice, then so be it,” he said.
“She is now one of the candidates to become the president of this country. It is clear to us what should happen in terms of justness. [But] can our laws actually contain that kind of result? Is it clear enough to say that the Constitution of the Republic looks this way on foundlings? That there can be never a foundling found in rural area of the Philippines that ever become President,”Justice Leonen asked.
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, meanwhile, expressed fears on the possible effects of their decision to other foundlings if it will become adverse.
Poe’s camp said there are over 4,000 foundlings in the Philippines to date.
Because the Supreme Court has yet to rule on Grace Poe’s case, the Comelec has started printing the ballots for the May 9, 2016 Presidential elections with Poe’s name still in — meaning she can be voted upon.
What will happen now?
Philippine election law expert Atty. Romulo Macalintal said if the Supreme Court agreed with Comelec and Poe is disqualified before the election and such decision becomes final before May 9, 2016, it cannot contain any instruction to the Comelec on what to do with the ballots that voted for Poe.
“And this is where the lawyers of Poe’s rivals would come in. They could file appropriate motions before the Comelec to direct the various boards of canvassers not to count or canvass the votes of Poe as counted by the PCOS as reflected on the election returns transmitted by the PCOS from the precinct level to the boards of canvassers level. If Comelec issues the Order, then all the votes cast for Poe counted by the PCOS and recorded in the election returns will no longer be canvassed by the various boards of canvassers,” Macalintal said adding that “the candidate from said “remaining candidates for President” who garners the highest number of votes will then be proclaimed President.”
Or if the Supreme Court issued its decision after the election and Poe failed to get the highest number of votes, she can just go back to her position as Senator of the Philippines, Macalintal said.
“Unless the decision of the Supreme Court also includes a declaration that she is not a natural born Filipino citizen. In which case, she also loses her Senate post,” he said.
Under the Philippine Constitution, a Senator should also be a natural-born Filipino.
If despite her disqualification, Poe still gets the highest number of votes and the Supreme Court issued its decision disqualifying her, then the presidential candidate who obtains the second highest number of votes shall be proclaimed the winner.
“But if the Supreme Court decision comes after Poe is proclaimed by Congress as President and takes her oath of office and starts functioning as President, she and her rivals need the services of good election lawyer. This is so because the legal battle of the century in election cases would begin. Poe would claim she could no longer be removed by the Supreme Court since the Supreme Court would have already lost its jurisdiction on her Comelec-disqualification cases and that any question on her eligibility would already be within the power of the Presidential Electoral Tribunal,” Macalintal said.
Another election law expert Atty. Edgardo Carlo Vistan II said since the election body Comelec has started printing ballots for the May 2016 polls with Poe’s name in it, if she is disqualified, the votes cast in her favor will be considered “stray votes.”
“In case her disqualification is upheld and people still mistakenly vote for her on May 9, the votes cast in favor of Senator Poe cannot be credited to her as they would be considered stray votes,” Vistan said.
On Monday, all parties for or against Poe will submit the final requirement—a memoranda imposed by the Supreme Court before the case is deemed submitted for resolution.
In the case of Sen. Poe’s father, the Supreme Court issued its decision on his citizenship status a month after the oral argument was terminated.
In the present case, however, whether the decision is in the offing anytime soon after the submission of the memoranda remains a question.
Will she be disqualified or not? Are we going to have a minority president if votes against Poe will be declared stray and be disregarded in case she is disqualified by the Supreme Court? These are questions that hopefully will be answered before the May 9 polls.