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Case Digest: Spouses Imbong v. Ochoa, Jr., G.R. No. 204819, 8 April 2014

Spouses Imbong v. Ochoa, Jr., G.R. No. 204819,  8 April 2014

TOPIC: Conditions for the Exercise of Judicial Review: Actual Case or Controversy


Nothing has polarized the nation more in recent years than the issues of population growth control, abortion and contraception. As in every democratic society, diametrically opposed views on the subjects and their perceived consequences freely circulate in various media. From television debates2 to sticker campaigns, from rallies by socio-political activists to mass gatherings organized by members of the clergy – the clash between the seemingly antithetical ideologies of the religious conservatives and progressive liberals has caused a deep division in every level of the society. Despite calls to withhold support thereto, however, Republic Act (R.A.) No. 10354, otherwise known as the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 (RH Law), was enacted by Congress on December 21, 2012.

Shortly after the President placed his imprimatur on the said law, challengers from various sectors of society came knocking on the doors of the Court, beckoning it to wield the sword that strikes down constitutional disobedience.


Whether the Court may exercise its power of judicial review over the controversy.


The Power of Judicial Review

In its attempt to persuade the Court to stay its judicial hand, the OSG asserts that it should submit to the legislative and political wisdom of Congress and respect the compromises made in the crafting of the RH Law, it being “a product of a majoritarian democratic process” and “characterized by an inordinate amount of transparency.” The OSG posits that the authority of the Court to review social legislation like the RH Law by certiorari is “weak,” since the Constitution vests the discretion to implement the constitutional policies and positive norms with the political departments, in particular, with Congress. It further asserts that in view of the Court’s ruling in Southern Hemisphere v. Anti-Terrorism Council, the remedies of certiorari and prohibition utilized by the petitioners are improper to assail the validity of the acts of the legislature.

Moreover, the OSG submits that as an “as applied challenge,” it cannot prosper considering that the assailed law has yet to be enforced and applied to the petitioners, and that the government has yet to distribute reproductive health devices that are abortive. It claims that the RH Law cannot be challenged “on its face” as it is not a speech-regulating measure.

In many cases involving the determination of the constitutionality of the actions of the Executive and the Legislature, it is often sought that the Court temper its exercise of judicial power and accord due respect to the wisdom of its co-equal branch on the basis of the principle of separation of powers. To be clear, the separation of powers is a fundamental principle in our system of government, which obtains not through express provision but by actual division in our Constitution. Each department of the government has exclusive cognizance of matters within its jurisdiction and is supreme within its own sphere.

Thus, the 1987 Constitution provides that: (a) the legislative power shall be vested in the Congress of the Philippines; (b) the executive power shall be vested in the President of the Philippines; and (c) the judicial power shall be vested in one Supreme Court and in such lower courts as may be established by law. The Constitution has truly blocked out with deft strokes and in bold lines, the allotment of powers among the three branches of government.


In its relationship with its co-equals, the Judiciary recognizes the doctrine of separation of powers which imposes upon the courts proper restraint, born of the nature of their functions and of their respect for the other branches of government, in striking down the acts of the Executive or the Legislature as unconstitutional. Verily, the policy is a harmonious blend of courtesy and caution.

It has also long been observed, however, that in times of social disquietude or political instability, the great landmarks of the Constitution are apt to be forgotten or marred, if not entirely obliterated. In order to address this, the Constitution impresses upon the Court to respect the acts performed by a co-equal branch done within its sphere of competence and authority, but at the same time, allows it to cross the line of separation – but only at a very limited and specific point – to determine whether the acts of the executive and the legislative branches are null because they were undertaken with grave abuse of discretion. Thus, while the Court may not pass upon questions of wisdom, justice or expediency of the RH Law, it may do so where an attendant unconstitutionality or grave abuse of discretion results.89 The Court must demonstrate its unflinching commitment to protect those cherished rights and principles embodied in the Constitution.

In this connection, it bears adding that while the scope of judicial power of review may be limited, the Constitution makes no distinction as to the kind of legislation that may be subject to judicial scrutiny, be it in the form of social legislation or otherwise. The reason is simple and goes back to the earlier point. The Court may pass upon the constitutionality of acts of the legislative and the executive branches, since its duty is not to review their collective wisdom but, rather, to make sure that they have acted in consonance with their respective authorities and rights as mandated of them by the Constitution. If after said review, the Court finds no constitutional violations of any sort, then, it has no more authority of proscribing the actions under review.90 This is in line with Article VIII, Section 1 of the Constitution which expressly provides:

Section 1. The judicial power shall be vested in one Supreme Court and in such lower courts as may be established by law.

Judicial power includes the duty of the courts of justice to settle actual controversies involving rights which are legally demandable and enforceable, and to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the Government. [Emphases supplied]

As far back as Tanada v. Angara, the Court has unequivocally declared that certiorari, prohibition and mandamus are appropriate remedies to raise constitutional issues and to review and/or prohibit/nullify, when proper, acts of legislative and executive officials, as there is no other plain, speedy or adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law. This ruling was later on applied in Macalintal v. COMELEC, Aldaba v. COMELEC, Magallona v. Ermita,94 and countless others. In Tanada, the Court wrote:

In seeking to nullify an act of the Philippine Senate on the ground that it contravenes the Constitution, the petition no doubt raises a justiciable controversy. Where an action of the legislative branch is seriously alleged to have infringed the Constitution, it becomes not only the right but in fact the duty of the judiciary to settle the dispute. “The question thus posed is judicial rather than political. The duty (to adjudicate) remains to assure that the supremacy of the Constitution is upheld. ” Once a “controversy as to the application or interpretation of constitutional provision is raised before this Court (as in the instant case), it becomes a legal issue which the Court is bound by constitutional mandate to decide. [Emphasis supplied]

In the scholarly estimation of former Supreme Court Justice Florentino Feliciano, “judicial review is essential for the maintenance and enforcement of the separation of powers and the balancing of powers among the three great departments of government through the definition and maintenance of the boundaries of authority and control between them. To him, judicial review is the chief, indeed the only, medium of participation – or instrument of intervention – of the judiciary in that balancing operation.

Lest it be misunderstood, it bears emphasizing that the Court does not have the unbridled authority to rule on just any and every claim of constitutional violation. Jurisprudence is replete with the rule that the power of judicial review is limited by four exacting requisites, viz : (a) there must be an actual case or controversy; (b) the petitioners must possess locus standi; (c) the question of constitutionality must be raised at the earliest opportunity; and (d) the issue of constitutionality must be the lis mota of the case.

Actual Case or Controversy

Proponents of the RH Law submit that the subj ect petitions do not present any actual case or controversy because the RH Law has yet to be implemented. They claim that the questions raised by the petitions are not yet concrete and ripe for adjudication since no one has been charged with violating any of its provisions and that there is no showing that any of the petitioners’ rights has been adversely affected by its operation.98 In short, it is contended that judicial review of the RH Law is premature.

An actual case or controversy means an existing case or controversy that is appropriate or ripe for determination, not conjectural or anticipatory, lest the decision of the court would amount to an advisory opinion.99 The rule is that courts do not sit to adjudicate mere academic questions to satisfy scholarly interest, however intellectually challenging. The controversy must be justiciable-definite and concrete, touching on the legal relations of parties having adverse legal interests. In other words, the pleadings must show an active antagonistic assertion of a legal right, on the one hand, and a denial thereof, on the other; that is, it must concern a real, tangible and not merely a theoretical question or issue. There ought to be an actual and substantial controversy admitting of specific relief through a decree conclusive in nature, as distinguished from an opinion advising what the law would be upon a hypothetical state of facts.

Corollary to the requirement of an actual case or controversy is the requirement of ripeness. A question is ripe for adjudication when the act being challenged has had a direct adverse effect on the individual challenging it. For a case to be considered ripe for adjudication, it is a prerequisite that something has then been accomplished or performed by either branch before a court may come into the picture, and the petitioner must allege the existence of an immediate or threatened injury to himself as a result of the challenged action. He must show that he has sustained or is immediately in danger of sustaining some direct injury as a result of the act complained of.

In The Province of North Cotabato v. The Government of the Republic of the Philippines, where the constitutionality of an unimplemented Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) was put in question, it was argued that the Court has no authority to pass upon the issues raised as there was yet no concrete act performed that could possibly violate the petitioners’ and the intervenors’ rights. Citing precedents, the Court ruled that the fact of the law or act in question being not yet effective does not negate ripeness. Concrete acts under a law are not necessary to render the controversy ripe. Even a singular violation of the Constitution and/or the law is enough to awaken judicial duty.

In this case, the Court is of the view that an actual case or controversy exists and that the same is ripe for judicial determination. Considering that the RH Law and its implementing rules have already taken effect and that budgetary measures to carry out the law have already been passed, it is evident that the subject petitions present a justiciable controversy. As stated earlier, when an action of the legislative branch is seriously alleged to have infringed the Constitution, it not only becomes a right, but also a duty of the Judiciary to settle the dispute.

Moreover, the petitioners have shown that the case is so because medical practitioners or medical providers are in danger of being criminally prosecuted under the RH Law for vague violations thereof, particularly public health officers who are threatened to be dismissed from the service with forfeiture of retirement and other benefits. They must, at least, be heard on the matter NOW.

Locus Standi

The OSG also attacks the legal personality of the petitioners to file their respective petitions. It contends that the “as applied challenge” lodged by the petitioners cannot prosper as the assailed law has yet to be enforced and applied against them, and the government has yet to distribute reproductive health devices that are abortive.

The petitioners, for their part, invariably invoke the “transcendental importance” doctrine and their status as citizens and taxpayers in establishing the requisite locus standi.

Locus standi or legal standing is defined as a personal and substantial interest in a case such that the party has sustained or will sustain direct injury as a result of the challenged governmental act.113 It requires a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy as to assure the concrete adverseness which sharpens the presentation of issues upon which the court so largely depends for illumination of difficult constitutional questions.

In relation to locus standi, the “as applied challenge” embodies the rule that one can challenge the constitutionality of a statute only if he asserts a violation of his own rights. The rule prohibits one from challenging the constitutionality of the statute grounded on a violation of the rights of third persons not before the court. This rule is also known as the prohibition against third-party standing.

Transcendental Importance

Notwithstanding, the Court leans on the doctrine that “the rule on standing is a matter of procedure, hence, can be relaxed for non-traditional plaintiffs like ordinary citizens, taxpayers, and legislators when the public interest so requires, such as when the matter is of transcendental importance, of overreaching significance to society, or of paramount public interest.”

In Coconut Oil Refiners Association, Inc. v. Torres, the Court held that in cases of paramount importance where serious constitutional questions are involved, the standing requirement may be relaxed and a suit may be allowed to prosper even where there is no direct injury to the party claiming the right of judicial review. In the first Emergency Powers Cases, ordinary citizens and taxpayers were allowed to question the constitutionality of several executive orders although they had only an indirect and general interest shared in common with the public.

With these said, even if the constitutionality of the RH Law may not be assailed through an “as-applied challenge, still, the Court has time and again acted liberally on the locus s tandi requirement. It has accorded certain individuals standing to sue, not otherwise directly injured or with material interest affected by a Government act, provided a constitutional issue of transcendental importance is invoked. The rule on locus standi is, after all, a procedural technicality which the Court has, on more than one occasion, waived or relaxed, thus allowing non-traditional plaintiffs, such as concerned citizens, taxpayers, voters or legislators, to sue in the public interest, albeit they may not have been directly injured by the operation of a law or any other government act. As held in Jaworski v. PAGCOR:

Granting arguendo that the present action cannot be properly treated as a petition for prohibition, the transcendental importance of the issues involved in this case warrants that we set aside the technical defects and take primary jurisdiction over the petition at bar. One cannot deny that the issues raised herein have potentially pervasive influence on the social and moral well being of this nation, specially the youth; hence, their proper and just determination is an imperative need. This is in accordance with the well-entrenched principle that rules of procedure are not inflexible tools designed to hinder or delay, but to facilitate and promote the administration of justice. Their strict and rigid application, which would result in technicalities that tend to frustrate, rather than promote substantial justice, must always be eschewed. (Emphasis supplied)

In view of the seriousness, novelty and weight as precedents, not only to the public, but also to the bench and bar, the issues raised must be resolved for the guidance of all. After all, the RH Law drastically affects the constitutional provisions on the right to life and health, the freedom of religion and expression and other constitutional rights. Mindful of all these and the fact that the issues of contraception and reproductive health have already caused deep division among a broad spectrum of society, the Court entertains no doubt that the petitions raise issues of transcendental importance warranting immediate court adjudication. More importantly, considering that it is the right to life of the mother and the unborn which is primarily at issue, the Court need not wait for a life to be taken away before taking action.

The Court cannot, and should not, exercise judicial restraint at this time when rights enshrined in the Constitution are being imperilled to be violated. To do so, when the life of either the mother or her child is at stake, would lead to irreparable consequences.



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