So it is enshrined in the very first section of our Bill of Rights: “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws.” The latter part of this first section has since been known as the equal protection clause in Constitutional Law.
The scope of the equal protection clause is farther than what its text provides.3 In a 1951 case, the Supreme Court explained that the equal protection clause can be read this way: “no person or class of persons shall be deprived of the same protection of the laws which is enjoyed by other persons or other classes in the same place and in like circumstances.”4 In Lagman v. Executive Secretary, the Court restated the doctrine: “[e]qual protection simply requires that all persons or things similarly situated should be treated alike, both as to rights conferred and responsibilities imposed.”5 As such, the mantle of protection afforded by the provision extends not only against acts of Congress, but by all other acts of government.6
The cornerstones of the equal protection clause have been settled since 1931, when the Supreme Court set the following four-pronged test for reasonable classifications in an act of government to satisfy the requirements of the equal protection clause:
1. The classification must rest on substantial distinctions;
2. The classification must be germane to the purposes of the law;
3. The classification must not be limited to existing conditions; and
4. The classification must apply equally to all members of the same class.7
That the Constitution allows different treatment for particular classes of people is significant — it allows the framers of laws and government administrators to create higher standards of behavior or specific exemptions for groups of people, as the case may be, without running afoul of the equal protection clause, for as long as there is a reasonable classification germane to the purpose of the law underlying the exception. For example, lawyers have on them a higher standard of social behavior (at least the Canons of Professional Responsibility and the Code of Ethics say so), which may be enforced before administrative bodies.
In Cayat, the Commonwealth-era Supreme Court upheld the validity of a law penalizing the possession of liquor (other than “so-called native wines and liquors”) for indigenous people.8 There, the Court considered indigenous tribal communities an inferior class, for whom government had a duty under law to find “those practicable means of bringing about their advancement in civilization and material prosperity.”9
Nearly seventy years after the ruling in Cayat, the Supreme Court would strike down a pay scheme in the International School that paid expatriate instructors more than their local counterparts for violating the equal protection clause. In International School Alliance of Educators v. Quisumbing,10 the Supreme Court held that there was no substantial distinction between foreign-hired teachers and locally-hired teachers in the International School sufficient to justify a different wage scale for the foreign-hired teachers.
The equal protection clause was also used to invalidate a Manila ordinance requiring aliens to secure an employment permit from the Mayor of Manila before they could secure employment.11 The Court explained that the ordinance did not provide a standard for the classification of aliens between those who could avail of permits and those who could not. Constitutionalist Bernas notes that in striking down the said ordinance, the Supreme Court took pains to explain that the equal protection act can be violated when a governmental act fails to classify.
In Lagman,12 where the Supreme Court nullified the Aquino administration’s Executive Order No. 1, the Supreme Court, speaking through Mr. Justice Mendoza, pointed out that the repeated mention of the Arroyo administration throughout the text of the Executive Order leaves no doubt as to the intention of the drafters of Executive Order No. 1 to limit the jurisdiction of the Truth Commission to the acts of the Arroyo administration. Such an intention, said Mr. Justice Mendoza, violates the equal protection clause because the Arroyo administration is but a member of a larger class of members, that of past administrations. In other words, the Court found that Executive Order No. 1 failed the third element of the Cayat test, that is, it did not apply equally to all members of the same class.
In his ponencia, Mr. Justice Mendoza noted that the existence of widespread reports of corruption or impropriety was not enough to distinguish the Arroyo administration from previous administrations, whose legacies were similarly tarnished with accusations of corruption and impropriety. For Mr. Justice Mendoza, the reason given by the Solicitor General as to the decision to restrict the jurisdiction to the Arroyo administration, to prevent the Truth Commission from being unnecessarily overburdened, was not an argument that addressed the substantial difference of the Arroyo administration from previous administrations.
It is to this point that the strongly worded dissent of Mme. Justice Sereno finds the weakest point of the Lagman decision; the mere existence of a previous administration, because of the enormous power of the Executive to abuse and misuse legal process, renders each administration sui generis such that there is no violation of the equal protection clause when a succeeding administration takes aim at its predecessor. In her words,
With all due respect, the Decision in effect conveys the immoral lesson that what is all-important is to capture and retain political power at all costs and misuse the legal infrastructure, including the Bill of Rights and the power of appointment, to create a shield of immunity from prosecution of misdeeds.
Bolstered by these words, at the time of this writing, the Solicitor General has announced that he will appeal the decision. Under the Rules of Court, he has fifteen (15) days from the time he receives a copy of the Decision to file his Motion for Reconsideration. Whether he adopts the arguments of Mme. Justice Sereno as to the substantial distinctions between the Arroyo administration and previous administrations, or takes his own tack, we will know only when the Supreme Court finally resolves the issue.
Barack Obama, who prior to assuming the presidency of the United States was a constitutional scholar of note, is said to have written that the law is the nation having a continuing conversation with itself as to what is right and what is wrong. In no area is this more true than the halls of the Supreme Court, where by a single twist of the pen, we continuously change our understanding of the law.
Time will tell where this particular conversation will lead.
1 The Philippine legal tradition is said to come from a hybrid of Civil Law, or law derived solely from statute, out of our Spanish heritage, and from the American form of Common Law, or law derived solely from the rulings of judges, out of our American heritage. The Americans, in turn, take their concept of Common Law from the British, who developed the system.
2 Quote attributed to ancient Roman legal scholar Justinian.
3 One of the first things taught in law school is the maxim, “What the law says is not what the law means; it is what the Supreme Court says it means.” This is not by accident. Our system allows for how the fifteen justices of the Supreme Court view our laws to form part of our legal system. See also An Act to Ordain and Institute the Civil Code of the Philippines [Civil Code of the Philippines], Republic Act No 386, art. 8.
4 Tolentino v. Board of Accountancy, 90 Phil. 73, 90 (1951).
5 Lagman v. Executive Secretary, G.R. No. 192935, 193036, 7 December 2010
6 Lagman v. Executive Secretary, G.R. No. 192935, 193036, 7 December 2010, citing Lombard v. State of La., 373 US 267 cited in Am. Jur. 2d, Vol. 16 (b), p. 316.; Beltran v. Secretary of Health, 512 Phil 560, 583 (2005). The Constitution is, in a manner of speaking, the social contract that governs the relationship between a State and its citizens. It means that it is the Constitution, in particular, the Bill of Rights, that sets the standard for governmental intrusion into our daily lives.
7 People v. Cayat, G.R. No. L-45987, 5 May 1939, citing Borgnis v. Falk Co., 133 N.W., 209; Lindsley v. Natural Carbonic Gas Co., 220 U.S. 61; 55 Law. ed., Rubi v. Provincial Board of Mindoro, 39 Phil., 660; People and Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation v. Vera and Cu Unjieng, 37 O.G. 187.
8 This was, after all, just after the repeal of Prohibition in the United States; the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol was banned in America until 1933. This decision was also written at a time when America’s leaders harbored dreams of empire, with Kipling’s poem “White Man’s Burden” typical of the prevailing sentiment at the time.
9 People v. Cayat, G.R. No. L-45987, 5 May 1939
10 ISAE v. Quisumbing, G.R. No. 128845, 1 June 2000
11 Villegas vs. Hui Chong Tsai Pao Ho, 86 SCRA 275 (1978)