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Nicolas Lewis v. Comelec, August 4, 2006

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  EN BANC LOIDA NICOLAS-LEWIS, GREGORIO B. MACABENTA, ALEJANDRO A. ESCLAMADO, ARMANDO B. HEREDIA, REUBEN S. SEGURITAN, ERIC LACHICA FURBEYRE, TERESITA A. CRUZ, JOSEFINA OPENA DISTERHOFT, MERCEDES V. OPENA, CORNELIO R. NATIVIDAD, EVELYN D. NATIVIDAD,   Petitioners,   - versus -   COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS,   Respondent.   G.R. No. 162759  Present: PANGANIBAN, C.J., PUNO, QUISUMBING, YNARES-SANTIAGO, SANDOVAL-GUTIERREZ, CARPIO, AUSTRIA-MARTINEZ, CORONA, CARPIO-MORALES, CALLEJO, SR., AZCUNA, TINGA, CHICO-NAZARIO, GARCIA, and VELASCO, JR.,  JJ  . Promulgated: August 4, 2006  x- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -x D E C I S I O N   GARCIA, J  .:  In this petition for certiorari and mandamus, petitioners, referring to themselves as duals or dual citizens, pray that they and others who retained or reacquired Philippine citizenship under Republic Act (R.A.) No. 9225, the Citizenship Retention and Re-Acquisition Act of 2003 , be allowed to avail themselves of the mechanism provided under the Overseas Absentee Voting Act of 2003 [1]   (R.A. 9189)   and that the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) accordingly be ordered to allow them to vote and register as absentee voters under the aegis of R.A. 9189. The facts: Petitioners are successful applicants for recognition of Philippine citizenship under R.A. 9225 which accords to such applicants the right of suffrage, among others. Long before the May 2004 national  and local elections, petitioners sought registration and certification as overseas absentee voter only to be advised by the Philippine Embassy in the United States that, per a COMELEC letter to the Department of Foreign Affairs dated September 23, 2003 [2] , they have yet no right to vote in such elections owing to their lack of the one-year residence requirement prescribed by the Constitution. The same letter, however, urged the differe nt Philippine posts abroad not to discontinue their campaign for voter‟s registration, as the residence restriction adverted to would contextually affect merely certain individuals who would likely be eligible to vote in future elections. Prodded for clarification by petitioner Loida Nicolas-Lewis in the light of the ruling in  Macalintal vs. COMELEC    [3]  on the residency requirement, the COMELEC wrote in response: Although R.A. 9225 enjoys the presumption of constitutionality …, it is the Commission's position that those who have availed of the law cannot exercise the right of suffrage given under the OAVL for the reason that the OAVL was not enacted for them. Hence, as Filipinos who have merely re-acquired their citizenship on 18 September 2003 at the earliest, and as law and jurisprudence now stand, they are considered regular voters who have to meet the requirements of residency, among others under Section 1, Article 5 of the Constitution.  [4]  Faced with the prospect of not being able to vote in the May 2004 elections owing to the COMELEC's refusal to include them in the National Registry of Absentee Voters, petitioner Nicolas-Lewis et al  .,  [5]  filed on April 1, 2004 this petition for certiorari and mandamus. A little over a week before the May 10, 2004 elections, or on April 30, 2004, the COMELEC filed a Comment  , [6]  therein praying for the denial of the petition. As may be expected, petitioners were not able to register let alone vote in said elections. On May 20, 2004, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) filed a  Manifestation (in Lieu of Comment) , therein stating that “all qualified overseas Filipinos, including dual citizens who care to exercise the right of suffrage, may do so”  , observing, however, that the conclusion of the 2004 elections had rendered the petition moot and academic. [7]  The holding of the 2004 elections had, as the OSG pointed out, indeed rendered the petition moot and academic, but insofar only as petitioners‟ participation in such political exercise is concerned. The  broader and transcendental issue tendered or subsumed in the petition, i.e.,  the propriety of allowing “duals” to participate and vote as absentee voter in future elections, however, remains unresolved.      Observing the petitioners‟ and the   COMELEC‟s  respective formulations of the issues, the same may be reduced into the question of whether or not petitioners and others who might have meanwhile retained and/or reacquired Philippine citizenship pursuant to R.A. 9225 may vote as absentee voter under R.A. 9189. The Court resolves the poser in the affirmative, and thereby accords merit to the petition. In esse , this case is all about suffrage. A quick look at the governing provisions on the right of suffrage is, therefore, indicated. We start off with Sections 1 and 2 of Article V of the Constitution, respectively reading as follows: SECTION 1. Suffrage may be exercised by all citizens of the Philippines not otherwise disqualified by law, who are at least eighteen years of age, and who shall have resided in the Philippines for at least one year and in the place wherein they propose to vote for at least six months immediately preceding the election. xxx. SEC 2. The Congress shall provide … a system for absentee voting by qualified Filipinos abroad. In a nutshell, the aforequoted Section 1 prescribes residency requirement as a general eligibility factor for the right to vote. On the other hand, Section 2 authorizes Congress to devise a system wherein an absentee may vote, implying that a non -resident may, as an exception to the residency prescription in the preceding section, be allowed to vote. In response to its above mandate, Congress enacted R.A. 9189 - the OAVL [8]  - identifying in its Section 4 who can vote under it and in the following section who cannot, as follows: Section 4. Coverage .  –   All citizens of the Philippines abroad, who are not otherwise disqualified by law, at least eighteen (18) years of age on the day of elections, may vote for president, vice-president, senators and party-list representatives. Section 5.  Disqualifications .  –   The following shall be disqualified from voting under this Act: (a) Those who have lost their Filipino citizenship in accordance with Philippine laws; (b) Those who have expressly renounced their Philippine citizenship and who have pledged allegiance to a foreign country; (c) Those who have … [been] convicted in a final judgment by a court or tribunal of an offense punishable by imprisonment of not less than one (1) year, including those who have … been found guilty of Disloyalty as defined under Article 137 of the Revised Penal Code, ….;     (d) An immigrant or a permanent resident who is recognized as such in the host country, unless he/she executes, upon registration, an affidavit prepared for the  purpose by the Commission declaring that he/she shall resume actual physical permanent residence in the Philippines not later than three (3) years from approval of his/her registration under this Act. Such affidavit shall also state that he/she has not applied for citizenship in another country. Failure to return shall be the cause for the removal of the name of the immigrant or permanent resident from the National Registry of Absentee Voters and his/her permanent disqualification to vote in absentia . (e) Any citizen of the Philippines abroad previously declared insane or incompetent by competent authority …. (Words in bracket added.)   Notably, Section 5 lists those who cannot avail themselves of the absentee voting mechanism. However, Section 5(d) of the enumeration respecting Filipino immigrants and permanent residents in another country opens an exception and qualifies the disqualification rule. Section 5(d) would, however, face a constitutional challenge on the ground that, as narrated in  Macalintal  , it - … violates Section 1, Article V of the 1987 Constitution which requires that the voter must be a resident in the Philippines for at least one year and in the place where he  proposes to vote for at least six months immediately preceding an election. [The challenger] cites …   Caasi vs. Court of Appeals   [9]  to support his claim [where] the Court held that a “green card” holder immigrant to the [US] is deemed to have abandoned his domicile and residence in the Philippines. [The challenger] further argues that Section 1, Article V of the Constitution does not allow provisional registration or a promise by a voter to perform a condition to be qualified to vote in a political exercise; that the legislature should not be allowed to circumvent the requirement of the Constitution on the right of suffrage by providing a condition thereon which in effect amends or alters the aforesaid residence requirement to qualify a Filipino abroad to vote. He claims that the right of suffrage should not be granted to anyone who, on the date of the election, does not possess the qualifications  provided for by Section 1, Article V of the Constitution. [10]  (Words in bracket added.) As may be recalled, the Court upheld the constitutionality of Section 5(d) of R.A. 9189 mainly on the strength of the following premises: As finally approved into law, Section 5(d) of R.A. No. 9189 specifically disqualifies an immigrant   or  permanent resident    who is “recognized as such in the host country” because immigration or permanent residence in another country implies renunciation of one's residence in his country of srcin. However, same Section allows an immigrant and permanent resident abroad to register as voter for as long as he/she executes an affidavit to show that he/she has not abandoned his domicile in pursuance of the constitutional intent expressed in Sections 1 and 2 of Article V that “ all   citizens of the Philippines not otherwise disqual ified by law” must be entitled to exercise the right of suffrage and, that Congress must establish a system for absentee voting; for otherwise, if
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