MANILA - Solicitor General Jose Calida told the Supreme Court Wednesday that President Rodrigo Duterte's martial law declaration in Mindanao may not be compared to the military rule that the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared in 1972.
In his opening statement at the resumption of oral arguments on cases questioning the declaration, Calida said martial law may have given Duterte "flexibility to act in the interest of public safety."
But the President, he said, has assured the public that the rights of residents in Mindanao would be respected amid the implementation of military rule.
"President Duterte likewise ordered [that] the constitutional rights of the Filipino people shall be respected and protected at all times," said Calida, the state's chief counsel, who also defended Marcos' secrecy-shrouded burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani before the High Court last year.
The Marcos regime was marked by killings, enforced disappearances and other forms of human rights abuses. Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, among petitioners against the declaration, also told the court Wednesday of reports of "unprecedented" human rights abuses in Marawi City under Duterte's martial rule.
In her interpellation, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno pressed on the comparison as she put into light the "political question" doctrine, which she said was blamed for unduly validating Marcos' martial law declaration.
But Calida said Duterte may not be compared to the late strongman.
"One thing I can assure you, your honor: President Duterte is not President Marcos," Calida told Sereno.
But Sereno wanted a clearer answer.
"Well, I know. The names are very different," the Chief Justice responded.
Sereno said she wanted to establish legal standards, as Calida previously pointed out that martial law was not only declared by the President but also supported by Congress.
She emphasized that Calida's request for the Supreme Court to defer to the President and Congress as regards the legality of the martial law declaration was using a "much discredited" legal standard - the political question doctrine.
"You have asked us to accept on faith what is the judgment call of the President, and it appears to us you are unable to present a legal standard by which the powers of this President, in this particular instance, should be examined," said Sereno.
Under the "political question" doctrine during the Marcos regime, the judiciary should refuse to decide on an issue involving the exercise of discretionary powers by the executive or legislative branches of government.
It was used by the Supreme Court during the strongman's time to justify his martial law declaration. But the 1987 Constitution has since expanded the Supreme Court's power of judicial review.
It even says the high court "may review, in an appropriate proceeding filed by any citizen, the sufficiency of the factual basis of the proclamation of martial law or the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, or the extension thereof. "
Pressed to give a legal standard valid under the 1987 Constitution, Calida said "arbitrariness" and not "correctness" should be the basis of the Supreme Court on whether or not to uphold the President's declaration of martial law.
"In other words, you mean that as long as the President is not arbitrary in having declared martial law because he deemed it necessary to protect public interest, in view of the existence of what you earlier considered as actual rebellion, then this court will have to uphold the declaration of martial law?" asked the Chief Justice.
"That's correct," answered Calida.
Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao after clashes between state forces and Islamic State-linked terror groups erupted on May 23 in Marawi City.
Gunfights have been going on for more than three weeks now, prompting more than 200,000 residents to flee and leaving much of the city in shambles.