MANILA – More groups are opposing the Office of the Solicitor General’s bid to cancel oral arguments on petitions challenging the constitutionality of the country's Anti-Terrorism Act.
Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) and Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) groups, who previously lodged separate petitions before the Supreme Court, filed on Monday a joint opposition to the OSG’s move, citing “overwhelming public interest” in the case.
On Friday, the Kabataang Tagapagtanggol ng Karapatan (KATAPAT) and student organizations from different universities also urged the high court to deny the OSG’s move.
The OSG sought to cancel the oral arguments citing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, pointing out that at least 300 individual petitioners will have to converge at a single session hall, in violation of quarantine protocols.
It also rejected holding the oral arguments through videoconferencing, saying the OSG itself will require at least 25 lawyers and staff to gather in one room.
But BAYAN and SK groups said cancelling the oral arguments will be a “disservice to the overwhelming public interest” involved in the case, calling the anti-terror measure “a comprehensive and draconian law that abridges the people’s basic freedoms and upsets the balance of powers in our republican and democratic system of government.”
“It may well be the most lethal of all weapons in the government’s growing legal arsenal against advocacy, criticism, dissent and the free exercise of other civil and political liberties,” they said in their motion.
“The public have the right to examine and discuss how respondents, assisted by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), will defend the odious law. The public will be denied of the opportunity to participate in this democratic discourse if the parties will merely be required to submit their memoranda, written answers to clarificatory questions and written opening statements to the Honorable Court,” they added.
The group cited numerous measures adopted by the Judiciary to address the pandemic concerns, including the holding of videoconference hearings and requiring SC visitors to take rapid tests.
“If the COVID-19 pandemic did not stop courts from holding hearings in regular cases, some of them even in-court, with more reason should the Honorable Court strive to conduct said oral arguments herein due to their transcendental importance, without risking the health and lives of those concerned,” they argued.
KATAPAT and university organizations echoed this view in their own opposition, saying the high court has in fact proven it is capable of conducting proceedings remotely through videoconferencing.
Among these are the oath-taking ceremony of new lawyers in June this year, the virtual en banc sessions by magistrates, and public interviews being conducted by the Judicial and Bar Council for those seeking positions in the Judiciary.
They rejected the OSG’s comparison to the US Supreme Court’s supposed decision to cancel 9 oral arguments, enumerating 10 instances when the USSC proceeded to hold oral arguments by teleconference, including petitions filed by US President Donald Trump.
“While Respondents may argue that their motives are laudable, no other than the Supreme Court itself is in the best position to determine how to conduct its business, independent of any attempt to cast doubt on its technical and logistical capabilities,” the groups said.
“It is not in Respondents’ place to tell the Supreme Court what it can and cannot do because even in the context of an unprecedented pandemic, it has the sole power and discretion to promulgate rules concerning the protection and enforcement of constitutional rights, pleading, practice, and procedure in all courts,” they added.
Last week, Bayan Muna and a group of lawmakers, constitutional framers and journalists led by Senators Francis Pangilinan and Leila de Lima also objected to the OSG’s move to cancel the oral arguments.
Thirty-four groups have so far filed petitions against the Anti-Terrorism Act, the latest being the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the national organization of lawyers in the country.
The SC has announced it will hold oral arguments on the 3rd week of September “at the earliest”, but has not disclosed any specific date nor the method by which the oral arguments will be held.