Law dean wonders whether SC defined 'savings' the way Filipinos understood it

Posted at 07/19/2014 2:04 PM

ABS-CBN’s Doris Bigornia had a very insightful news report following President Benigno Aquino’s combative speech last Monday.

Doris covered the President’s speech live in Tayuman Street, Tondo, Manila. When it was over, she asked what the residents thought of it.

Few said they understood the controversy over the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) which the government insists has helped the nation’s economy grow.

The first woman whom Doris interviewed had a mouthful to say. She bluntly said she hardly understood the speech. And then she added:

“Ang naiintindihan ko lang ay yang savings. Anong savings? Kami bang mahihirap ay mag-aantay pa ba ng savings niyo kung kailan niyo ilalabas? Unang una sa ospital na lang. Yung savings na sinasabi niya na sobra yan sa DAP na yan, una PDAP, ngayon DAP naman. Ang mga savings sana unahin ay ang mga may sakit. Pag walang pera inilalabas ng ospital, at mag-antay na lang ng kamatayan sa bahay.”

The social networking site Twitter erupted with comments like Doris was “so much fun to watch” or they found the people’s remarks “funny” or “entertaining”.

Many law students would probably mutter that these viewers were just too dumb to comprehend what the word “savings” in the Constitution means. They probably think – as some of them have repeatedly told me – that matters like the Constitution are best left to lawyers who study it for four years then take an exam – which many of them pass with very low scores.

Not so, according to a law dean I just talked to today.

Melencio Sta. Maria, Dean of the Institute of Law of Far Eastern University, said opinions of ordinary citizens on the Constitution matter. As an example, he pointed to the raging controversy over the constitutional definition of the word “savings”.

He said:

“When one realizes that the central issue in this controversial DAP case revolves around the word ‘savings’ in the Constitution, one might wonder how on earth could such a simple word become so complicated and contested when all of us know in our own ‘normal’ world that it simply means unspent money placed in a bank, in a cabinet, in the “baol”, in a piggy-bank, or just anywhere else for safekeeping to be spent when the need arises.”

Perhaps, he said, the Supreme Court justices are interpreting “savings” not in the way ordinary Filipinos understood it to mean when they ratified the 1987 Constitution.

He said the DAP case revolves around Article 6, Section 25 (5) of the 1987 Constitution, which provides that the President “may, by law, be authorized to augment any item in the general appropriations law for their respective offices from savings in other items of their respective appropriations.”

Before I go on, I would like to explain why I decided to interview Sta. Maria. Besides graduating from law from the Ateneo de Manila University and teaching there for 27 years, he has a Master of Laws degree in banking law from Boston University. So he would be familiar with the issue at hand since DAP involves fiscal management of government funds.

Sta. Maria said:

“The word ‘savings’ is not defined in the Constitution. But in the DAP case, the Supreme Court ruled that ‘savings’ should be within the ‘statutory definition of savings contained in the General Appropriation Acts (GAA).’ And in the General Appropriation Acts, ‘savings’ are generally defined as portions or balances of funds that are freed as a result of the completion of a project or its abandonment or non-continuance. So if P10 million were originally appropriated for the Department of Public Works and, in building a road, it spent only P4 million, the balance of P6 million can be transferred by the President to augment the deficient funds of the Department of Education to build a school. The P6 million-balance is savings.”

Then he pointed out the implications of the Supreme Court ruling on what constitutes “savings” that would limit what the President could spend:

“However, if the P10 million were never used at all, that money cannot be given to the Department of Education because it is not a balance of any undertaking and therefore, in accordance with the GAA definition, is not savings. Accordingly, the President cannot just take this amount and use it for another project even if it is for a public purpose such as building a school. He has to wait for the end of the year for the amount to be determined whether or not it may even be considered “savings”. By that time, the cost of supplies and labor will have already gone up and the money that should have been originally adequate (for building the school) has become inadequate to the detriment of the government. What a waste of opportunity and money!

One wonders why this qualification in relation to unused and used allotments for purposes of defining ‘savings’ was used when it is not even textually reflected in the Constitution.”

Sta. Maria then asked the following questions:

“Did the 1987 Constitution really intend this distinction when it referred to ‘savings’?

And more particularly, is the GAA definition of “savings” the one contemplated in the Constitution?

Was it even intended by the Constitution that the government must wait for the end of the year to consider money as ‘savings’?

Are all these complications necessary?

Should we not interpret ‘savings’ in the simplest way possible to be able to readily and immediately respond to the needs of the country?”

Finally, he posed two clincher questions.

Number One -

“The Supreme Court said savings must be defined within the meaning of the GAA. The next question to ask is, how are you sure that was the intent of our framers of the constitution? How are you sure the definition of ‘savings’ we now ask the President to follow is what the framers wanted it to be?”

And Number Two -

“Did the Supreme Court decision reflect the way the people understood the meaning of the word ‘savings’?

The Filipino people ratified it in the way they understood it. And therefore, constitutional provisions must be applied in accordance with their understanding.”

Sta. Maria pointed to two legal precedents decided by the Supreme Court to support his thesis. One is Civil Liberties Union vs. Executive Secretary, 194 SCRA 317. The other is Tan vs. Socrates 278 SCRA 154. In a previous column for Interaksyon, the news website of ABC5 where he is the resident legal analyst, Sta. Maria had written that -

“…while the Supreme Court cannot discern the thoughts of the 22 million Filipinos who ratified the Constitution, one thing is nonetheless sure: they do not think like lawyers, justices, and politicians. They are ordinary people whose uncomplicated minds do not create any legalistic undertones on what they ratified as their Constitution and the provisions thereof. The words of the Constitution must therefore be given their ordinary meaning devoid of any complications and “ in the sense it has in common use.”

“The people ratifed the constitution without any ability to make undertones, legal implications, qualifications,” he reiterated to me. He explained that:

“The Constitution is not purely a legal document. It is not a document intended primarily for lawyers. It is a political document that embodies our aspirations. It is unlike ordinary legislation deliberated on by Congress.

The Constitution was ratified by the Filipino people. Therefore according to the Supreme Court, in the interpretation of the Constitution, any ambiguity of any meaning must be consistent with how the people who ratified it understood it to be.”

What are you telling me, in short? I asked Dean Sta. Maria.

He replied:

“So what I’m telling you is that the word ‘savings’ in the Constitution might be broader in scope than the very technical definition in the GAA which might not be the one contemplated by our framers of the Constitution and by Filipinos when they ratified the Constitution.”

My interview with Dean Sta. Maria puts in context a comment that Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist lawyer Oscar Franklin Tan recently posted on this blog.

Although Tan does not agree with my suppositions, this graduate of Harvard Law wrote the following words of encouragement:


I hope you never let anyone tell you that only lawyers have the right to venture an opinion on what the constitution and related laws mean. The constitution is intended for the general population and future generations, a foundational document in simple words that is supposed to enshrine our most deeply held values. A high school student’s opinion is just as valid as a Supreme Court justice’s in this context. The constitution is too important to be left to the lawyers, you might say."

I totally agree.

Besides I think the Constitution is not a dry-bones topic but, on the contrary, quite hot and sexy.

And so I dedicate the song below to those who think like me: