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Supreme Court junks plea for COVID-19 mass testing

Filipinos stranded due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions cram inside a baseball stadium for a government transportation program that while transport them back to their provinces, in Rizal Memorial Sports Complex, Manila, Philippines, July 25, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

The Supreme Court (SC) of the Philippines has rejected the plea of a group of health advocates to conduct free mass testing for coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

In a resolution dated September 1, the Supreme Court en banc denied the petition filed by the Citizens Urgent Response to End COVID-19 (CURE COVID-19) led by its spokesperson, former Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo “for failure of petitioners to show that they are entitled to the issuance of a writ of mandamus.”

A petition for mandamus seeks to order a tribunal, corporation, board, officer, or person to perform an unlawfully neglected duty.

According to the court, this will only be the appropriate remedy where “the law prescribes and defines the duty to be performed with such precision and certainty as to leave nothing to the exercise of discretion or judgment.

“The job of the Court is to say what the law is, not dictate how another branch of government should do its job. Without a demonstration that an official in the executive branch failed to perform a mandatory, nondiscretionary duty, courts have no authority to issue a writ of mandamus, no matter how dire the emergency,” the SC said in its resolution.

The high court also noted that the petitioners failed to exhaust other remedies as they could have gone to other government agencies such as the Health, Interior, and other departments, even the Office of the President.

The magistrates voted 13-1-1, with Associate Justice Marvic Leonen dissenting and Associate Justice Priscilla Baltazar-Padilla on leave.

PETITIONER’S PLEA

CURE COVID-19 has turned to the highest Philippine court to allege that the government’s delayed and insufficient government response to the coronavirus pandemic has violated their right to health.

In their petition filed on July 3, the petitioners anchored their petition on section 15 of Article II of the Constitution which requires the State to protect and promote the right to health of its people, and section 11 of Article XII on the State’s duty to provide for people’s health.

By “mass testing,” the petitioners said they meant the testing of all suspected cases, contacts of probable and confirmed cases, frontline healthcare workers, and high-risk and vulnerable communities. They also demanded the government to release “accurate, timely, and complete information” on the Philippine COVID-19 situation.

They also claimed contact tracing is delayed and insufficient and accused the government of providing “delayed, incomplete, and worse, downright misleading” data.

However, the SC said the remedy of mandamus applies only when the law defines a duty to be performed “with such precision and certainty as to leave nothing to the exercise of discretion or judgment.”

“The job of the Court is to say what the law is, not dictate how another branch of government should do its job,” it stated.

“While the Constitution enjoins respondents to protect the right to health, mandamus will not lie to compel them to exercise said protection in a certain way or to a certain degree,” the court added.

It also noted that without a demonstration that an official in the executive branch failed to perform a mandatory, nondiscretionary duty, courts have no authority to issue a writ of mandamus, no matter how dire the emergency.

LEONEN DISSENTS

SC Associate Justice Marvic Leonen dissented, saying the constitutional provisions relied on by petitioners have been declared self-executory by the Supreme Court in a 2014 ruling.

“A ruling on these issues will have a significant impact on the social, political, and economic life of the nation,” he said in his dissenting opinion.

“That alone should have prompted this Court to at least require respondents to file a comment without necessarily giving due course to the Petition. A comment would have given a fuller exposition of the constitutional issues raised, this time from respondents’ view,” the justice said.

According to Leonen, the Health department’s mandate as well as obligations under Republic Act 11332 or the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Concern Health Act and the Philippine government’s treaty obligations to follow World Health Organization protocols.

“The Department of Health’s obligations set by the law and the International Health Regulations are the same ones that petitioners raise in this case. Without the effective response system that complies with the World Health Organization’s recommendations, petitioners allege that respondents deny them their right to health,” he said.

He noted that the petitioner’s plea was “accurate and timely” information on the COVID-19 situation involves matters of public concern or public interest.

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