Violation of the Equal Protection Clause
Although the purpose of the Truth Commission falls within the investigative power of the President, the Court finds difficulty in upholding the constitutionality of Executive Order No. 1 in view of its apparent transgression of the equal protection clause enshrined in Section 1, Article III (Bill of Rights) of the 1987 Constitution. Section 1 reads:
Section 1. No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws.
The petitioners assail Executive Order No. 1 because it is violative of this constitutional safeguard. They contend that it does not apply equally to all members of the same class such that the intent of singling out the “previous administration” as its sole object makes the PTC an “adventure in partisan hostility.” Thus, in order to be accorded with validity, the commission must also cover reports of graft and corruption in virtually all administrations previous to that of former President Arroyo.
The petitioners argue that the search for truth behind the reported cases of graft and corruption must encompass acts committed not only during the administration of former President Arroyo but also during prior administrations where the “same magnitude of controversies and anomalies” were reported to have been committed against the Filipino people. They assail the classification formulated by the respondents as it does not fall under the recognized exceptions because first, “there is no substantial distinction between the group of officials targeted for investigation by Executive Order No. 1 and other groups or persons who abused their public office for personal gain; and second, the selective classification is not germane to the purpose of Executive Order No. 1 to end corruption.” In order to attain constitutional permission, the petitioners advocate that the commission should deal with “graft and grafters prior and subsequent to the Arroyo administration with the strong arm of the law with equal force.”
Position of respondents
According to respondents, while Executive Order No. 1 identifies the “previous administration” as the initial subject of the investigation, following Section 17 thereof, the PTC will not confine itself to cases of large scale graft and corruption solely during the said administration. Assuming arguendo that the commission would confine its proceedings to officials of the previous administration, the petitioners argue that no offense is committed against the equal protection clause for “the segregation of the transactions of public officers during the previous administration as possible subjects of investigation is a valid classification based on substantial distinctions and is germane to the evils which the Executive Order seeks to correct.” To distinguish the Arroyo administration from past administrations, it recited the following:
First. E.O. No. 1 was issued in view of widespread reports of large scale graft and corruption in the previous administration which have eroded public confidence in public institutions. There is, therefore, an urgent call for the determination of the truth regarding certain reports of large scale graft and corruption in the government and to put a closure to them by the filing of the appropriate cases against those involved, if warranted, and to deter others from committing the evil, restore the people’s faith and confidence in the Government and in their public servants.
Second. The segregation of the preceding administration as the object of fact-finding is warranted by the reality that unlike with administrations long gone, the current administration will most likely bear the immediate consequence of the policies of the previous administration.
Third. The classification of the previous administration as a separate class for investigation lies in the reality that the evidence of possible criminal activity, the evidence that could lead to recovery of public monies illegally dissipated, the policy lessons to be learned to ensure that anti-corruption laws are faithfully executed, are more easily established in the regime that immediately precede the current administration.
Fourth. Many administrations subject the transactions of their predecessors to investigations to provide closure to issues that are pivotal to national life or even as a routine measure of due diligence and good housekeeping by a nascent administration like the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), created by the late President Corazon C. Aquino under Executive Order No. 1 to pursue the recovery of ill-gotten wealth of her predecessor former President Ferdinand Marcos and his cronies, and the Saguisag Commission created by former President Joseph Estrada under Administrative Order No, 53, to form an ad-hoc and independent citizens’ committee to investigate all the facts and circumstances surrounding “Philippine Centennial projects” of his predecessor, former President Fidel V. Ramos. [Emphases supplied]
Concept of the Equal Protection Clause
One of the basic principles on which this government was founded is that of the equality of right which is embodied in Section 1, Article III of the 1987 Constitution. The equal protection of the laws is embraced in the concept of due process, as every unfair discrimination offends the requirements of justice and fair play. It has been embodied in a separate clause, however, to provide for a more specific guaranty against any form of undue favoritism or hostility from the government. Arbitrariness in general may be challenged on the basis of the due process clause. But if the particular act assailed partakes of an unwarranted partiality or prejudice, the sharper weapon to cut it down is the equal protection clause.
“According to a long line of decisions, equal protection simply requires that all persons or things similarly situated should be treated alike, both as to rights conferred and responsibilities imposed.” It “requires public bodies and institutions to treat similarly situated individuals in a similar manner.” “The purpose of the equal protection clause is to secure every person within a state’s jurisdiction against intentional and arbitrary discrimination, whether occasioned by the express terms of a statue or by its improper execution through the state’s duly constituted authorities.” “In other words, the concept of equal justice under the law requires the state to govern impartially, and it may not draw distinctions between individuals solely on differences that are irrelevant to a legitimate governmental objective.”
The equal protection clause is aimed at all official state actions, not just those of the legislature. Its inhibitions cover all the departments of the government including the political and executive departments, and extend to all actions of a state denying equal protection of the laws, through whatever agency or whatever guise is taken. 
It, however, does not require the universal application of the laws to all persons or things without distinction. What it simply requires is equality among equals as determined according to a valid classification. Indeed, the equal protection clause permits classification. Such classification, however, to be valid must pass the test of reasonableness. The test has four requisites: (1) The classification rests on substantial distinctions; (2) It is germane to the purpose of the law; (3) It is not limited to existing conditions only; and
(4) It applies equally to all members of the same class. “Superficial differences do not make for a valid classification.”
For a classification to meet the requirements of constitutionality, it must include or embrace all persons who naturally belong to the class. “The classification will be regarded as invalid if all the members of the class are not similarly treated, both as to rights conferred and obligations imposed. It is not necessary that the classification be made with absolute symmetry, in the sense that the members of the class should possess the same characteristics in equal degree. Substantial similarity will suffice; and as long as this is achieved, all those covered by the classification are to be treated equally. The mere fact that an individual belonging to a class differs from the other members, as long as that class is substantially distinguishable from all others, does not justify the non-application of the law to him.”
The classification must not be based on existing circumstances only, or so constituted as to preclude addition to the number included in the class. It must be of such a nature as to embrace all those who may thereafter be in similar circumstances and conditions. It must not leave out or “underinclude” those that should otherwise fall into a certain classification. As elucidated in Victoriano v. Elizalde Rope Workers’ Union and reiterated in a long line of cases,
The guaranty of equal protection of the laws is not a guaranty of equality in the application of the laws upon all citizens of the state. It is not, therefore, a requirement, in order to avoid the constitutional prohibition against inequality, that every man, woman and child should be affected alike by a statute. Equality of operation of statutes does not mean indiscriminate operation on persons merely as such, but on persons according to the circumstances surrounding them. It guarantees equality, not identity of rights. The Constitution does not require that things which are different in fact be treated in law as though they were the same. The equal protection clause does not forbid discrimination as to things that are different. It does not prohibit legislation which is limited either in the object to which it is directed or by the territory within which it is to operate.
The equal protection of the laws clause of the Constitution allows classification. Classification in law, as in the other departments of knowledge or practice, is the grouping of things in speculation or practice because they agree with one another in certain particulars. A law is not invalid because of simple inequality. The very idea of classification is that of inequality, so that it goes without saying that the mere fact of inequality in no manner determines the matter of constitutionality. All that is required of a valid classification is that it be reasonable, which means that the classification should be based on substantial distinctions which make for real differences, that it must be germane to the purpose of the law; that it must not be limited to existing conditions only; and that it must apply equally to each member of the class. This Court has held that the standard is satisfied if the classification or distinction is based on a reasonable foundation or rational basis and is not palpably arbitrary. [Citations omitted]
Applying these precepts to this case, Executive Order No. 1 should be struck down as violative of the equal protection clause. The clear mandate of the envisioned truth commission is to investigate and find out the truth “concerning the reported cases of graft and corruption during the previous administration” only. The intent to single out the previous administration is plain, patent and manifest. Mention of it has been made in at least three portions of the questioned executive order. Specifically, these are:
WHEREAS, there is a need for a separate body dedicated solely to investigating and finding out the truth concerning the reported cases of graft and corruption during the previous administration, and which will recommend the prosecution of the offenders and secure justice for all;
SECTION 1. Creation of a Commission. – There is hereby created the PHILIPPINE TRUTH COMMISSION, hereinafter referred to as the “COMMISSION,” which shall primarily seek and find the truth on, and toward this end, investigate reports of graft and corruption of such scale and magnitude that shock and offend the moral and ethical sensibilities of the people, committed by public officers and employees, their co-principals, accomplices and accessories from the private sector, if any, during the previous administration; and thereafter recommend the appropriate action or measure to be taken thereon to ensure that the full measure of justice shall be served without fear or favor.
SECTION 2. Powers and Functions. – The Commission, which shall have all the powers of an investigative body under Section 37, Chapter 9, Book I of the Administrative Code of 1987, is primarily tasked to conduct a thorough fact-finding investigation of reported cases of graft and corruption referred to in Section 1, involving third level public officers and higher, their co-principals, accomplices and accessories from the private sector, if any, during the previous administration and thereafter submit its finding and recommendations to the President, Congress and the Ombudsman. [Emphases supplied]
In this regard, it must be borne in mind that the Arroyo administration is but just a member of a class, that is, a class of past administrations. It is not a class of its own. Not to include past administrations similarly situated constitutes arbitrariness which the equal protection clause cannot sanction. Such discriminating differentiation clearly reverberates to label the commission as a vehicle for vindictiveness and selective retribution.
Though the OSG enumerates several differences between the Arroyo administration and other past administrations, these distinctions are not substantial enough to merit the restriction of the investigation to the “previous administration” only. The reports of widespread corruption in the Arroyo administration cannot be taken as basis for distinguishing said administration from earlier administrations which were also blemished by similar widespread reports of impropriety. They are not inherent in, and do not inure solely to, the Arroyo administration. As Justice Isagani Cruz put it, “Superficial differences do not make for a valid classification.”
The public needs to be enlightened why Executive Order No. 1 chooses to limit the scope of the intended investigation to the previous administration only. The OSG ventures to opine that “to include other past administrations, at this point, may unnecessarily overburden the commission and lead it to lose its effectiveness.” The reason given is specious. It is without doubt irrelevant to the legitimate and noble objective of the PTC to stamp out or “end corruption and the evil it breeds.”
The probability that there would be difficulty in unearthing evidence or that the earlier reports involving the earlier administrations were already inquired into is beside the point. Obviously, deceased presidents and cases which have already prescribed can no longer be the subjects of inquiry by the PTC. Neither is the PTC expected to conduct simultaneous investigations of previous administrations, given the body’s limited time and resources. “The law does not require the impossible” (Lex non cogit ad impossibilia).
Given the foregoing physical and legal impossibility, the Court logically recognizes the unfeasibility of investigating almost a century’s worth of graft cases. However, the fact remains that Executive Order No. 1 suffers from arbitrary classification. The PTC, to be true to its mandate of searching for the truth, must not exclude the other past administrations. The PTC must, at least, have the authority to investigate all past administrations. While reasonable prioritization is permitted, it should not be arbitrary lest it be struck down for being unconstitutional. In the often quoted language of Yick Wo v. Hopkins,
Though the law itself be fair on its face and impartial in appearance, yet, if applied and administered by public authority with an evil eye and an unequal hand, so as practically to make unjust and illegal discriminations between persons in similar circumstances, material to their rights, the denial of equal justice is still within the prohibition of the constitution. [Emphasis supplied]
It could be argued that considering that the PTC is an ad hoc body, its scope is limited. The Court, however, is of the considered view that although its focus is restricted, the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the laws should not in any way be circumvented. The Constitution is the fundamental and paramount law of the nation to which all other laws must conform and in accordance with which all private rights determined and all public authority administered. Laws that do not conform to the Constitution should be stricken down for being unconstitutional. While the thrust of the PTC is specific, that is, for investigation of acts of graft and corruption, Executive Order No. 1, to survive, must be read together with the provisions of the Constitution. To exclude the earlier administrations in the guise of “substantial distinctions” would only confirm the petitioners’ lament that the subject executive order is only an “adventure in partisan hostility.” In the case of US v. Cyprian, it was written: “A rather limited number of such classifications have routinely been held or assumed to be arbitrary; those include: race, national origin, gender, political activity or membership in a political party, union activity or membership in a labor union, or more generally the exercise of first amendment rights.”
To reiterate, in order for a classification to meet the requirements of constitutionality, it must include or embrace all persons who naturally belong to the class. “Such a classification must not be based on existing circumstances only, or so constituted as to preclude additions to the number included within a class, but must be of such a nature as to embrace all those who may thereafter be in similar circumstances and conditions. Furthermore, all who are in situations and circumstances which are relative to the discriminatory legislation and which are indistinguishable from those of the members of the class must be brought under the influence of the law and treated by it in the same way as are the members of the class.”
The Court is not unaware that “mere underinclusiveness is not fatal to the validity of a law under the equal protection clause.” “Legislation is not unconstitutional merely because it is not all-embracing and does not include all the evils within its reach.” It has been written that a regulation challenged under the equal protection clause is not devoid of a rational predicate simply because it happens to be incomplete. In several instances, the underinclusiveness was not considered a valid reason to strike down a law or regulation where the purpose can be attained in future legislations or regulations. These cases refer to the “step by step” process. “With regard to equal protection claims, a legislature does not run the risk of losing the entire remedial scheme simply because it fails, through inadvertence or otherwise, to cover every evil that might conceivably have been attacked.”
In Executive Order No. 1, however, there is no inadvertence. That the previous administration was picked out was deliberate and intentional as can be gleaned from the fact that it was underscored at least three times in the assailed executive order. It must be noted that Executive Order No. 1 does not even mention any particular act, event or report to be focused on unlike the investigative commissions created in the past. “The equal protection clause is violated by purposeful and intentional discrimination.”
To disprove petitioners’ contention that there is deliberate discrimination, the OSG clarifies that the commission does not only confine itself to cases of large scale graft and corruption committed during the previous administration. The OSG points to Section 17 of Executive Order No. 1, which provides:
SECTION 17. Special Provision Concerning Mandate. If and when in the judgment of the President there is a need to expand the mandate of the Commission as defined in Section 1 hereof to include the investigation of cases and instances of graft and corruption during the prior administrations, such mandate may be so extended accordingly by way of a supplemental Executive Order.
The Court is not convinced. Although Section 17 allows the President the discretion to expand the scope of investigations of the PTC so as to include the acts of graft and corruption committed in other past administrations, it does not guarantee that they would be covered in the future. Such expanded mandate of the commission will still depend on the whim and caprice of the President. If he would decide not to include them, the section would then be meaningless. This will only fortify the fears of the petitioners that the Executive Order No. 1 was “crafted to tailor-fit the prosecution of officials and personalities of the Arroyo administration.”
The Court tried to seek guidance from the pronouncement in the case of Virata v. Sandiganbayan, that the “PCGG Charter (composed of Executive Orders Nos. 1, 2 and 14) does not violate the equal protection clause.” The decision, however, was devoid of any discussion on how such conclusory statement was arrived at, the principal issue in said case being only the sufficiency of a cause of action.