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D. Methods of interpreting the Constitution


1) Verba legis;

2) Ratio legis est anima; or

3) Ut magis valeat quam pereat

a. Verba legis

First, verba legis, that is, wherever possible, the words used in the Constitution must be given their ordinary meaning except where technical terms are employed. (Francisco v. House of Representative, G.R. No. 160261, 10 November 2003)

We look to the language of the document itself in our search for its meaning. We do not of course stop there, but that is where we begin. It is to be assumed that the words in which constitutional provisions are couched express the objective sought to be attained. They are to be given their ordinary meaning except where technical terms are employed in which case the significance thus attached to them prevails. As the Constitution is not primarily a lawyer’s document, it being essential for the rule of law to obtain that it should ever be present in the people’s consciousness, its language as much as possible should be understood in the sense they have in common use. What it says according to the text of the provision to be construed compels acceptance and negates the power of the courts to alter it, based on the postulate that the framers and the people mean what they say. Thus these are the cases where the need for construction is reduced to a minimum. (J.M. Tuason & Co., Inc. v. Land Tenure Administration, G.R. No. L-21064, 18 February 1970)

b. Ratio legis est anima

Second, where there is ambiguity, ratio legis est anima. The words of the Constitution should be interpreted in accordance with the intent of its framers. (Francisco v. House of Representative, supra.)

A foolproof yardstick in constitutional construction is the intention underlying the provision under consideration. Thus, it has been held that the Court in construing a Constitution should bear in mind the object sought to be accomplished by its adoption, and the evils, if any, sought to be prevented or remedied. A doubtful provision will be examined in the light of the history of the times, and the condition and circumstances under which the Constitution was framed. The object is to ascertain the reason which induced the framers of the Constitution to enact the particular provision and the purpose sought to be accomplished thereby, in order to construe the whole as to make the words consonant to that reason and calculated to effect that purpose. (Civil Liberties Union v. Executive Secretary, G.R. No. 83896, 22 February 1991)

The ascertainment of that intent is but in keeping with the fundamental principle of constitutional construction that the intent of the framers of the organic law and of the people adopting it should be given effect. The primary task in constitutional construction is to ascertain and thereafter assure the realization of the purpose of the framers and of the people in the adoption of the Constitution. It may also be safely assumed that the people in ratifying the Constitution were guided mainly by the explanation offered by the framers. (Nitafan v. Commissioner on Internal Revenue, G.R. No. 78780, 23 July 1987)

c. Ut magis valeat quam pereat

Finally, ut magis valeat quam pereat. The Constitution is to be interpreted as a whole. (Francisco v. House of Representative, supra.)

[T]he members of the Constitutional Convention could not have dedicated a provision of our Constitution merely for the benefit of one person without considering that it could also affect others. When they adopted subsection 2, they permitted, if not willed, that said provision should function to the full extent of its substance and its terms, not by itself alone, but in conjunction with all other provisions of that great document. (Chiongbian v. De Leon, G.R. No. L-2007, 31 January 1949)

It is a well-established rule in constitutional construction that no one provision of the Constitution is to be separated from all the others, to be considered alone, but that all the provisions bearing upon a particular subject are to be brought into view and to be so interpreted as to effectuate the great purposes of the instrument. Sections bearing on a particular subject should be considered and interpreted together as to effectuate the whole purpose of the Constitution and one section is not to be allowed to defeat another, if by any reasonable construction, the two can be made to stand together. (Civil Liberties Union v. Executive Secretary, G.R. No. 83896, 22 February 1991)

In other words, the court must harmonize them, if practicable, and must lean in favor of a construction which will render every word operative, rather than one which may make the words idle and nugatory. (Civil Liberties Union v. Executive Secretary, supra.)

If, however, the plain meaning of the word is not found to be clear, resort to other aids is available. (Francisco v. House of Representative, supra.)

While it is permissible in this jurisdiction to consult the debates and proceedings of the constitutional convention in order to arrive at the reason and purpose of the resulting Constitution, resort thereto may be had only when other guides fail as said proceedings are powerless to vary the terms of the Constitution when the meaning is clear. Debates in the constitutional convention “are of value as showing the views of the individual members, and as indicating the reasons for their votes, but they give us no light as to the views of the large majority who did not talk, much less of the mass of our fellow citizens whose votes at the polls gave that instrument the force of fundamental law. We think it safer to construe the constitution from what appears upon its face.” The proper interpretation therefore depends more on how it was understood by the people adopting it than in the framers’ understanding thereof. (Civil Liberties Union v. Executive Secretary, G.R. No. 83896, supra.)

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