Supreme Court junks petition seeking COVID-19 mass testing

By NICOLE-ANNE C. LAGRIMAS, GMA News

The Supreme Court (SC) has dismissed a petition asking the tribunal to compel the government to conduct proactive mass testing for COVID-19, efficient contact tracing and isolation, and effective treatment of positive cases.

In a September 1 resolution, the high court en banc said the petitioners, who represent various sectors from medical frontliners to public utility drivers, failed to show that they are entitled to the extraordinary writ of mandamus.

The court dismissed the petition without requiring the respondent government officials to comment.

The petitioners had turned to the highest Philippine court to allege that government efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic have been inadequate.

They said the absence of efficient mass testing violates the right to 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 wanted the government to release “accurate, timely, and complete information” on the Philippine COVID-19 situation.

However, the court said it cannot tell another branch of government how to do its job.

The justices said that 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,” the court said.

The court said the petitioners wanted the tribunal to direct the government not just to protect their right to health, but to protect it in a certain manner or to a certain degree  — “more proactively and efficiently.”

“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 said.

“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,” it added.

The court also said the petitioners did not exhaust administrative remedies, such as going to government offices, before turning to the tribunal.

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, which represents the petitioners, called the ruling a “regrettable dismissive resolution mainly on technicality.”

“The Resolution dashes hopes that our inept and negligent government will be compelled to do its constitutional duty to protect and respect the people’s rights to health and information,” the NUPL said.

The union said, however, that the decision “will not dispirit” their clients.

Leonen dissents

Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, who dissented, said the court should have at least required the respondent government officials to comment on the petition.

“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.

This is at least the second petition for mandamus that the court has dismissed in recent months without requiring the government to comment.

In May, the SC dismissed a lawyer’s petition asking the tribunal to compel the Office of the President to disclose President Rodrigo Duterte’s health records. — RSJ, GMA News

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