Editor's Note: Corrects number of remaining provinces in headline and first paragraph to 80 instead of 79.
MANILA, Philippines -- The Philippines has reverted back to 80 provinces after the Supreme Court voided the creation of Shariff Kabunsuan province in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in 2006.
The Supreme Court, in a decision dated July 16, ruled as unconstitutional Section 19, Article VI of Republic Act 9054, or the Expanded ARMM Law, which gives the ARMM regional assembly the power to create provinces.
Only Congress can create provinces because the act ?inherently? involves the creation of a new legislative district from which a member of House of Representatives is elected, the high court said in a 33-page ruling penned by Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.
The ruling meant that the election of the governor, vice governor and provincial board of Shariff Kabunsuan are also nullified and the entire provincial bureaucracy scrapped as Shariff Kabunsuan reverts back to being an integral part of Maguindanao province.
The case stemmed from a petition filed by Sandra Sema questioning Resolution 7902 of the Commission on Elections that combined Shariff Kabunsuan and Cotabato City into a single legislative district during the 2007 congressional polls.
The high court affirmed the validity of the Comelec resolution, which preserved the original legislative district of Maguindanao, which included Cotabato City.
The current occupant of the Shariff Kabunsuan and Cotabato district is Rep. Didagen Dilangalen.
Cotabato and the nine towns constituting the abolished Shariff Kabunsuan province used to be part of the first legislative district of Maguindanao. When the province of Shariff Kabunsuan was created, only Cotabato, which had a population of less than 250,000, was left in the Maguindanao district.
Sema, who ran for Congress but lost to Dilangalen, argued that Shariff Kabunsuan was entitled to one House representative according to Section 5 (3), Article VI of the Constitution which states, ?Each city with a population of at least 250,000, or each province, shall have at least one representative? in the House.
She also cited another section that provides that any province that may be created or any city whose population may hereafter increase to more than 250,000 should be entitled in the immediately following election to at least one House member.
The court explained that when the new province was created, the ARMM regional assembly encroached on the exclusive power of the House to apportion legislative districts. It said that the creation of Shariff Kabunsuan led to the election of a national official, the House representative.
The justices said it would be ?incongruous? for a regional legislative body such as the ARMM Regional Assembly to create a national office when its legislative powers extend only to its regional territory.
?To allow the ARMM regional assembly to create a national office is to allow its legislative powers to operate outside the ARMM?s territorial jurisdiction. This violates Section 20, Article X of the Constitution which expressly limits the coverage of the regional assembly?s legislative powers within its territorial jurisdiction,? the court said.
Even if the ARMM assembly argues that the existing first legislative district of Maguindanao, which includes Cotabato, would remain even after the creation of Shariff Kabunsuan, the court said that a province may not be created without a legislative district.
Act of Congress
If Shariff Kabunsuan were to be regarded as a province and become a single district entitled to one congressman, this would mean that Cotabato, the only local unit left from the original first district of Maguindanao, would not be able to elect a congressman as the city could not constitute a district by itself since it only has a population of 163,849 (based on the 2000 census).
?Only an act of Congress can trigger the creation of a legislative district by operation of the Constitution. Thus, only Congress has the power to create, or trigger the creation of, a legislative district,? the justices ruled.
The abolished Shariff Kabunsuan province, whose designated capital was Datu Odin Sinsuat, was named after an Arab preacher who introduced Islam in central Mindanao in the 16th century.
The province was created by the ARMM assembly through the Muslim Mindanao Autonomy Act 201, enacted on Aug. 28, 2006. This was ratified by a plebiscite on Oct. 29 that year.
In an aside, the Supreme Court said there was now a need for Congress to increase by law the allowable membership of the House, even before Congress can create new provinces.
The justices said there are currently 219 district representatives out of the maximum 250 seats in the House allowed by the Constitution.
But they noted that the Constitution also provides that the party-list members in the House should constitute 20 percent of the body?s total membership, which means there should at least be 50 party-list seats available in every election in case 50 party-list candidates are proclaimed winners.
This would leave only 200 seats for district representatives, much less than the 219 incumbent district representatives, the high court observed.