"Anything can happen" at the Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET) preliminary conference Friday as the panel starts to hear the disqualification case against Sen. Grace Poe, Sen. Vicente Sotto III said on Thursday.
Sotto, who sits on the nine-member tribunal, said the panel will hear the presentations of the lawyers of Rizalito David, who last month filed a case questioning Poe's right to serve in the Senate when she is allegedly not a native-born Filipino, and of Poe, whose topping the voter preference polls for President in next year's national elections brought on the case.
In a phone interview, Sotto said anything, even the "remote possibility" that the tribunal would put the case to a vote, could happen at the hearing.
He said a vote would be called only if the legal arguments at the presentation were "glaring."
Reacting to the Inquirer report on Wednesday that he would ask the SET chair, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, not to accept David's case, Sotto said he intended to listen to Friday's presentation.
An Inquirer source said Poe's camp wanted the immediate dismissal of David's case for fear it would drag on up to the start of the election campaign season in February next year.
Sotto said the next hearing of the tribunal was on Sept. 20 or 21, or less than a month before the Oct. 16 deadline for the filing of certificates of candidacy.
Behind closed doors
Friday's SET preliminary conference will be held behind closed doors at the Supreme Court.
An advisory sent by the SET through Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te said the hearing would be closed to the public and to the press.
Under SET rules, the preliminary conference is held for "the simplification of issues; the possibility of obtaining stipulation or admission of facts and of documents to avoid unnecessary proof; the limitation of the number of witnesses and the nature of their testimonies; and such other matters as may aid in the prompt disposition" of the case.
The SET scheduled oral arguments on the case for Sept. 21 at the Supreme Court's main session hall.
The SET advisory said the oral arguments would be open to the public, subject to limitations of seating.
The Supreme Court information office will livestream the proceedings.
Who's behind case?
Poe claims she has not decided whether to run, but the surveys indicate that if she runs for President, she will beat Vice President Jejomar Binay, the former leading candidate in the polls who has been talking about running for President since his election in 2010.
As Poe surged in the surveys in June, Binay's camp questioned her citizenship-she is an adopted daughter of the late movie actor Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ) and actress Susan Roces and is a former US citizen-and claimed that she did not meet the 10-year residency requirement for presidential candidates.
Binay, a friend of FPJ, stopped his camp from pressing the challenge. But David, who lost a run for the Senate in 2013, came out of nowhere last month and raised the same questions about Poe's citizenship and residency before the SET and the Commission on Elections (Comelec).
The Vice President, however, and Malacañang, whose presidential candidate, outgoing Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, is trailing Binay and Poe in the polls, have denied having anything to do with David's action.
Poe has submitted a 107-page reply to David's challenge and asked the SET to throw out the case, asserting that she is a natural-born citizen of the Philippines.
She said the period for questioning her qualifications as senator had lapsed a long time ago. She pointed out that under the law, the qualifications of a senator could be questioned only within 10 days of proclamation.
Because the residency of senators is part of their qualifications, the SET rules are also clear that this could be questioned only within 10 days of proclamation, Poe said.
Poe was proclaimed on May 13, 2013. If her argument is valid, David's challenge comes two years beyond the prescribed period.
In the same reply, Poe also sought to turn the tables on David, telling the tribunal that he was guilty of forum shopping because before he went to the SET on Aug. 17 he filed on the same day a petition raising the same issues against her in the Comelec, making himself liable for direct contempt of court.
Although asking the SET to summarily dismiss the case, Poe brought a motion for preliminary hearing and another to cite David for contempt of court and counterclaim for indirect contempt of court.
She also submitted her birth certificate and other certificates from the Bureau of Immigration.
Lawyer Katrina Legarda, a women's and children's rights advocate, issued a statement on Thursday saying David's case was a form of discrimination against abandoned children.
Legarda said that if David's case were upheld, it would be tantamount to saying that abandoned children whose parents were unknown had no civil and political rights.
"If a foundling is not presumed natural born, then no abandoned child can ever aspire for national office," Legarda said.
This, she added, would be a violation of the equal protection of the law, because it would appear that there was now a distinction between an abandoned child whose parents were known and an abandoned child whose parents were unknown.
"You cannot have one law for abandoned children whose parents are known and another law for abandoned children whose parents are not known. This is discriminatory, violative of the equal protection of the law," she said.
Legarda also said she believes Poe satisfied the citizenship and residency requirements set in the 1987 Constitution for the Senate and even for higher office.
She said Poe, as an abandoned child "found" in Jaro, Iloilo province, in 1968, was a natural-born Filipino citizen because the framers of the 1935 Constitution, which was in effect at the time of her birth, recognised that foundlings found in the Philippines are Filipino citizens based on generally accepted principles of international law without further need of legislative action."
"There is no question that Poe is natural-born Filipino, as cited in a 1951 opinion of the Department of Justice that holds in force to this day, a foundling is a citizen of the place where he is found by virtue of the standing principles of international law," Legarda said.
According to Legarda, the documents submitted by Poe to the SET suggested that she has been living in the Philippines for at least 11 years.
Legarda explained that in the case of Poe, who lived in the United States for a number of years, "she followed the legal domicile of her husband because she is married; [and] there are different rights and obligations you have as married couples and she followed her husband, which is as it should be."
"She decided to come back here when her father died in 2004 and [her husband] followed her. This time it was his turn to follow her, and she said, 'I'm going to come back to live here because my mother is alone,'" Legarda said.