Operative fact doctrine

The doctrine of operative fact applies as a matter of equity and fair play. This doctrine nullifies the effects of an unconstitutional law or an executive act by recognizing that the existence of a statute prior to a determination of unconstitutionality is an operative fact and may have consequences that cannot always be ignored. It applies when a declaration of unconstitutionality will impose an undue burden on those who have relied on the invalid law.[1]In Hacienda Luisita v. PARC, the Supreme Court elucidated the meaning and scope of the operative fact doctrine, viz:
The “operative fact” doctrine is embodied in De Agbayani v. Court of Appeals, wherein it is stated that a legislative or executive act, prior to its being declared as unconstitutional by the courts, is valid and must be complied with, thus:

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This doctrine was reiterated in the more recent case of City of Makati v. Civil Service Commission, wherein we ruled that:

Moreover, we certainly cannot nullify the City Government’s order of suspension, as we have no reason to do so, much less retroactively apply such nullification to deprive private respondent of a compelling and valid reason for not filing the leave application. For as we have held, a void act though in law a mere scrap of paper nonetheless confers legitimacy upon past acts or omissions done in reliance thereof. Consequently, the existence of a statute or executive order prior to its being adjudged void is an operative fact to which legal consequences are attached. It would indeed be ghastly unfair to prevent private respondent from relying upon the order of suspension in lieu of a formal leave application.
The applicability of the operative fact doctrine to executive acts was further explicated by the Supreme Court in Rieta v. People, thus:
Petitioner contends that his arrest by virtue of Arrest Search and Seizure Order (ASSO) No. 4754 was invalid, as the law upon which it was predicated — General Order No. 60, issued by then President Ferdinand E. Marcos — was subsequently declared by the Court, in Tañada v. Tuvera, 33 to have no force and effect. Thus, he asserts, any evidence obtained pursuant thereto is inadmissible in evidence.

We do not agree. In Tañada, the Court addressed the possible effects of its declaration of the invalidity of various presidential issuances. Discussing therein how such a declaration might affect acts done on a presumption of their validity, the Court said:
“. . . In similar situations in the past this Court had taken the pragmatic and realistic course set forth in Chicot County Drainage District vs. Baxter Bank to wit:

‘The courts below have proceeded on the theory that the Act of Congress, having been found to be unconstitutional, was not a law; that it was inoperative, conferring no rights and imposing no duties, and hence affording no basis for the challenged decree. . . . It is quite clear, however, that such broad statements as to the effect of a determination of unconstitutionality must be taken with qualifications. The actual existence of a statute, prior to [the determination of its invalidity], is an operative fact and may have consequences which cannot justly be ignored. The past cannot always be erased by a new judicial declaration. The effect of the subsequent ruling as to invalidity may have to be considered in various aspects — with respect to particular conduct, private and official. Questions of rights claimed to have become vested, of status, of prior determinations deemed to have finality and acted upon accordingly, of public policy in the light of the nature both of the statute and of its previous application, demand examination. These questions are among the most difficult of those which have engaged the attention of courts, state and federal, and it is manifest from numerous decisions that an all-inclusive statement of a principle of absolute retroactive invalidity cannot be justified.’

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“Similarly, the implementation/enforcement of presidential decrees prior to their publication in the Official Gazette is ‘an operative fact which may have consequences which cannot be justly ignored. The past cannot always be erased by a new judicial declaration . . . that an all-inclusive statement of a principle of absolute retroactive invalidity cannot be justified.’”
The Chicot doctrine cited in Tañada advocates that, prior to the nullification of a statute, there is an imperative necessity of taking into account its actual existence as an operative fact negating the acceptance of “a principle of absolute retroactive invalidity.” Whatever was done while the legislative or the executive act was in operation should be duly recognized and presumed to be valid in all respects. The ASSO that was issued in 1979 under General Order No. 60 — long before our Decision in Tañada and the arrest of petitioner — is an operative fact that can no longer be disturbed or simply ignored. (citations omitted; emphasis in the original.)
Bearing in mind that PARC Resolution No. 89-12-2––an executive act––was declared invalid, the operative fact doctrine is clearly applicable.[2]

[1] Claudio S. Yap v. Thenamaris Ship’s Management and Intermare Maritime Agencies, Inc., G.R. No. 179532. May 30, 2011.
[2] Resolution dated November 22, 2011, G.R. No. 171101.

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