THE historian Barbara Tuchman first described the removal power of Congress (concerning high officials) as “the nettle of impeachment”. By that, she suggested that the proceeding is like the wild plant whose serrated, hairy leaves are stinging to the touch. The process is fraught with controversy.
The English idiom “grasp the nettle” means “to do something difficult with boldness and courage.”
We need such boldness now from the House of Representatives in the 17th Congress in tackling the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
Rival political forces and parties are pulling the chamber hither and thither in contrary and confusing directions.
One group contends that the House has already decided that the complaint filed by lawyer Larry Gadon is sufficient in form and substance for the chamber to proceed to write the articles of impeachment and thereafter send the case to the Senate for trial.
Another group wants to subject the complaint to review and debate all over again, so that the CJ can bring arguments on her behalf into the discussion, even after she spurned an invitation for her to face her accusers in the House.
A third group believes that the case needs more study and review, so they moved that the House conduct hearings to determine “probable cause” for the impeachment complaint.
Necessary purgative process
You might say that I represent a fourth line of thinking—the belief that the Sereno impeachment case is a necessary purgative process for our constitutional system, because of the perversion of the impeachment process by President Benigno Aquino 3rd and Congress in the impeachment of the late Chief Justice Renato Corona.
The Aquino administration’s suborning of witnesses, bribery of senator-jurors and the naked abuse of the power of government agencies have not been subjected to scrutiny by the new government, let alone punished.
The issue of CJ Sereno’s real qualifications for the highest post in the judiciary, without sitting for a single day on the bench, and without handing down judicial decisions that might reflect her legal acumen and wisdom on the law, and the rush-rush manner whereby she was shoehorned into the post of chief justice, were never subjected to review.
I am glad that Gadon and other groups moved to file impeachment complaints against CJ Sereno, because if a case prospers and proceeds to trial, then the nation can conduct independently a review of the unfortunate Corona case.
This way, I figure that my diligence in watching every day on TV the Corona impeachment trial would not be entirely mistaken. My only regret is that I was not working as a journalist-columnist at the time of the trial, and I could not publish my thoughts and expletives on the many abominations and idiocies that occurred during the proceedings. At the time, my pen was inescapably engaged in other work. I was thus only a citizen-watcher of Corona’s crucifixion by Benigno Aquino 3rd and his political allies.
The Constitution on impeachment
In Article XI, “the accountability of public officers”, the Constitution sets down both 1) a procedure to be followed for impeachments, and 2) a substantive standard by which impeachments should be judged.
Procedurally, an impeachment can be brought by at least one-third of the House of Representatives against certain high officials of the executive and the judiciary. Any member of the House or any citizen can file a verified complaint for impeachment against designated executive or judicial officials.
In practice, the House investigates whether impeachment charges would be warranted. If it determines that charges are warranted, articles of impeachment are drafted that specify the various charges against the officer in question and those are voted on by the whole House. Once the Senate receives the articles of impeachment from the House, it organizes itself into a court.
Senators take an oath to do “impartial justice according to the Constitution and the laws” when sitting as judges in the impeachment court.
At the conclusion of the trial, the members of the Senate must vote on each individual article of impeachment. Conviction requires a guilty verdict from two-thirds of the participating senators. Upon conviction, the Senate may impose a punishment of removal from office or disqualification from any future office in the republic.
Undertaking an impeachment case against a high official is no small matter; it should not be approached as if it were simply a technical application of the law. An impeachment will dominate the political agenda for months and throw the government, or a specific institution, into disarray.
Sereno’s PR blitz
To persuade Congress not to push through with the articles of impeachment against her, CJ Sereno and her lawyers have approached the challenge as essentially a public relations problem—she plays the innocent victim and she paints the president and the House speaker as the villain.
Sereno has made numerous TV appearances and gotten supportive interviews by broadcast hosts Winnie Monsod and Karen Davila, who took turns throwing softballs to her.
What is her message?
“I know that the truth is on my side,” she intoned.
Sereno stressed that she has been honest in her work as chief magistrate and she believes that the impeachment complaint against her will not succeed.
But then she must confront the fact that the impeachment complaint has already been found to be “sufficient in form and substance” and will probably receive the same verdict again.
Sereno’s tag team has also tried discrediting Gadon by charging that he has no proof to substantiate his complaint. Gadon, who can talk just as well on TV, has a potent response. What could be better than certified documents showing that Sereno falsified Supreme Court resolutions?
Most unsettling for Sereno is the fact that some of her fellow justices may testify against her at the House hearing.
Chief justice until 2030
The case will become really problematic for Sereno when the discussion turns to her worthiness to sit as chief justice of the Supreme Court.
In Sec. 7. Article VIII, the Constitution provides that “a member of the Supreme Court must have been for 15 years or more a judge of a lower court or engaged in the practice of law in the Philippines.”
Yet, CJ Sereno has not served a single day in the bench, prior to being named a member of the Court. It is apparent that CJ Sereno made her time teaching law a substitute for experience on the bench.
Her career trajectory is typical of many Filipino lawyers. They make law practice and teaching a short cut to entry into the Supreme Court, by milking connections to the appointing power.
With Aquino as president, and his belief in cronyism as a religion, it was easy for Sereno to insinuate herself as a substitute for Corona, once Aquino’s dark project succeeded. As a classmate at the Ateneo and as a woman, he idea of her becoming the first woman chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court was irresistible.
But now, here’s the catch. Many of Sereno’s peers are unconvinced that she has the chops to be a good chief justice. Many citizens are not persuaded that she got her post on merit.
All are mortified by the thought that Sereno will be chief justice up to 2030, when she will finally be aged enough to depart.
In this light, impeachment is a solution.