In William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice, and in the award-winning film (starring Meryl Streep) based on that book, a mother is forced to decide which of her children will die during the war – in this case, World War II, when the Nazis moved to apply their final solution to the Jews.
This gripping piece of literature has had a profound impact on language and idioms. In English today, “Sophie’s choice” is applied to a choice where every alternative has significant negative consequences.
We are moved to recall Sophie’s anguish as we witness our Supreme Court chief justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, struggling with her excruciating decision whether to appear at or spurn the House impeachment hearing that will decide whether the House of Representatives will impeach her and force her to face trial.
The choices before her are stark.
The House has invited her to appear before the chamber so she can personally confront or rebut the persons who filed the impeachment complaint against her, as well as the witnesses arrayed against her.
If she decides to personally appear in Congress, Sereno can challenge directly the worthiness of the complaint against her.
But this is hard going. Besides giving her the chance to air her side, it also gives the complainants an opportunity to unveil everything, every piece of evidence that they have in their armory. It can be merciless on her reputation.
If she declines the House invitation, Sereno will forfeit her chance to make her case that there is no probable cause for her impeachment from office. The House can proceed to approve articles of impeachment against her, which will immediately become the basis for sending her case to the Senate for trial.
So far, Sereno’s strategy for dealing with her dilemma has been to assert her right to counsel at the House hearing, so her lawyers can challenge the witnesses against her. She wants a lawyer to do all the appearing for her, and gum up the proceedings as they are wont to do.
There is one big problem with this. An impeachment hearing is not a trial in our judicial system. Different rules apply. It is entirely a political process governed by House rules. Congress calls the shots. This is entirely constitutional.
The Constitution grants Congress the power of impeachment over the president, the vice president, top executive branch officials, and judicial officials.
To impeach means the House of Representatives charges a government official with an impeachable crime or crimes, and will bring him or her before Congress to determine the official’s guilt.
Impeachment is like a criminal indictment in which the House acts like a judge or grand jury and decides whether the person should be impeached. If a majority of the House votes to impeach, an impeachment trial is conducted in and by the Senate, which will then decide whether to convict or acquit.
Politically speaking, an impeachable offense is whatever the majority of the House considers impeachable.
Sereno is not the first Filipino chief justice to face the prospects of impeachment during her term in the High Court. Her predecessor, Chief Justice Renato Corona, was impeached by the House and then convicted by the Senate, in a sensational trial that was attended by controversy and foul tactics.
This sad historical background is itself a reason for anguish.