The ravages of impeachment

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FRANCISCO S. TATAD

FRANCISCO S. TATAD

THE committee on justice of the House of Representatives has found the impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon against Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno sufficient in form and in substance. This is the first step. If at least one-third of all the members of the House, which has the exclusive power to initiate all impeachment cases, support the complaint, it automatically goes to the Senate, which has the sole power to try and decide all impeachment cases. This would be the third impeachment case to reach the Senate in 17 years. It could either follow the path of the first two, or it could set a new record.

The first two impeachment trials—that of President Joseph Estrada in 2000, and that of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012—resulted more in a travesty of justice than in a genuine triumph of due process and the rule of law. Since 2000, this process has been influenced at least five times by a sitting President, an embattled Chief Justice, and corruptible and politically driven senator-judges. Should Sereno get impeached, we need to make sure that her Senate trial would not be attended by any of the anomalies that distorted the first two Senate proceedings.

The original purpose
Impeachment was conceived as a mechanism to ensure the accountability of certain constitutional officials who, by the sheer delicate nature of their official duties, are rendered free from criminal prosecution while in office. These include the President, the Vice President, the members of the Supreme Court, the members of the constitutional commissions, and the Ombudsman. They may all be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust. But during their term they may not be brought to court for any criminal offense.

Immunity from suit simply meant to protect the officials concerned from undue pressure and harassment from all sorts of vested interests while performing their constitutional duties. Impeachment provides the remedy if and when such immunity is abused. In the last 17 years, however, our less than principled politicians have managed to corrupt the process to advance their naked interests at the expense of the common good and the public interest. It all started with the impeachment of Estrada. This is extensively documented in my book, A Nation on Fire: The Unmaking of Joseph Ejercito Estrada and the Remaking of Democracy in the Philippines (Icon Press, Manila, 2002).


The Estrada impeachment
This was the first impeachment case to reach the Senate. Estrada had been impeached by the House for bribery, graft and corruption, betrayal of public trust and culpable violation of the Constitution, in acrimonious proceedings where a scuffle ensued on the floor as the two opposing sides fought for possession of the mace, the House’s symbol of authority, after Speaker Manuel Villar opened the session, read the justice committee report, ordered the secretary general to dispatch the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate, amid demands for order from some members, then unilaterally suspended the session without any motion from the floor, in violation of parliamentary procedure.

In the ensuing brawl, at least one congressman’s unguided hand landed on the face of the sergeant at arms. The incident made Villar a hero to the anti-Estrada crowd, but the House majority booted him out and elected Arnulfo Fuentebella of Camarines Sur as Speaker. It was in the Senate, however, where the rule of law and due process virtually came unstuck. This began with the framing of the rules that would govern the impeachment trial. Not having written any such rules before, we decided to copy the US Senate Rules on Impeachment, which appeared to have worked well for the US until the 1999 impeachment trial of President Clinton.

The right to speak
As Senate Majority Leader at the time I presided over the committee assigned to draft the rules. Our work proceeded smoothly until someone raised the senator-judges’ right to speak. In the US, a senator-judge who wishes to put a question to a witness, to a manager (prosecutor), or to the counsel of the person impeached, or who wishes to offer a motion or order, except a motion to adjourn, must put it in writing and submit it to the presiding officer, who will then put it to the party concerned. The senator himself or herself does not speak, and he or she may not engage or take part in colloquy.

For some of my Senate colleagues, this violated their right to free speech. They believed they should be heard and insisted on being heard. This provoked bitter debate, and for hours the drafting of the rules came to a halt. Faced with the prospect of having no rules at all for the trial that should proceed “forthwith,” the majority caved in to the demand of the minority who insisted on their right to speak. This was hailed as a victory of free speech, but it ultimately turned out to be a debasement of the impeachment process.

In both the Estrada and Corona trials, which were both covered live by television, the senator-judges spoke far more than the lawyers of the respondents, who could not even object to their most harebrained interventions just because they were “senator-judges”. At the beginning of, and well into the Estrada trial, where the senator-judges had taken an oath to render not just simple justice but “impartial justice,” at least 10 senator-judges publicly called for Estrada’s resignation, without feeling any need to subsequently inhibit themselves. They also cooperated with the prosecution in trying to gain admission of illegally procured evidence.

Prejudging the respondent
Two distinguished friends of mine tried to convince me to join the call for Erap’s resignation. I said as a senator-judge, sworn to deliver impartial justice in the impeachment trial, I could not and would not prejudge the respondent. “But you know he’s guilty, don’t you?” said one of them. “I don’t,” I said. “But assuming I do, I can only judge him guilty or not guilty on the basis of the evidence that’s brought against him in the trial, not on the basis of what I think I know.”

The plot to oust Estrada was bigger than the impeachment trial, and when the prosecution could not get the court to admit alleged evidence that had been volunteered by a private party without the benefit of a court subpoena, the prosecution walked out and took their case to the streets, and the presiding Chief Justice (Hilario Davide, Jr.), instead of calling the prosecutors back to the court, joined the anti-Estrada crowd at EDSA and administered the oath to Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as acting President. Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr. ended up holding the microphone for Mrs. Arroyo.

This was the first major blow to the impeachment process in 2000-2001.

The Davide impeachment bid
The second major blow came in 2003.

On October 23, 2003, Representatives Gilbert Teodoro of Tarlac and William Felix Fuentebella of Camarines filed an impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Davide for alleged misuse of the Judiciary Development Fund, and more than one-third of all the members of the House supported it—enough to send the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate for trial. But in a ruling penned by then Associate Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, now Ombudsman, the Supreme Court struck down the complaint as unconstitutional because of an earlier complaint filed against Davide by former President Estrada in June 2003 and dismissed on October 22, 2003.

Under the Constitution, “no impeachment proceedings shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a period of one year.” But the same Constitution provides that the House, not any private party, shall have the “exclusive power” to initiate all cases of impeachment. So, until the House transmits to the Senate the Articles of Impeachment against a particular respondent, no impeachment proceedings may be said to have been “initiated” against anybody. But the Morales ponencia saved Davide from certain impeachment; it also destroyed the impeachment process.

GMA’s impeach experience
The destructive effects of the Morales ponencia would become much clearer during Mrs. Arroyo’s presidency. In order to avoid getting impeached, amid rising calls for her ouster, GMA encouraged friendly but defective impeachment complaints filed against her so that after they were thrown out of the justice committee for being insufficient in form or in substance, she would have a full year with no worries about a serious complaint. She breezed through five annual impeachment attempts from 2005 through 2009, and managed to preside over an administration more substantial than Estrada’s and the succeeding one.

B.S. Aquino 3rd’s manipulation
But PNoy Aquino’s intervention takes the cake. Angered by the late former Chief Justice Renato Corona’s appointment to his post before he took office as President, Aquino showed hostility to the Chief Justice from the very start. He snubbed Corona at his inaugural, asked to be sworn into office by Morales and refused to acknowledge his mere presence. Then he attacked him in a public function hosted by the Supreme Court. After meeting with him, 188 congressmen signed an impeachment complaint against Corona without reading the document,

Eight Articles of Impeachment were sent to the Senate for trial. But the prosecution dropped five of the articles for lack of evidence, and focused on only one article out of the remaining three. The most active of the senator-judges acted like prosecutors, and Corona’s lawyers could not prevent their tendentious and irrelevant interventions and the introduction of illegally procured evidence. The trial began on January 16, 2012, and ended on May 29, 2012. Twenty voted to convict the respondent, three voted to acquit, but 19 of the 20 were each paid P50 million or more from Aquino’s so-called Disbursement Acceleration Program, which the Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional.

In my book, the bribery, officially confirmed by former senator Jinggoy Estrada and former budget secretary Florencio Abad, without any denials from any of those who have been named as its recipients, has rendered null and void the conviction and removal of Corona as Chief Justice. Even after his death, he deserves to be rehabilitated now. It also has rendered the senators who had been bribed absolutely unqualified to sit as senator-judges in any future impeachment trial. There may not be enough senators left to constitute an impeachment court.

DU30’s play
That’s not DU30’s only problem. Many seem to believe that Sereno’s impeachment, and possible conviction, will right the wrong done to Corona. I am not sure how that works, though. My sense is that if DU30 does to Sereno what PNoy did to Corona, he would merely ensure the total and permanent destruction of the justice system and the impeachment process. His minions have already shown us what they can do when they threw out the Magdalo impeachment complaint against him without a hearing; there is no need for them to show further what they can do to please their boss.

But this boss should try to rise above his predecessor and himself. He should have nothing to do with this impeachment case; let him leave it to the few honest men and women in the Senate, if there are any left, to give Sereno her day in court.

* * *

IN MEMORIAM. Fr. Romeo Intengan, S.J., former Father Provincial of the Society of Jesus, moral theologian and Filipino patriot, died in the peace of our Lord yesterday morning at 74…Erick San Juan, 65, indefatigable raconteur and news source, friend to working newspapermen, died October 8 and now lies in state at Aeternum Chapel at Heritage Park. Please offer a prayer for the repose of their souls. Thank you.

fstatad@gmail.com

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