A unique Republic of Impeachments?

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FRANCISCO S. TATAD

FRANCISCO S. TATAD

IMPEACHMENT complaints have been filed in the House of Representatives against Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Andres Bautista and Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on different grounds, while certain other parties are talking of filing similar complaints against Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and Vice President Leni Robredo on various grounds. Not all of them may prosper. But should more than one of them mature into triable cases, we would be seeing something unprecedented in the whole storybook of impeachment. Ours could become the first Republic of Impeachments.

Impeachment is a politico-judicial process by means of which certain officials, who may not under the Constitution be charged with any criminal offense while in office, may be removed for culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust. The House has “the exclusive power to initiate all cases of impeachment,” and the Senate “the sole power to try and decide all such cases”. Other than the President, the Vice President, the members of the Supreme Court, the Comelec, the Civil Service Commission, and the Commission on Audit, and the Ombudsman, no one else may be subjected to impeachment.

Our impeachment experience
Noble and high-minded as its original purpose may be, the impeachment process has been subverted and misused since 2000-2001. At President Joseph Estrada’s impeachment trial, at least eight of the 21 senator-judges, who had taken an oath to render “impartial justice,” publicly called for the respondent’s resignation while the trial was going on. Many of the senator-judges conducted themselves as prosecutors, without being restrained by the Supreme Court Chief Justice, who presided over the proceedings.

When the prosecutors walked out after they failed to introduce into the proceedings an envelope which outside parties had volunteered without need of a court subpoena, Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. not only failed to summon them back to court, but even joined the protest crowd at EDSA and swore in Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as acting President, without the presidency having been first vacated. Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr., who had threatened an empty resignation (“as soon as my successor is elected”) after 11 of the senator judges denied the prosecutors’ motion, ended holding the microphone for Mrs. Arroyo during her oath-taking, while her military aide, who might have done a less conspicuous job, stood by.


The eventual filing of non-bailable charges against Estrada, his consequent prolonged detention at the Veterans Medical Center, and Arroyo’s controversial electoral victory over the immensely popular Fernando Poe Jr. in 2004, which gave her a chance to pardon Estrada upon his conviction of plunder by the Sandiganbayan, put everything about the botched impeachment trial behind the new political reality, but the impeachment process as such remained scarred.

The Supreme Court strikes
In June 2003, Estrada filed an impeachment complaint against Davide. On October 22, 2003, the House committee on justice threw it out. The next day, Representatives Gilbert Teodoro Jr. of Tarlac and Felix William “Wimpy” Fuentebella of Camarines Sur filed a new complaint against Davide for his alleged misuse of the Judiciary Development Fund. It was a well-documented complaint, and very quickly, it was endorsed by more than one-third of the members of the House—the minimum number required to transmit the articles of impeachment from the House to the Senate for trial, without floor debates.

But the Supreme Court, acting in defense of its Chief Justice, struck down the impeachment complaint as “unconstitutional,” on the ground that under Section 3, paragraph 5, Article XI of the Constitution, “no impeachment proceedings shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a period of one year.” The ruling, penned by then Associate Justice Conchita Carpio Morales, now Ombudsman, held that after the Estrada abortive complaint, Davide could no longer be subjected to an impeachment proceeding for a period of one year. This struck some constitutional experts as a deliberate misreading of the Constitution.

As written in the law, the House alone “initiates” all impeachment proceedings. This happens when it transmits a verified impeachment complaint to the Senate for trial. Estrada’s complaint failed to develop into an impeachment case or proceeding against Davide, so the court could not say by trying Davide on the Teodoro-Fuentebellacomplaint, he would be subjected to two impeachment “proceedings” within one year. But the Carpio-Morales ponencia not only saved Davide from an open-and-shut case, which could have cut short his judicial career, and prevented him from occupying the position of Permanent Representative to the UN later, in violation of the Foreign Service Act and without being confirmed by the Commission on Appointments. It also damaged the law on impeachment.

GMA uses the SC ruling
This would become manifest during GMA’s elected term. In 2005, Arroyo’s supporters helped her overcome the first impeachment threat against her by filing an insufficient complaint which the House committee on justice was certain to dismiss; as soon as this happened, no serious impeachment complaint could be filed against her for a period of one year. This allowed her to beat the recurring impeachment threats against her until 2009.

In 2010, B. S. Aquino 3rd became the nation’s first “machine-elected” president. He had grievances against the Arroyo administration, and he swiftly set out to settle them by having Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez impeached by his allies in the House for betrayal of public trust on March 22, 2011. Fearing a one-sided Senate impeachment trial, Gutierrez resigned on April 29, 2011, thereby allowing Aquino to appoint Justice Carpio-Morales as the new Ombudsman. Morales had earlier gained public notice when Aquino chose her to swear him into office on June 30, 2010, in lieu of the Chief Justice, who traditionally swore in the President.

Aquino’s turn
On December 12,2011, 188 congressmen, after meeting with Aquino, who had expressed his displeasure against Chief Justice Renato Corona, signed an impeachment complaint against the latter, without perusing the document. It contained eight articles of impeachment and was transmitted to the Senate the next day for trial. The trial began on January 16, 2012, with the prosecution excluding five of the eight charges for lack of evidence, leaving only three, but ultimately concentrating on only one.

The trial concluded on May 29, 2012, after Malacañang released P50 million or more to each, except one, of the 20 senator-judges, who ultimately voted to convict Corona. The bribery was revealed in a privilege speech by Sen. Jinggoy Estrada in September 2013 and confirmed by then Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad, who said P1.107 billion was released to the senators from Aquino’s so-called Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), which the Supreme Court later struck down as “unconstitutional”.

Senators Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and the late Senators Joker Arroyo and Miriam Defensor Santiago all voted to acquit Corona and received nothing; Sen. PanfiloLacson was the only senator who voted to convict, but also got nothing.

Corona’s trial invalidated
The admitted bribery should have invalidated the Senate ruling, and provided sufficient ground to reinstate Corona. But Aquino quickly appointed Sereno, a Supreme Court newcomer, to Corona’s position, and Corona died on April 29, 2016, before his lawyers could come up with the appropriate petition. Many of the 19 senators who had taken bribes to convict Corona are still in the Senate, without having been formally charged with any crime. In case any of the impeachment complaints prospers into a Senate proceeding, they will once again be acting as “senator-judges”. How long can this travesty go on?

Except for Robredo whose legitimacy remains under question before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, but who, aside from that, has not, in the view of many, committed any impeachable offense, the others who are now the subject of an actual or impending impeachment complaint deserve to be given the opportunity to respond to the allegations against them, without the President weighing in. But who can assure them this?

Hands-off policy?
Malacañang continues to announce a “hands-off” policy on the impeachment complaints, but the best-known secret is that DU30 had reportedly given his imprimatur before any of the complaints were filed. On the Ombudsman’s proposed impeachment, it was earlier reported that DU30 had some misgivings, because Carpio Morales’ nephew Maneses is married to DU30’s daughter Sara, who is the mayor of Davao City. But he wants to appoint his own Ombudsman, and she claims she is entitled to a full seven-year term, not just the unexpired portion of her predecessor’s term. She says this is what the law says, but DU30 points out, the Constitution does not agree with her.

In the end, whatever DU30 wants, as in his war on drugs, will decide who will be impeached and who will be spared. For he remains in control of all the variables. Just look at what happened to the Magdalo impeachment complaint against him. DU30 has committed all the impeachable offenses which should prompt an independent and impartial House to transmit the appropriate articles to the Senate for trial. But the Magdalo complaint was summarily thrown out of the House justice committee without a full hearing.

An unreasonable burden
The only thing I see that could prevent the simultaneous or serial impeachment and trial of Comelec Chairman Bautista, Chief Justice Sereno and Ombudsman Carpio Morales is the Senate’s capability as an impeachment court to try three or even just two cases at the same time. If the Senate could bear this load, doing so would have the singular benefit of keeping the senators out of the obscene and deranged business of monkeying around with “inverted federalism,” which DU30 and his sycophants seem so eager to railroad through this puppet Congress without any real effort to make the people at their level understand the serious issues involved.

But knowing the carrying capacity of our mediocre institutions and their members, my real fear is that it would be imposing upon the Senate and its members a burden far beyond their capacity to bear.

fstatad@gmail.com

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