SOMEONE ELSE’S WINDOWS: Notes on impeachment

Second of two parts

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/20 January) — Impeachment, a process that is used to charge, try and remove public officials for misconduct while in office, is a power exclusively belonging to Congress. The grounds for impeachment are based on Article XI, Section 2 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution which states: “The President, the Vice-President, the Members of the Supreme Court, the Members of the Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman may be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitutions, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.”

Impeachment, called in early days “the most powerful weapon in the political armory, short of civil war,” dates to ancient Greece, Athens in particular. (Again, note the word “political.”) The Philippines borrowed the concept from the US, which in reality was influenced by how it was applied in Great Britain, the originator of the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Hence, in both English and American traditions, the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” refers to acts that cause damage to the state, including “betrayal of trust.” In fact, the Judiciary Committee, in a 1974 report related to the Watergate crisis involving former US president Richard Nixon, stressed that “impeachment was one of the tools used by English Parliament to create more responsive and responsible government and to redress imbalances when they occurred.”

The same report noted: “The phrase ‘high Crimes and Misdemeanors’ was confined to parliamentary impeachments; it had no roots in the ordinary criminal law, and the particular allegations of misconduct under that heading were not necessarily limited to common law or statutory derelictions or crimes.”

Much earlier, in 1833, Justice Joseph Story had expounded on why impeachment applies to offenses of a political character. In his “Commentaries on the Constitution,” Story argued that impeachment has a more enlarged operation, and covers offenses “growing out of personal misconduct or gross neglect, or usurpation, or habitual disregard of the public interests, various in their character, and so indefinable in their actual involutions, that it is almost impossible to provide systematically for them by positive law.”

He further argued that such offenses “do not properly belong to the judicial character in the ordinary administration of justice, and are far removed from the reach of municipal jurisprudence” and must therefore be examined “upon very broad and comprehensive principles of public policy and duty,” or in plain words, by a wide range of circumstances that may either aggravate or justify the offenses alleged.

Since the framers of the Philippine Constitution simply adopted the principles of impeachment from a country whose legal system has greatly influenced ours, it is hardly imaginable that they did so for a reason substantially different from that used by those we borrowed it from.

Interestingly, in English legal practice, the phrase “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” carries a special, non-criminal meaning. Why is this so? The Judiciary Committee explained:

“A requirement of criminality would be incompatible with the intent of the framers to provide a mechanism broad enough to maintain the integrity of constitutional government. Impeachment is a constitutional safety valve; to fulfill this function, it must be flexible enough to cope with exigencies not now foreseeable.”

From these premises, it now becomes clear that impeachment cannot and should not be viewed as akin to either a civil or criminal case. Otherwise, the framers of the constitution would not have made the extra effort of putting something in the highest law of the land that can be addressed by ordinary judicial proceedings. Offenses alleged in an impeachment case are to be judged based not on the rigors of the rules of evidence but on the basis of whether the impeached officials have indeed violated their oath of office or undermined public confidence.

One question remains unanswered: Can the Supreme Court stop the Senate from continuing with the trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona based on the argument that it is a co-equal branch of government tasked to settle with finality all questions of law brought before it?

It is misleading to appreciate the impeachment trial from the perspective of check and balance of powers between the three branches of government. One must note that the Senate is functioning not as a legislative body but as a court, an impeachment court, mandated by the Constitution. It is doing so as elected representatives of the sovereign people. In other words, it is actually the people themselves, speaking through the senator-judges, who are putting Corona on trial.

Only one thing can make the Supreme Court stop the trial: they have to prove they are above the people. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at [email protected])