SOMEONE ELSE’S WINDOWS: Notes on impeachment

1st of two parts

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/19 January) – Day 3 of the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona highlighted a core issue that remains hotly debated within the legal profession and even by non-lawyers: how exactly does an impeachment case relate to the concept of the legislature and judiciary as co-equal branches of government along with the executive branch? More to the point, can the Supreme Court intervene in actions done by the Senate as an impeachment court?

Lawyers appear to be divided on this question. Some are of the opinion that the Senate, sitting as an impeachment court,  has the sole prerogative over the conduct of the trial which, although following established judicial procedures, is in essence a political undertaking. Others contend the Supreme Court may invoke its power as the highest court of the land, and can in fact go as far as ordering the impeachment court to stop the trial altogether. This is the message that lawyers Homobono Adaza and Allan Paguia wanted to convey when they asked the Supreme Court to issue a temporary restraining order on the trial.

The Supreme Court, for the moment at least, has kept a hands-down attitude. But in the January 18 hearing, the issue came up front when Attorney Enriqueta Vidal, Clerk of Court of the Supreme Court, refused at first to provide the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth of Corona, which are under her custody. Vidal said she could not submit the SALNs to the Senate lest she would be sanctioned, as she would be violating a 1989 rule that requires authorization for the release of such documents to the public.

Saying she was in a quandary because she was ordered by the impeachment court [to produce the SALNs] and bound at the same time by the Supreme Court’s internal rules, she asked that she be allowed to seek first the authorization of his office. In the end, however, Vidal yielded to the wishes of the Senate. By pressuring Vidal into surrendering Corona’s SALNs, the
senator-judges – except for Senator Joker Arroyo who suggested giving the witness a day to secure the Supreme Court’s permission to avoid a possible showdown between the two branches of government – they were essentially issuing a warning that nothing and no one may stand in the way of the trial until its conclusion.

They were not just ordering Vidal; at the risk of colliding with the Supreme Court, they were asserting their authority as the people’s representatives tasked with investigating a high official who is being accused of grave misconduct.
For his part, it was clear that Arroyo simply wanted a diplomatic way out of the dilemma. It just happened that Vidal submitted to the Senate’s wish, otherwise, a problem would have arisen. That brings us back to the question of whether the Supreme Court may have the last word on issues surrounding an impeachment case. Common  decency and the time-honored sense of delicadeza tell us that since one of its own is the respondent in this case, the high tribunal should refrain from interfering.

But how should this question be settled from a historical and philosophical viewpoint, and even from common logic that, it must be presumed, most people, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, possess? (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at [email protected])

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