Making Sacred Cows Accountable: Impeachment as the Most Formidable Weapon in the Arsenal of Democracy

What is an impeachment? Was the Constitutional process fully complied with regard the impeachment complaint filed by the 188 members of the House of Representatives against Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona?

The Philippine democracy, young as it is, has weathered several challenges and has also given rise to a few innovations, so to speak. Among the more important ones is the concept and practice of “people power” which more than 25 years ago helped give back the power to the Filipino people and gave birth to the 1987 Philippine Constitution. Since then, despite certain weaknesses in the fundamental law and unfortunate abuse by officials, both appointed and elected, Philippine democracy has been “tried and tested” and constantly emerged victorious, embattled but reinforced. The cornerstone of this democracy is the fact that the electorate, the Filipino people are always considered to be the ultimate source of power and that public welfare is the be all and end all for all public officials. Thus, breaking the public trust, even by the highest officials of the land had always been met not only by criticism but by reformatory action, which although considered drastic is always within bounds of the law and supported by the people themselves.

We are at such a challenging juncture again, with the three departments of the government being required to step up to defend democratic institutions and more importantly, to draw the lines clearly on accountability and public service vis-à-vis impunity and blind obedience to sacred cows. The people endured almost a decade of discontent and have been ready to put a stop to the abuse of the system but roadblocks have apparently been left within our democratic institutions to deter change and perpetuate impunity. So, the public officials who wield the power must stand up to represent the people and act in their behalf. That, after all, is what we are here for: to represent the people because of the possible triumph of these actions within the bounds of justice and the law and despite the possible risks of taking unpopular actions against the powerful who refuse to be accountable.

That is what the impeachment process is all about, nothing more, nothing less. The House of Representatives is taking part in, leading this affront against a public official to make him answer to the people questions about his loyalties and capability of serving the public. It is not about disrespect for the judiciary, a co-equal branch which has time and again proven to be the most credible and which had held the torch for our nation and people throughout dark times. It is, in fact, about protecting that institution which e all revere and look to for firm guidance and resolute ascendancy. So, let no one be mistaken. We are supporting the efforts to purge the judiciary of powerful officials who denigrate the concept of public trust and we do this with the Constitution as our only non-negotiable guiding force and its provisions on Public Trust and Impeachment as our most formidable weapon. We are not looking for petty, baseless, unnecessary battles. We are fighting for the very reasons why our democracy survived. If the Chief Justice proves himself obedient to his oath and to be subservient only to the public trust, then all the better. After all, our only foe is public officials who refuse to abide by the fundamental law and to serve the people with independence and integrity.

What is impeachment?

Impeachment is a remedy sanctioned by the 1987 Constitution[1] for removing the President, the Vice-President, the Members of the Constitutional Commissions, the Ombudsman, and for purposes of this discussion, the Members of the Supreme Court. As the last bulwark of justice, the Supreme Court exists to administer justice and thus promote the unity of the country, the stability of government, and the well-being of the people.[2]

How is an impeachment initiated?

The House of Representatives shall have the exclusive power to initiate all cases of impeachment based on the following three (3) modes, to wit:

1. A verified complaint for impeachment filed by any Member of the House of Representatives;

2. A verified complaint for impeachment filed by any citizen upon a resolution of endorsement by any Member of the House of Representatives;

In both modes, the complaint shall be included in the Order of Business and referred to the proper committee for a hearing. By a majority vote of all its Members, it shall submit its report to the House. A vote of at least one-third of all the Members of the House may affirm a favorable resolution with the Articles of Impeachment of the Committee or override its contrary resolution.

3. A verified complaint or resolution of impeachment filed by at least one-third of all the Members of the House.

In the third mode, the complaint or resolution shall constitute the Articles of Impeachment, and the trial by the Senate shall proceed. Unlike the first two (2) modes, there is no need for a plenary discussion of the complaint in the House of Representatives.

The Senate shall have the sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment. The concurrence of a two-thirds vote of all the Members of the Senate is necessary to convict the respondent. Its judgment shall not extend further than removal from office and disqualification to hold any public office.

Was the initiation of the impeachment process in the House of Representatives railroaded?

No, it was conducted in accordance with the constitution and after compliance with the procedures therein. It should be borne in mind that the impeachment process is a political process. However, it does not necessarily mean that this particular impeachment effort was motivated by partisan politics or by ulterior motives on the part of the legislators who supported it.

The verified impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Corona, which was filed on 12 December 2011, was signed by 188 Members of the House of Representatives who come from different parties, with the common goal of pursuing accountability from our public officers who hold their post in public trust. The concurrence of more than the required one-third vote of all the Members of the House of Representatives automatically constituted the verified complaint as the Articles of Impeachment in accordance with the third mode cited above.

It is to be noted that the complaint against Chief Justice Corona differs from the previous impeachment complaint filed against former Ombudsman Merceditas Guttierez which was filed by Risa Hontiveros and endorsed by Representatives from the Akbayan Partylist. The latter complaint apparently used the second mode of impeachment process, hence the need to duly refer the complaint to the Justice Committee of the House of Representatives for proper deliberations.

It is not true that legislators were forced to assent to this or were lured with pork barrel funds to do so. This impeachment was carefully studied and the legislators supporting it are under the belief that an independent and competent Supreme Court deserves a Chief Justice who is subservient to no one else but the law and the people. To stand by and watch while the final arbiter of the law deteriorates and the Supreme Court loses credibility and integrity would be contrary to our sworn duty as legislators to look after the people’s welfare.

The successful impeachment proceedings at the House show that our Constitution is working and that the system of checks and balances among the three branches of government is in place. The impeachment proceeding was done for the very purpose of protecting our democratic institutions for which purpose, unfortunately, Chief Justice Corona failed to contribute. The impeachment trial at the Senate will help educate our people regarding democracy, the duties of public officials and will show them that there are legal means to remove officials of questionable integrity from office and to seek accountability.

*** A lawyer by profession, AKBAYAN Rep. Kaka Bag-ao was the Convenor of the Alternative Law Group (ALG), a network of NGOs providing legal support to marginalized communities. She was the legal counsel of the Sumilao farmers.

[1] Section 2-3, Article XI, 1987 Constitution.

[2] Preamble, Code of Judicial Conduct.