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San Juan Gossip Mills Outlet

A veritable fanatic of the Internet. His avocation is teaching while his main vocation is practicing the much maligned law profession. Currently teaching Constitutional Law at the FEU Institute of Law and a guest lecturer at the De La Salle University teaching "Freedom and Regulation in Cyberspace" in the Graduate Program of the Department of Communication. He is married to his beautiful Ateneo law school classmate and is blessed with a daughter and a son.

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Location: San Juan, Metro Manila, Philippines

Thursday, July 21, 2005

GMA WARS: Episode I - The Impeachment Menace

Now that impeachment is upon us, it would do well to educate ourselves what impeachment is all about. Impeachment is found in the 1987 Constitution under Article XI - Accountability of Public Officers.

For starters, impeachment is a constitutional mechanism whose sole purpose is to remove the diseased element in government and to prevent further abuse of power. Impeachment was originally conceived and applied in England and its penalty was not mere removal. It included incarceration in the Tower of London or on occasion, beheading. But when the Americans copied it from the British, they limited the sanction of impeachment to removal from office. Of course, since we Filipinos have a mental colony or rather, colonial mentality, we substantially copied the US constitutional provisions on impeachment.

As a removal mechanism, our Constitution limits impeachment to the following government officials: GMA (President), Kabayan (Vice-President), Chief Justice Hilario Davide and the brethren (Supreme Court), Constitutional Commissions such as Chairman Abalos and the other COMELEC commissioners (COMELEC), Mrs. [Karina?]Constantino-David (Civil Service Commission), the Commission on Audit and Simeon Marcelo (Ombudsman). The rest of the bureaucracy is removed in accordance with law.

As grounds for impeachment, an officer can be removed for culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust. These are what we call impeachable offenses. While there are specific definitions to each impeachable offense, the single thread connecting all these offenses, according to Harvard Law Prof. Laurence Tribe, is that the offenses must "entail subversion of the constitutional order or involve serious abuses of official power". And when the Constitutional Commissioners of the 1987 Constitution were debating on the definition of betrayal of public trust, they deliberately excluded habitual drunkenness from its scope. Apparently, prescience was not one of the better talents of Fr. Bernas and the Commissioners. Otherwise, we need not have gone to the streets and do an EDSA DOS. The senators could have just convicted Erap of being an habitual drunkard and promptly removed him from office. No need for the second envelope. But as always, hindsight is 20/20.

Thus, not all crimes committed by the President can be a ground for impeachment. For instance, during the House Judiciary Committee hearings on the Watergate scandal, the committee members rejected as an article of impeachment the charge that Nixon submitted falsified tax returns in violation of federal criminal laws. In a much earlier case, Vice-President Aaron Burr was not impeached for murdering Alexander Hamilton in a duel. If anything, the American experience would show that criminality is not synonymous with impeachability.

As to how it is commenced and pertinent to the Philippine situation, impeachment is commenced in two ways: (1) if a sworn impeachment complaint is signed by at least one-third of all the members of the House of Representatives. This is the shorter method; or (2) any person (including Attys. Lozano and Pamatong) or any congressman files a sworn complaint before the House of Representatives alleging the impeachable offense or offenses committed by the President.

As a procedural barrier and protection against baseless suits, an impeachment complaint can be entertained only once within a period of one year from filing. This constitutional provision was elucidated further by the Supreme Court in the impeachment case against Chief Justice Hilario Davide.

After the complaint is filed, it is referred to House Committee on Justice which will evaluate the charges. Based on news accounts, the opposition has prepared several charges as grounds for impeachment. The mandate of the committee will be to winnow the chaff from the grain. In other words, it will determine whether the facts so alleged in the complaint do constitute an impeachable offense. Thus, not all the charges filed may be approved. In the Clinton case, 11 charges were brought by Kenneth Starr against Mr. Clinton but only 4 charges were approved by the House Judiciary Committee to become the Articles of Impeachment. As an interesting aside and in our jurisdiction, it was during the Justice Committee hearings on the Erap impeachment complaint that we first heard the mellifluous but malefascent voice of the congressman from Maguindanao, Mr. Digs Dilangalen, of the eventual "SHUT UP SHUT UP" fame. I understand Manolo has in his possession a wiretapped conversation between the former President Estrada and Digs.

If warranted by a majority vote of its committee members, it will refer its report to the House which will calendar the resolution and the Articles of Impeachment for deliberation. A vote of one-third of all the members of the House will be required to approve the impeachment resolution which will become the Articles of Impeachment. Once the required vote is secured, the President is considered impeached. Subsequent thereto, the Articles of Impeachment are endorsed and sent to the Senate for deliberation and trial.

(Next - GMA WARS: Episode II - The Attack of the Judges)

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