Impeach me, impeach me not
Multiple impeachment complaints have been filed or are poised for filing against four ranking officials. Impeachment charges have been filed against Vice President Leni Robredo, Commission on Elections Chair Andres Bautista, and Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. A fourth complaint awaits filing against Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales.
Numerous issues surround these complaints, including accusations of partisan political motives, questions on the credibility of the complainants and their lawmaker-endorsers, and doubts on legal merits.
The issue of partisan motives pertains to accusations that these complaints are intended to silence dissent, disable inquiries into presidential abuse of power, and help make Ferdinand Marcos Jr. become vice president. The credibility questions revolve around allegations that the complainants are political mercenaries and their endorsers are the President’s allies.
The arguments on motive and credibility are heated and robust, and rightly so considering the unprecedented number of these impeachment initiatives. But what is deficient in the public discussion is a legal diagnostic of the merits of each complaint. Questions on motive and credibility are drowning out issues of merit in the spirited exchanges.
In our history, the impeachment trial of then Chief Justice Renato Corona is the only impeachment case that ended with a final decision. It serves as a guide in separating grain from chaff in this wholesale filing of impeachment complaints. I was part of the team of private lawyers that provided legal support to the congressmen-prosecutors in Corona’s trial. I was present when he took the witness stand, read his statement, and hurriedly left to deprive the senator-judges the opportunity to question him. This solidified public opinion against Corona and helped sway the decisions of skeptical senators.
So what does a legal diagnostic of the multiple impeachment complaints yield?
The complaint against Robredo is based on her sending to the United Nations a video criticizing President Duterte’s bloody war on drugs. The act attributed to her is a valid exercise of her constitutional right to free expression and does not amount to a culpable violation of the Constitution. President Duterte is far guilty of culpable violation of the Constitution if misuse of the right to free expression is the yardstick.
The reported grounds that will be used against the Ombudsman relate to her alleged selective prosecution of cases and inordinate delays or failure to act on pending complaints. These supposed violations are within the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals, the Sandiganbayan, and the Supreme Court. In fact, these judicial bodies have affirmed or reversed the decisions and claimed inaction of the Ombudsman on issues of alleged delay and arbitrary prosecution. Congress usurps the powers of these judicial bodies if it proceeds with impeachment using these grounds.
The complaints against Robredo and Morales are both without merit and should be dismissed for insufficiency of substance.
The noteworthy grounds against Comelec Chair Bautista and Chief Justice Sereno pertain to their alleged hidden wealth which they did not declare in their respective statements of assets, liabilities and net worth. Bautista’s wife accuses him of maintaining hundreds of millions of pesos in secret bank accounts. Sereno is accused of not declaring $745,000 or P37 million in lawyer’s fees she received in the Piatco arbitration case. These grounds are similar to the grounds used to impeach Corona.
The complaints against both Bautista and Sereno are, on their face, “sufficient in substance” and merit requiring both to
answer the charges.
In the Corona impeachment trial, the case had to rise or fall based on its legal merits, and despite issues of motive and credibility. Corona’s trial was thick with political motives and questions of credibility in the beginning, but when it became clear that he had hidden wealth undeclared in his SALN, merit trumped motive and credibility.
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