Impeachment and the Supreme Court
The impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona is scheduled to start today. The Constitution tells us that the Senate is the sole judge of all impeachment cases. Yet, even as the Corona lawyers will go to trial claiming that the articles of impeachment now with the Senate are invalid, lawyers have also gone to the Supreme Court seeking the invalidation of the same articles of impeachment. Will the Supreme Court entertain and decide the challenge?
I do not propose to predict what the Court will do. What I propose to do is to look into the impeachment cases under the 1987 Constitution and try to see to what extent the Supreme Court involved itself in these earlier cases.
The first of these is the impeachment case against Chief Justice Hilario Davide and the more recent one is the case against Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. In between was the impeachment case against President Joseph Estrada.
The Supreme Court has pointed out that there are two constitutional truths that need to be balanced. These are the doctrine of separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, and the corollary doctrine of checks and balances. The Court has affirmed that, “Taken together, these two fundamental doctrines of republican government, intended as they are to insure that governmental power is wielded only for the good of the people, mandate a relationship of interdependence and coordination among these branches where the delicate functions of enacting, interpreting and enforcing laws are harmonized to achieve a unity of governance, guided only by what is in the greater interest and well-being of the people.”
The basic facts of the earlier two cases were not disputed. There was a first impeachment complaint filed on June 2, 2003 against Davide. Four months later, or on Oct. 22, 2003, this first complaint was dismissed by the Committee on Justice. The following day, or on Oct. 23, 2003, a second complaint was filed. This second complaint was accompanied by a “Resolution of Endorsement/Impeachment” signed by at least one-third (1/3) of all the Members of the House of Representatives. Thus arose the constitutional issue: Did the second complaint violate Section 5 of Article XI of the Constitution which says that “No impeachment proceeding shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a period of one year”?
The main task of the Court was to determine the meaning of “initiating an impeachment proceeding.” The Court, in the exercise of its power to determine the meaning of the law, said that the initiation of an impeachment proceeding requires at least two steps, the filing of the complaint and its referral to committee. In this case, there was a first complaint filed which was not only referred to the justice committee but even dismissed. Clearly, what was filed after the dismissal of the first complaint was the first step in initiating a prohibited second proceeding within one year. No further action was taken by the House.
The subsequent case was the impeachment involving Ombudsman Gutierrez. It was an elaboration on the doctrine formulated in the Davide case. There were two complaints against Gutierrez filed on different dates but these were referred to the committee simultaneously. There was thus, according to the Court, the initiation only of a first proceeding—two complaints but one referral. But the case did not go any further because Gutierrez resigned.
In the case of Estrada, although the impeachment went to a Senate trial, it was not settled by the Senate because People Power ensued.
It is noteworthy, however, that in both the Davide and Gutierrez cases the Court clearly asserted that it was within the power of the Court to determine whether there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of the House. The Court said that the power of judicial review of the Philippine Supreme Court was broader than the power of its American counterpart. To the contention that the exercise of judicial review over impeachment proceedings would upset the system of checks and balances, the Court gave a motherhood reply: “Verily, the Constitution is to be interpreted as a whole and ‘one section is not to be allowed to defeat another.’ Both are integral components of the calibrated system of independence and interdependence that insures that no branch of government act beyond the powers assigned to it by the Constitution.”
In the Davide case, the Court nullified the action of the House of Representatives. Initiating a second impeachment proceeding was found to be a violation of the Constitution and therefore a grave abuse of discretion on the part of the House. But in the Gutierrez case, the validity of the filing of two complaints was upheld and no other action was found to be a grave abuse of discretion. Neither case, however, reached the Senate.
Now, however, the Corona case is with the Senate. The senators have had their robes tailored. According to the Constitution, the Senate, with or without robes, is “the sole judge of all impeachment cases.” Meanwhile a case challenging the validity of the complaint, essentially on the basis of grave abuse of discretion, has been filed with the Supreme Court.
Should the Court now leave the matter to the Senate to decide, or should the Court reach out to what is now with the Senate and exercise its power of judicial review? In the event that the Supreme Court should declare the House action unconstitutional and issue a restraining order, what will happen? Should or will the Senate bow? If not, how will the Court, armed with neither money nor guns, implement its decision? Alas, none of the previous cases answers these questions. These are interesting times, indeed!
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