With Due Respect

Speeding up the impeachment trial

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Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile asked the prosecution and the defense to speed up the on-going impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona.

Some ways to speed up. As a start, I think the parties can shorten the proceeding by stipulating on the authenticity of certified true copies of public records, like certificates of titles, income tax returns, deeds of sale kept in the Registry of Deeds, etc. Supreme Court decisions published in the Philippine Reports need not be authenticated. Certified true copies of new ones that are not yet printed there should also suffice. How Chief Justice Corona voted in those decisions could easily be shown by the decisions themselves. No trial is needed.

Of course, if his ethical conduct is at issue, as when he allegedly discussed with Lauro Vizconde and Dante Jimenez a pending Supreme Court case (which is a subject of Article III), evidence is needed.

Since a finding of guilt in one article of impeachment is enough to oust the respondent, the prosecution could also save time by relying on three or four articles and waiving the rest. In fact, the Senate itself (after following Sen. Ralph Recto’s proposal to allow the defense to present its evidence sequentially with the prosecution) could also stop further presentation of evidence if in its opinion it could already render judgment on the basis of the evidence at hand.

Degree of proof. One question that probably boggles the prosecution is the degree of proof needed to convict. Should it be “beyond reasonable doubt” (the judicial standard used to decide criminal cases); or mere “preponderance of evidence” (used in civil cases); or “substantial evidence” (used in administrative cases)?

This question, I think, need not be answered because an impeachment is not a judicial case. Thus, it should not be decided according to judicial standards but according to Senate norms. If the Constitution wanted judicial standards to be used, then it should have lodged impeachment cases in a judicial body, like the Supreme Court. Also, it should have limited membership in the impeachment tribunal only to experienced jurists with proven competence in applying these standards.

But the Constitution allowed even non-lawyers to decide impeachment cases. As I wrote on January 8, an impeachment is sui generis; it is unique and is not comparable to any other proceeding. Since the Senate was granted the sole power to decide impeachments, it stands to reason that the Charter also gave the senators the sole discretion to choose whatever standard they deem proper. In his TV interviews, Senate President Enrile said this much.

Simple US system. In the United States from where our Constitution derived its concept of impeachment, the US Senate – when acting as an impeachment court – does not ape judicial processes. Thus, the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton did not even undergo the tedious hearings that are now being conducted here. The prosecutors, defense counsels and senators did not examine witnesses as they do here.S

More significantly, the trial took only five weeks. The US House of Representatives filed the complaint on Dec. 19, 1998. The Senate started its hearings on Jan. 7, 1999 and handed down its judgment on Feb. 12, 1999.

The proceedings were simple. Only three witnesses, Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan and Sidney Blumenthal, gave oral testimony. And they did not even testify before the entire Senate. Their oral depositions were merely taken and then reported in writing and in video clips to the entire Senate. While Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr presented 36 boxes of evidence before the US House, the documents were no longer authenticated in the Senate. And yet, no one complained of any violation of due process. Neither was there any attempt to get the US Supreme Court to intervene.

During the Senate hearings, the senators wrote their questions to the House “managers” (they were not called “prosecutors”). These questions were politely read aloud by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who presided over the hearings since the US president was on trial. By the way, the senators did not want to be called “jurors;” they were addressed as plain senators.

After hearing the closing arguments, the Senate voted to retain Clinton. Even if some senators believed he was guilty, they thought that the two articles of impeachment (lying under oath about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky; and, obstruction of justice) did not amount to treason, bribery or other high crimes, which are the grounds for impeachment under the US constitution. Neither did they involve his fitness or qualification to be president. Unlike here, betrayal of public trust (which is not a crime) is not a ground in the United States.

The senators relied heavily on the public opinion polls showing that Clinton continued to enjoy robust public approval despite his much-publicized impeachment. Otherwise stated, the people who were their principals wanted to retain Clinton despite his sexual dalliance.

I am not proposing that our Senate copy exactly the US procedure. All I am saying is that (1) our Senate has wide latitude to control and shorten the proceeding without running afoul of due process; (2) judicial standards need not be used in judging an impeachment; and (3) as the people’s alter egos, senators have wide discretion in deciding whether the respondent is still fit and qualified to continue occupying the highest judicial office in the land.

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