More political than legal
Many commentators and analysts believe and profess that impeachment is a legal and judicial matter decided mainly by strict legalisms. By its nature however, impeachment belongs more to the people than to lawyers; more to public wisdom than to legalisms. An impeachment proceeding is sui generis; has its own unique genre, and is equal to no other.
Non-judicial tribunals. True, the Constitution lays down the parameters of impeachment in unmistakable legal language. True also, it limits impeachment only to the highest officials who cannot be reached by the ordinary methods of public discipline. In similarly unmistakable legalese, it provides the grounds for and the general procedure by which impeachment cases are to be initiated, tried and decided; thereby giving the false impression that impeachment is the lawyers’ domain.
Note, however, the Constitution lodged the power to initiate and to decide impeachment cases in non-judicial tribunals composed mostly of non-lawyers and non-jurists; impeachment is exclusively initiated by the House of Representatives, not by regular prosecution agencies, like the Department of Justice and the Office of the Ombudsman. It is solely tried and decided by the Senate, not by courts of justice.
If impeachment were mainly a legal matter, then the power to try and decide should have been granted to the Supreme Court. Or to some other body composed of jurists or lawyers who must not only be trained in the labyrinths of law for at least 15 years but also—to quote the Constitution—be “person(s) of proven competence, integrity, probity and independence,” qualities required of Supreme Court justices.
Litmus test. To stress, the power to initiate impeachment cases has been given to the House of Representatives, while the power to try and to decide has been granted to the Senate. Both bodies are composed mostly of humans who—despite their varied education, calling and social status—had been chosen by our people to be their alter egos to enact laws and to oust high officials who have become unworthy of their trust.
Legislators are thus expected to discharge their duties as our people’s trustees, not as pseudo-lawyers. When they initiate or decide impeachment cases, they carry the public weal first and foremost. They look at impeachment cases not through the prism of strict legalism (which many of them do not and are not required to possess), but through democratic lenses that our people expect them to have.
In the end, the litmus test of an impeachment is policy-oriented: will the people and the nation be better served by retaining or by ousting impeached officials? Reason and logic, emotion and passion there will be, but the decision of the people’s alter egos will always be justified by their sense of what is advantageous and beneficial to the country. They bear the people’s aspirations and ambitions; their pains and frustrations; their sense of right and wrong. And they will act according to that innate sense of right and wrong.
In short, impeachment may be legal in its processes but it is political in its substance; it may show a veneer of technicalities but it has an imbedded core of public wisdom. It may be coached in hifalutin’ legalisms, but its essence is encapsulated in simple common sense.
Three examples. Let me give three examples to show that impeachment belongs to the people, not to lawyers. First, unlike judicial trials, impeachment hearings are open to mass media, particularly to live television and radio coverage. The search for truth is wider and the rules in obtaining and appreciating evidence are more liberal.
Because of this openness, people inevitably become an integral part of an impeachment trial. The people’s evaluation of what they see and hear during the trial solidifies into public opinion that is caught by poll surveys.
Inevitably, the people ingest this public sense of an impeachment trial. When the search for truth is blocked by incomprehensible legalities or technicalities, our people feel shortchanged and tend to settle the dispute with the power of crowds. This was what happened when the Senate refused, on technical grounds, to open the second envelope during the impeachment trial of former President Joseph Estrada.
Second, because also of the public nature of impeachment, the private life of impeached officials is opened to searching public scrutiny. The scrutiny extends to their spouses, children, parents and siblings, whose lives are minutely combed for hidden faults, filth and grime. Internet, texts, tweets and other social media become purveyors of supposed wrongdoings.
To protect her loved ones, Merceditas Gutierrez—after repeatedly ruling out capitulation—resigned as ombudsman before her Senate trial began, to spare herself and her family of the infamy of media scrutiny.
Third, the impeachment of Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide Jr. was blocked by a Supreme Court decision barring the House of Representatives from transmitting its impeachment complaint to the Senate. The House, after some hesitancy, blinked and retreated. There was no public upheaval over this legal block because Chief Justice Davide—still glowing from his stellar performance in the Estrada impeachment trial—was perceived by our people as their most trusted official. Moreover, the Supreme Court enjoyed very high public approval ratings, much higher than the House.
This capitulation buttresses the thesis that impeachment is a political, more than a legal, exercise.
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