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Editorial

Did P-Noy meddle?

/ 09:43 PM January 26, 2014

This newspaper has always stressed the mixed nature of the impeachment process, that it is at once both legal and political.

At the start of the impeachment trial of Renato Corona in 2012, then the chief justice, we belabored the obvious: “Impeachment is both a legal and political procedure. Legal, because it has to abide by the constitutional provision as well as the Rules of Court. Political, because it is carried out by the two very political chambers: the House of Representatives, which draws up the Articles of Impeachment, and the Senate, which has the sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment.”

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In other words, because the principal actors in any impeachment drama are politicians, it is an abdication of responsibility on the part of both congressmen-prosecutors and senators-judges to ignore their constituents’ will.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this dual and inter-related nature better than the collapse of the impeachment trial (the first ever in our history) of Joseph Estrada, then the president of the Philippines. The decision of the Estrada-allied majority in the Senate not to open the so-called Jose Velarde envelope on Jan. 16, 2001, directly led to a walkout of the House prosecutors, and eventually to the second outpouring of People Power.

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On Jan. 20, the day Estrada decided to leave Malacañang after failing to get support for his belated idea of a snap election, we noted the legal-political connection: “The suppression of evidence shattered the faith of Filipinos in the impeachment process, and drove them to the streets in a final showdown with the President. The people’s outrage can no longer be redirected toward a snap election.”

In other words, a mishandled legal question (whether to allow possibly incriminating evidence into the record or not) found its ultimate answer in a decidedly political outcome.

The dual nature of the impeachment process is again in the headlines, because of Sen. Bong Revilla’s belated privilege speech last week, which claimed that President Aquino intervened in the Corona impeachment trial by asking

Revilla to convict the chief justice. “Is it right for the President of the Republic to interfere with a legal process that is supposed to be independent?” Revilla asked, rhetorically.

We have used this same space to ask Revilla why he didn’t direct the very same question to Gloria Arroyo, the leader of his own political party, when she was president and the object of impeachment complaints that were manhandled in the House of Representatives.

But we should also note that, unlike Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, a coaccused in the alleged plunder of pork barrel funds, Revilla did not allege any form of bribery on Mr. Aquino’s part. The President had asked him to vote against Corona as a personal favor, he said, and left it at that. It is almost as if Revilla did not want to create more legal problems for himself, because he had in fact voted to convict Corona.

Revilla’s rhetorical question assumes that an impeachment trial is only a legal process, and that the President was out of line for taking up Senate business. But this is a narrow view of the impeachment process, and a misunderstanding of the President’s position as chief executive. Having determined that a recalcitrant Corona was a primary obstacle in his pledge to clean up the government after Arroyo (Corona’s political patron), Mr. Aquino had a political stake in the trial. It would have been irresponsible for him, as a political leader, to ignore the consequences. Those who pretend they are shocked, shocked at the President’s political involvement, are also pretending that an acquitted Corona would not have tried to exact retribution at the expense of administration programs.

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This is not to say that there are no legal or moral boundaries in the situation. It would have been wrong in the absolute for President Aquino to bribe or intimidate any senator into voting for conviction. (If Revilla has proof, let him show it, even though it would damn him too.) It would also have been entirely wrong for the President to ask a senator to vote regardless of the evidence.

It was the evidence, in the end, that convicted Corona: It turns out he made a habit of not reporting as much as 90 percent of his immense wealth. Revilla and Estrada have the burden of proving that Mr. Aquino’s “meddling” suppressed contrary evidence, or caused the most important legal questions in the impeachment trial to go unanswered.

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