THE LEGAL FRONT
By JUSTICE ART D. BRION (RET.)
As the Taal Volcano eruption news subsides in the media, the slack is taken up by another eruption on the political front – the impeachment of US President Donald Trump.
Unknown perhaps to many, impeachment is not the removal of the impeached official from his/her position; technically, it is the formal approval of the articles of impeachment by the House of Representatives.
Once House approval is secured through the required vote, the cited official is impeached but is not immediately removed from office. Removal only comes after conviction under the impeachment charges in a subsequent Senate trial. This is the impeachment process we borrowed from the American Constitution.
President Trump is only the 3rd US President to be impeached, after Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. These two presidents, while impeached by the House, were not convicted by the Senate and were not therefore removed from office.
We have not impeached any Philippine president so far, although many attempts have been made in the course of our short history as a republic.
Presidents Elpidio Quirino, Diosdado Macapagal, Ferdinand Marcos, Corazon Aquino, Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and Benigno Aquino III all faced impeachment complaints before the House of Representatives, but only the articles of impeachment against President Estrada passed.
The Senate trial of President Estrada, however, did not proceed to completion; the prosecutors from the House walked out to protest the alleged dictatorial tendencies of the senator-judges supporting President Estrada, and thus aborted the proceedings.
Our failure to impeach any president may perhaps be partly due to our existing political realities — our lawmakers and the President are all politicians who commonly speak the language of politics and whose alliances – under our unique system of politics – easily shift. These realities serve to weaken the resolve of our lawmakers to remove one of their own from office.
While no removal by impeachment has ever taken place in the US, American experience in removing their presidents has been a far quicker, more effective, but deadlier means of removal – by assassination. Four sitting US Presidents have been assassinated while in office — Abraham Lincoln (1865), James Abram Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1901), and John F. Kennedy (1963).
In our country, no president has so far been assassinated, nor has any assassination been attempted. Assassination though is already a common solution among the lower political ranks. A notable high profile example was former Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., whose assassination, despite two past presidents from his immediate family, has so far remained unsolved.
In marked contrast with the lawmakers’ treatment of their fellow politicians, the Judiciary – the independent and apolitical branch of our government – has undergone a different impeachment experience.
The 1st chief justice against whom an impeachment case was filed, was Chief Justice Hilario Davide. While the House readily dismissed the 1st impeachment complaint against him, it took action by the court to dispose of the 2nd complaint that immediately followed the 1st complaint.
Not as fortunate as Chief Justice Davide was Chief Justice Renato Corona who had reportedly incurred the ire of Malacanang because of the court’s ruling in a land case. In an impeachment proceeding that was allegedly riddled with improprieties and illegalities, the impeachment and removal of Chief Justice Corona succeeded.
Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, the then most junior justice in the court, succeeded the ousted CJ Corona as chief justice, and was likewise subsequently removed from her post, albeit under different circumstances.
The attempt to remove her started through an impeachment complaint, citing various grounds, among them, her usurpation of the powers of the court when she created an office through misrepresentation and without the benefit of legislation.
While the House proceedings were still on-going, the Office of the Solicitor General curiously stepped in and filed, independently of the impeachment proceedings, a quo warranto petition.
The petition questioned the validity of Sereno’s appointment as chief justice based on her deficient SALN submissions before the Judicial and Bar Council. Because a judicial remedy had been invoked, the Supreme Court had no choice but to step in and act on the petition. By an 8 to 6 vote, the court decided to oust one of its own from office.
Long after her ouster, informal discussions among incumbent and retired justices and court watchers inevitably dwelt on the roots and causes of CJ Sereno’s ouster. Many concluded that her ouster did not emanate from a single cause but from a confluence of many separate causes.
The causes, too, aside from being numerous, gradually built up through her years as chief justice. Thus, ultimately, very little sentiment remained in her favor even within her own court; pure legality prevailed.
Avid court observers have also posited that a repetition of the Sereno experience would be remote but cannot be ruled out if a confluence of similar events and circumstances would again exist.
Based on quiet remarks within and outside the court, a potential starting cause for a future impeachment could be the activation of the Judicial Integrity Board (JIB). They say that this court action could be a repeat of the mistake Sereno committed when she decentralized the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) without the benefit of a law amending the OCA’s legislative charter.
The JIB, as envisioned, is a complete office with its own independent structure, budget, and personnel. That it has a laudable objective cannot be disputed: its role is to enhance the court’s handling of administrative disciplinary cases. This function though may already belong to the OCA, an office created by law and whose functions cannot be altered except by law.
In other words, carving out the JIB from the OCA may not be for the court to solely undertake. The JIB’s creation may need a law, not simply a court resolution, to be above legal reproach.
Otherwise, the court may run into conflict with Congress under the separation of powers principle. Its creation may likewise serve as a potential seed of discontent within the court.
Of course, only the Court – as interpreter of the Constitution – can definitively rule on whether these observations are correct. But while nobody might openly object now, a quiet but displeased Congress and silent internal objections could be dangerous seeds to sow, as the Sereno experience had shown. Lest we forget – the Taal Volcano was quiet for a long time and has always been a beautiful sight to behold, but carried an uncontrollable explosive force when it ignited.