Impeachment a double-edged sword

Purple S. Romero
' We are talking of only one justice here.'

By Purple S. Romero

MANILA, Philippines – Some lawyers see the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona as an attack against the judiciary, a co-equal branch of the executive and legislative branches of the government. Others say this is but part of the system of checks and balances.

“In this critical moment of our constitutional history, my hope is that the justices of the Supreme Court, imperfect though they may be, will not capitulate and that others in the judiciary will not tremble in their boots and yield what is constitutionally theirs to President Aquino,” wrote constitutionalist and former Ateneo law dean Fr. Joaquin Bernas in his Inquirer column on Monday, Dec. 12, 2011.  “If they do, it would be tragic for our nation.”

Bernas asserted that while impeachment is a “legitimate tool” allowed by the Constitution, it is “a two-edged sword.” He added: “It can be an instrument of reform but it can also be an instrument of vindictive persecution carried out by blindfolded followers.”

Victor Rodriguez, legal counsel of the police officials who came out earlier this year to testify about the alleged switching of election returns in Batasan in the 2004 presidential elections, said the “impeachment process should not be taken lightly.”

“The executive, acting through Congress, would erode not just the judiciary as an institution but the entire workings of our government and its democratic framework,” he said in an interview.

The reported ER switching in the 2004 elections, which was allegedly overseen by allies of then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is being investigated by the Senate. The alleged cheating in the 2007 senatorial polls, which also involved Arroyo, was probed by the joint panel of the Department of Justice and the Commission on Elections.

The latter was cited as one of the 8 grounds in the impeachment complaint against Corona. Over 170 lawmakers agreed that Corona should be impeached because the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order sought by Mrs. Arroyo and her husband, lawyer Jose Miguel on Nov.15. The TRO stopped the DOJ and the Bureau of Immigration from enforcing the watch list order issued against the Arroyo couple.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima placed the two under the immigration watch list following their purported involvement in the alleged 2007 poll fraud.

A litigation lawyer and SC observer, who asked not to be named, said that Corona’s voting record showed his bias toward “certain individuals and interests.” He added: “Under Corona, the Supreme Court shall remain a prostituted institution whose master is neither the Constitution nor Law and its motivation neither Justice nor Fair Play,” he said. “This is betrayal of the public’s trust of the highest order.”

But how does one define “betrayal of public trust?”

Sabino Padilla IV, an aspirant to the High Tribunal and son of retired SC Justice Teodoro Padilla, said that the there’s not a lot of jurisprudence defining betrayal of public trust. Thus, since the impeachment trial will have senators as judges, they would have to define it based on their own “standards of morality.”

Padilla added that these “standards of morality” may not necessarily follow “strictly legal norms.”

Marlon Manuel, national coordinator of the Alternative Law Groups, said the political process of impeachment, even if it may be an “extreme remedy,” is part of democracy. “Impeachment is a constitutional check and balance mechanism that is an essential component of our system of government,” he said.

Lawyer Pablito Sanidad dismissed fears that impeaching Corona would wreak havoc on the highest court of the land. “We are talking of one justice. If we are going to think that way [impeaching justices is an attack against judiciary] then we might as well remove the provision on the impeachment of justices,” he said.