MANILA, Philippines – Is an impeachment trial political, administrative, or criminal in nature?
There is no clear consensus among lawyers, but they agree that conviction will not require establishing guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile said on Tuesday that the impeachment trial is “akin to a criminal case” when he ruled against the need to compel Chief Justice Renato Corona and members of his family to appear before the court. He said this would violate “parental and filial privilege” and Corona’s right against self-incrimination.
But Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas, a member of the prosecution, disagreed.
“Public office is a public trust. It is not a property that belongs to the holder. [A public official] only holds [office] as a trustee of the people. Thus, public officers come and go. Some can even be summarily dismissed.”
Fariñas added, “Elected officials such as Representatives and local officials hold office for only 3 years, but may be given 2 more terms by the people. The president and vice president and senators have 6 years. But those in the judiciary shall hold office in good behavior until they reach 70 years old. If they misbehave they have to go.”
The removal of judges is “only through administrative cases and does not partake of criminal cases. Ergo, an impeachment case is simply an administrative case against an impeachable public officer.”
Another lawyer familiar with constitutional proceedings agreed that impeachment is “closer to an administrative case than a criminal case. The Concom deliberations clearly show it’s not a criminal proceeding.”
During deliberations of the Constitutional Commission (ConCom) which drafted the 1987 Constitution, Commissioner Rustico delos Reyes clarified that “betrayal of public trust” is a catchall phrase that includes, among others, betrayal of public interest which all tend to “bring the office into disrepute.” This is enough ground for impeachment.
In the same ConCom proceedings, when then Commissioner Regalado Maambong asked whether the Senate, trying an impeachment case, should conduct proceedings using principles of criminal procedure, then Commissioner Ricardo Romulo replied in the negative.
“I do not think so, strictly speaking, that it need be criminal procedures. The important thing, I believe, is that the involved party should know the charges and the proceedings must be, in total, fair and impartial. I do not think we have to go to the minutiae of a criminal proceeding because that is not the intention. This is not a criminal proceeding per se.”
Deputy Speaker Jesus Crispin Remulla, also a lawyer, said an impeachment trial is “akin to a criminal case” in the sense that it is also “punitive” in the end.
If convicted in an impeachment trial, a public official like Chief Justice Renato Corona will be removed from office and disqualified from seeking public office in the future. These are harsh punishments for anyone who has served in government for a long time.
At the same time, because it is political, guilt need not be established beyond reasonable doubt. Instead “clear and convincing evidence” would be sufficient, Remulla said.
Likewise, as a political process, senator-judges can vote for conviction even if the evidence is weak, especially if it turns out to be a popular decision.
An internal survey that the Nacionalista Party (NP) conducted late December up to the first week of January shows that Filipinos are split down the middle on the impeachment trial – 25% are against, 25% are for it, and 50% are undecided.
If moves to impeach other justices of the Supreme Court are made, public opinion will turn against President Benigno Aquino III, the NP survey results show.
A class of its own
Himself a lawyer and former congressman, Gilberto Teodoro Jr, also a former presidential candidate, said that impeachment is “sui generis,” meaning, a class of its own. It is neither political nor criminal in character.
As a legal case, he said, constitutional rights apply “because of the libertarian bent of the Constitution.” At the end of the day, he added, “it is still evolutionary and how its contours and boundaries will be shaped depends on how the Senate decides on both substantive and procedural matters.”
Yet impeachment “should not require proof beyond reasonable doubt which is required for a criminal offense,” Teodoro said. Betrayal of public trust, which is cause for impeachment, “will not require the same court standards but will still protect the rights of the person.” The Constitution specifically mentions the importance of the speedy disposition of cases.
The Senate is being cautious, Teodoro said, seeing to it that the outcome of the impeachment trial will not be a barrier to the filing of a subsequent criminal case in a regular court. “It is trying to find a balance to dovetail both.”
Legal notes prepared by Akbayan Party Rep Kaka Bag-ao, also a member of the prosecution team, say that “the interpretation of the Senate rules on impeachment proceedings should be made in a liberal manner and technicalities should be set aside because it is not purely a criminal proceeding.”
Most importantly, Bag-ao said, the “nature of the impeachment proceedings will determine the required quantum of evidence required for convicting an impeached official.”
Teodoro said the Senate as a body can always vote on the ruling, although the Senate President’s ruling carries “great weight because of his stature” and his being a lawyer himself.
Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila Law Dean Ernest Maceda said the impeachment trial is “quasi-judicial” because senator-judges who are tasked with the duty must sit in judgment and fulfill their judicial responsibility.
Maceda said standards that will be applied will be regarded by senators as mere guidelines. In the end, senators will merely say yes or no, without being obliged to explain their votes – unlike in a judicial decision. – Rappler.com