It takes only a day to kill an impeachment complaint vs Duterte

MANILA, Philippines – It took 3 to 4 hearings to dismiss an impeachment complaint back in the days of President Gloria Arroyo, who suffered many, but survived all attempts to oust her.

When it took only two hearings to dismiss the one and only complaint filed against President Benigno Aquino III, the opposition was upset. 

"Are you rushing this?" was the lament back in 2014 of Neri Colmenares, then representative of leftist Bayan Muna party-list group and a veteran of many impeachment complaints.

These days it takes a day to do the job. The lower chamber, traditionally packed with members who have a knack for pleasing whoever is in Malacañang, has outdone itself again. And how!

It took one committee hearing and only 4 hours to junk the impeachment complaint against President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday, May 15. To do this, his allies changed the rules and did away with time-honored "liberalism" and parliamentary courtesy.

"This Congress is something else," said a former leader of the House of Representatives, one who knew too well how to ram his party's own agenda down everybody’s throats. “We at least had some pretenses of going by the rules,” he said.

It has been the same lawmakers hearing far too many impeachment complaints in the last two decades. One would think the rules are set. Determine if the complaint checks out on form first, substance second, and probable cause last, although it rarely reaches this point. 

The first hearing is supposed to be only ministerial. The House committee on justice opens the hearing and is expected to declare the impeachment complaint sufficient in form. The complaint would not have reached the committee if it wasn't.

"Walang dini-dismiss in form. Kung walang form, ibinabalik ng secretary-general (No impeachment complaint is thrown out based on form. If it is insufficient in form, it is immediately returned by the secretary-general)," said the former House leader.

A second hearing begins to discuss the substance of the complaint. This is where most impeachment complaints are killed, but not before the complainants are able to argue their case, or their supporters are able to hold lightning rallies inside committee rooms. The majority grudgingly welcomes this opportunity to let the most persuasive among them tear down the allegations.

It can be beautiful to hear fine lawyers in the House of Representatives argue based on the merits of an impeachment complaint. One of the rare treats in my years covering the House was listening to summation arguments of administration ally Albay Representative Edcel Lagman and opposition leader San Juan Representative Ronaldo Zamora in one of the impeachment hearings against Arroyo. Most days the legislative chamber obsesses over technicalities rather than issues. 

These time-honored traditions of the House serve an important purpose. They force the majority to strike a balance between pleasing the President and showing the public a semblance of independence.

On Monday, the tandem of committee Ilocos Norte Representative Rodolfo Fariñas and Mindoro Oriental Representative Rey Umali couldn't be bothered by the processes. 

They refused to give Magdalo party-list representative Gary Alejano – the one-man complainant and endorser of the impeachment complaint – the time to give even just an opening statement.

When they asked him questions, he was ordered to keep his answers short. Fariñas was only interested in proving that Alejano had no personal knowledge on the mass murder committed by Duterte in his war on drugs. (READ: Highlights: Impeachment complaint vs Duterte)

Changing the rules

The hearing would have been shorter if Fariñas had his way, based on a new interpretation of the House rules on impeachment proceedings. Previously, the verification process in the House rules simply required the complainant to take his oath and swear by his allegations to make the complaint sufficient in form. 

Fariñas, however, wanted Alejano, the complainant against Duterte, to personally verify and thus certify he has personal knowledge of the allegations being made against the President.

Duterte's allies made a big deal over the fact that Alejano is not a lawyer, the reason they said his complaint was defective. They said it's as defective as the allegations made by fellow Magdalo-rebel-turned-politician Senator Antonio Trillanes IV against Duterte.

Antonio La Viña, former dean of the Ateno School of Government, said it is the height of irony that the most aggressive prosecutors of the Renato Corona – Fariñas and Umali – are pushing for a new rule that punishes the same tactics they abused when they rushed the impeachment complaint against the former Supreme Court Chief Justice 5 years ago. 

Lawmakers also served as complainants in Corona's impeachment complaint. "They allowed the impeachment of Corona. It was a fishing expedition. It's the irony of it all. The hunters then are now the conservative ones," La Viña said. 

"We have abused this remedy. But you don't change the rules as you go along," La Viña added.

Lagman tried to intervene but each time, Fariñas would respond to note that he only has speaking rights but no voting rights because he is not a member of the commitee on justice. Apparently his application to join the committee had been repeatedly blocked by Fariñas himself.

Fariñas would have gotten the support of the majority if there wasn't a loophole in the trick. The rules do not expressly say that complaints defective in form should be "dismissed." The rules only say they must be "returned" to the complainants.

Cebu Representative Gwen Garcia was concerned that the opposition would use technicality to interpret the rules to mean they can fix the defects and force the committee to hear it again. 

The debate shifted to the possibility that the route Fariñas wanted to take would backfire. They decided to settle the issue in a closed-door meeting. They resumed the hearing after 30 minutes to approve the complaint's sufficiency in form, apparently unable to wiggle their way out of their own rules. 

It was a short-lived victory for Alejano, however, because the committee voted to junk the complaint based on insufficiency in substance. There were no discussions or summations whatsoever. Because Alejano has no personal knowledge of the allegations, they argued that the complaint could not have been sufficient in substance.

All 42 members of the commitee present in the hearing voted to dismiss the complaint. There was no opposition.

Not heard

"I was not heard," a teary-eyed Alejano protested in a press conference. His wife was seen crying in the background.

To be sure, the complaint filed and endorsed by Alejano had a zero chance of prospering in a chamber dominated by the allies of Duterte. His intention was clear. It was a necessary prerequisite to the filing of a case before the International Criminal Court (ICC), a venue that should be availed of only when local remedies fail to address abuses. 

"Alejano is still the victor. I'm sure he knew he didn't have the numbers if they went through the motions. Now they can go to the ICC," said La Viña.

But the committee hearing sets the stage for the remaining years of the Duterte presidency. His allies in the House sent a strong message that they will not tolerate future impeachment complaints against him. Worse, they may change the rules to make it more difficult for complaints to succeed. 

It is true, as Duterte's allies complained, that the political opposition has repeatedly abused the leniency of the Constitution in allowing impeachment complaints to proceed. Since Arroyo's presidency, the House has processed at least 10 impeachment complaints against presidents, Supreme Court justices, and the Ombudsman.

Still, the Constitution allows impeachment complaints against presidents only once a year. The incovenience should be a little price to pay to protect an important avenue that can make presidents accountable. – Rappler.com