The misuse of impeachment

The Sereno impeachment

In an Eagle Eyes column I wrote a few weeks ago, I described the possible impeachment of Chief Justice Sereno as a “fool’s errand, an attempt to do something that has no chance of success. I still think that. However, I am not naïve and know that if President Duterte is behind this effort, it will certainly clear the House of Representatives and go to the Senate for trial. There, the odds are tilted in favor of the Chief Justice.

Culpable violation of the Constitution means a specific constitutional provision was intentionally transgressed by the impeachable official. Betrayal of public trust, even if it has a broader scope, implies a seriousness that rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors that are also grounds for impeachment. Mistakes of judgment, especially on administrative matters and management decisions, do not rise to being impeachable. Those mistakes of judgments have not even been committed by the Chief Justice.

While the accusations against the Chief Justice cannot be trifled with, one cannot help but notice an unnerving proclivity by the present government to threaten independent institutions and officials with impeachment – thanks to the so-called “super-majority in Congress.”

Previously, Vice President Leni Robredo and Ombudsman Morales were also targeted by some quarters and threatened with impeachment supposedly for sending a video message criticizing the government's war on drugs to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs and for supposed inordinate delays in the resolution of cases filed before the Office of the Ombudsman, respectively. 

Seeing a slew of attempts to oust high ranking government officials one cannot but wonder if there is a concerted effort on the part of some quarters in the government to clear the way to some sinister political agenda, including an attempt to silence administration critics. Without pre-empting the arguments that Sereno’s camp may raise, I must say the charges are largely innuendos without factual basis and mostly touch on administrative matters, and not on the malfeasance of the Chief Justice. The goal is to embarrass and humiliate her, to cast a big net to fish for evidence against her.

Having known the Chief Justice for 41 years, when we were first year students in the Ateneo de Manila University, I can say with certainty that her persecutors will not be able to find such evidence. This is a woman of integrity, who lives simply. Yes, she is strong-willed and assertive, but she is not arbitrary and whimsical. The prosecution will only embarrass itself when this goes to trial.

Preserving the independence of the judiciary

History has illustrated how the concentration of power in one person or group with one ideology has led to abuse of power. As a result, chaos and destruction ensued. To address the ills brought about by the tyranny caused, democracy was invented. One of the bedrocks of democracy is the concept of separation of powers, which envisions the distribution of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. As theorized by Baron de Montesquieu, the separation allows each branch to check the others if they try to abuse their powers.

In the Philippines, our Constitution, as authored by the Filipino people, has envisioned such a state of affairs in our government. This is set forth in Article II, Section 1: The Philippines is a democratic [xxx] society. The vesting of power to a single person has been denounced, as shown in Article VI, Section 31, which prohibits any law granting title of royalty or nobility to any person. Therefore, the governmental powers were distributed to the executive branch, the legislative branch, and judiciary. Each branch was designed to be co-equal and independent in the performance of their respective unique roles –  the legislative makes the law, the executive carries out the law, and the judiciary interprets the law.

The appointment of then associate justice Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno as Chief Justice in 2012 was widely praised and celebrated as it would herald an insulation of the judiciary from the executive for 4 administrations. Chief Justice Sereno surpassed expectations with regard to her independence when she joined the majority in declaring the unconstitutionality of parts of the Disbursement Acceleration Program. In a forum, the Chief Justice was quoted as saying, “I do not serve Presidents, excuse me…. That’s unforgivable.”

Chief Justice Sereno’s refusal to serve political ends and her faithful adherence to the people’s mandate to be independent have now subjected her to political attack through the filing of baseless and frivolous impeachment complaints.

While the impeachment mechanism is meant to remove the highest ranking officials on the most serious offenses – culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust – it should not be abused to remove one whose ideals are not aligned with those of the other branches of the government.

The free exchange of differing ideas is essential to democracy; to force everyone to echo a single ideology would violate the constitutional principles of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace. The independence of the judiciary, as the last bastion of democracy, should be protected. –