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Impeachment and Institutional Integrity in the Philippines

JURIST Columnist Edsel Tupaz of Tupaz & Associates argues that the coming impeachment trial of Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona must be undertaken in a manner that preserves the integrity of both the Congress and the Supreme Court, while impartially addressing the serious allegations of abuse of power leveled against Corona...

On Monday, the Philippine House of Representatives voted to impeach Chief Justice Renato Corona for allegedly violating the Constitution and betraying the public trust in connection with the trial of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who originally appointed Corona to the Supreme Court. In his separate concurring opinion in Francisco, Jr. v. House of Representatives, Corona cited my own work to describe the extraordinary remedy of impeachment as a final option: "Impeachment under the Philippine Constitution, as a remedy for serious political offenses against the people, runs parallel to that of the U.S. Constitution whose framers regarded it as a political weapon against executive tyranny. It was meant 'to fend against the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the Chief Magistrate.'"

Corona is the first Chief Justice and Justice of the Supreme Court to be impeached by the House of Representatives. (In 2003, the House dismissed an impeachment complaint against then-Chief Justice Hilario Davide, and the Supreme Court subsequently held 13-0 that the complaint was unconstitutional). Under the Philippine Constitution, the House of Representatives has the exclusive power to initiate cases of impeachment against the President, Vice President, members of the Supreme Court and constitutional commissions, and the Ombudsman. The impeachment proceedings required at least 95 signatures, or one-third of all members of the House, to move forward. In the end, 188 of the 284 members of the House of Representatives voted to impeach Corona, transmitting the case to the Senate on Tuesday. Amidst ongoing political scandals, Corona's impeachment provides an ideal situation in which to draw lessons from the experience of the US, whose constitutional practices and provisions were written into our own Constitution almost verbatim, and whose jurisprudence is usually directly cited by the Philippine judicial system.

Justice Samuel Chase, appointed by President George Washington in 1796, remains the only US Supreme Court justice who has ever been subjected to the impeachment procedure, and his acquittal played an important role in preventing the overt politicization of the process. The core of the allegations against Chase was that his extreme Federalist Party bias had led to his treating defendants and their counsel in a deliberately unfair manner. Meanwhile, in response to the articles of impeachment against him, Chase argued that all of his actions had been motivated by adherence to precedent, judicial duty to restrain advocates from improper statements of law, and considerations of judicial efficiency. The Senate acquitted Chase of all charges, supporting the view that grounds for impeachment should be either criminal or abuse of office, rather than partisan.

Ironically, Corona himself argued that the Framers of the US and Philippine constitutions "intended impeachment to be an instrument of last resort, a draconian measure to be exercised only when there are no other alternatives available." He writes that a great deal of prudence must be exercised in the impeachment process, which should not be used as a bargaining chip or a weapon for political leverage. Since the time of Jefferson, all presidents and most members of the US Congress have generally eschewed the impeachment process as immensely partisan and cumbersome. The latter is not a surprising viewpoint, as the time allocated for legislative work is instead diverted to the impeachment effort. This situation is potentially destructive to the life of the nation, as exemplified in 2001, when the Philippine economy suffered a serious blow during the impeachment trial of former president Joseph Estrada.

The eight charges brought against Corona, which will serve as the articles of impeachment when his trial proceeds, include culpable violation of the Constitution, graft and corruption, and betrayal of public trust — citing specifically his "undue closeness" to Arroyo (who is under hospital arrest for electoral sabotage and plunder), and suspected affinity for siding with her administration in politically-significant cases. Supreme Court Spokesman Jose Midas Marquez confirmed that Corona will not resign, and will squarely face the impeachment case against him, calling it "an assault on all the rights, powers and privileges of the entire judiciary." Corona's supporters further point to the impeachment as a form of political maneuvering buttressed by a perceived popular opposition to Corona and the Supreme Court itself, which they believe is being forced to surrender its constitutionally mandated functions and powers to "the whim and caprice of political machinations."

In recent weeks, President Benigno Aquino has openly criticized the Supreme Court in several interviews and speeches for its lack of impartiality, which culminated in its issuance of a temporary restraining order against watch list orders issued by the Department of Justice that prohibited Arroyo from leaving the country. While this seems to be a dangerous strategy for Aquino's camp, pitting the executive (and now, legislative) branch against the judiciary, the viewpoints of the opposing sides in the impeachment issue are not unfounded. It is only reasonable to expect our Supreme Court Justices to rise above politics, as well as personal gratitude and affinities, and make decisions based on constitutionality, fairness and impartiality — interpreting the country's laws and settling controversies through an appreciation of a given set of facts and applicable laws, while taking into consideration their respective beliefs and legal philosophies. When a Justice commits wrongdoing and falls short of these expectations, it is necessary to take action. Impeachment is a legal process that is part and parcel of a healthy democracy. Although viewed by the opposition as an attempt to destabilize the Court, the impeachment process is nevertheless a legal and constitutional remedy that aims to exact accountability for possible abuses committed by those in the High Tribunal.

Meanwhile, the House prosecution must be exact in addressing potential weaknesses in the case. Corona's supporters in Congress and the courts maintain that he is being singled out for collegial decisions of the Supreme Court, and that some issues have already been addressed by Congress and the Office of the President, such as Corona's "midnight appointment" and the alleged gerrymandering of local government units. When Aquino himself admits that the Chief Justice is the last stumbling block to his reform agenda, it will not be surprising to see the Senate — tasked to try and decide on the impeachment — incorporate partisan politics during the trial. As judges during the impeachment trial, the Philippine senators must ignore political affiliations and thoroughly scrutinize and vote on the merits of the case that will be presented, so that the proceedings will not be seen as another political scandal that unfairly diverts attention away from more pressing legislative issues.

There are tough times ahead for the country's judiciary. At a time when the political and public pulse often dictates collective decision-making in the Philippines, the country looks to the judicial branch and the Supreme Court to be an impartial entity, capable of deciding on the most difficult and politically divisive legal matters with exactitude and fairness. Given Corona's track record revealing his partiality to Arroyo, trust is a big issue. As citizens of this country, we expect our Justices to be persons of proven competence, integrity, probity and independence. The rarity of impeachment and reluctance of lawmakers to utilize this constitutional tool is a measure of the gravity of the situation. The process is not invoked by mere suspicions of wrongdoing and other less than serious grounds, or even the espousal of controversial or unpopular points of view, but by criminality or substantial abuse of power. Thus, conviction must happen only if it is clear-cut. It is the task of the House prosecution panel to provide substance to its allegations against Corona himself, without compromising the authority and independence of the Supreme Court as an institution.

Author's Note: A special thanks to Joan Martinez for her research assistance.

Edsel Tupaz is the founder and managing partner of Tupaz & Associates, a public-interest law firm. His expertise lies in comparative constitutional law, trade and development law and court systems design. Tupaz is also a professor of international and comparative law, teaching at law schools in the US and the Philippines. He was senior counsel and senior executive assistant of the Philippine Truth Commission created by President Benigno Aquino III, which was later declared unconstitutional by a Court majority led by Chief Justice Corona.

Suggested citation: Edsel Tupaz, Impeachment and Institutional Integrity in the Philippines, JURIST - Sidebar, Dec. 14, 2011, http://jurist.org/sidebar/2011/12/edsel-tupaz-impeachment.php.

This article was prepared for publication by JURIST's professional commentary editorial staff. Please direct any questions or comments to them at professionalcommentary@jurist.org

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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