Corona Impeachment: An Extra-Constitutional Executive Power Grab
The country’s mainstream media inform us today that Chief Justice Renato Corona has been convicted by the Senate sitting as the impeachment court via 20-3 vote for culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust owing to his failure to disclose all properties and other possessions in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALn).
However, a lone senator-judge, Miriam Defensor Santiago, virulently dismissed and ridiculed the charge against the chief justice, saying it does not constitute an impeachable offense under the Constitution. In order to logically deal with this particular issue, I believe it is proper to understand the nature of impeachment, its historical background, and the logic or rationale behind this quasi-judicial process.
Throughout the course of the controversial Corona impeachment trial, the public had been informed of the unique nature of impeachment. They said it’s sui generis, a class of its own. It is unlike any ordinary judicial proceeding wherein the defendant’s life, liberty or property is at stake.
Over the past few months we were informed that impeachment is both quasi-political and quasi-judicial, because an impeachable officer cannot be tried by a regular court, not even the highest court of the this country. Only the Congress, one main political branch of government tasked with lawmaking powers, has the sole disciplining authority of all impeachable officers. Section 3(1), Article XI of the Constitution provides that, “The House of Representatives shall have the exclusive power to initiate all cases of impeachment.” That constitutional provision, including Section 3(6) of the same Article which provides that, “The Senate shall have the sole power to try and decide cases of impeachment’, proves that the Congress can also convene and sit as a judicial body to try impeachable officials.
Apart from being a political process, impeachment also operates as the equivalent of administrative disciplinary proceedings against impeachable officials, who are not subject to administrative disciplinary proceedings either by the Judiciary or the Executive branch. This shows the unique, peculiar nature of impeachment process. Since no other governmental authority or instrumentality can have the power to administratively discipline impeachable officers, formal impeachment proceedings by Congress take the form of administrative disciplinary process. Under the law, the most severe punishment that can be imposed on the convicted impeachable officer is removal from office and disqualification to hold public office.
Also, since impeachment takes the place of administrative disciplinary proceedings, it is wrong to assume that it is a criminal proceeding because conviction in an impeachment complaint is not a bar to criminal prosecution for the same act. This means that chief justice Renato Corona may also possibly face criminal complaints even if he had already been convicted by the impeachment court.
In the matter of charges of plagiarism against Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo, Justice Carpio in his dissenting opinion wrote:
“An impeachable offense, like betrayal of public trust, may not even constitute a criminal act. Like in an administrative proceeding, proof beyond reasonable doubt is not required for conviction in impeachment. If an impeachable officer is charged of a crime, as distinguished from an administrative charge, the proper court has jurisdiction to try such impeachable officer because the proceeding is criminal, not administrative. However, neither the conviction nor acquittal of such impeachable officer in the criminal case constitutes a bar to his subsequent impeachment by Congress. There is no double jeopardy because impeachment is not a criminal proceeding.”
In its obvious attempt to justify the impeachment complaint filed against the chief justice and to inform the public about the concept and nature of impeachment, the Aquino administration published an impeachment primer on the government website. This online primer titled ‘Impeachment: A Political and Historical Guide’ informs its reader on the nature of the Philippine government, being “a representative government, the officers being mere agents and not rulers of the people”, on important constitutional provisions stressing the accountability of public officers, on the basic facts about impeachment, and on basic historical facts and data.
The government primer is undoubtedly informative except one highly ridiculous claim, which is as follows:
“Benjamin Franklin felt that impeachment was for the benefit of the executive because the alternative to impeachment on the obnoxious chief magistrate was recourse to assassination.”
I suspect that such a pithy statement or declaration was deliberately included in that primer to serve as a ‘political imprimatur’ to perhaps show that the impeachment complaint against the chief justice was all justified and perhaps to condition the people’s mind that this concept or process was primarily invented to benefit the executive branch. I suspect that some imaginative spinmeisters in the government intended to pass that political imprimatur off as a statement of fact for public consumption. The smuggled premise that I can honestly gather from that assertion is that the concept of impeachment was created to protect the executive branch or the president from “the obnoxious chief magistrate.”
My research told me that that particular information implicating Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s great founding fathers and intellectuals, came from President’s spokesman Edwin Lacierda.
According to Inquirer columnist Manuel L. Quezon III, “Edwin Lacierda, writing at the time of President Estrada’s impeachment, pointed out Benjamin Franklin’s view that impeachment (as Wilson also observed, a century and a half later, by way of the Westminster Review quoted above) could channel public passion along constitutional channels.”
However, I am not saying that that propaganda piece was personally suggested by Lacierda to be included in the government primer in order to influence people’s perception. The fact is, we have a source that links Lacierda to the Benjamin Franklin story. Where did the government or Lacierda obtain their source? It appears that their main source is the following passage from the journal of the debates in the U.S. Constitutional Convention on July 20, 1787:
Dr. Franklin was for retaining the clause [on impeachment], as favorable to the executive. History furnishes one example only of a first magistrate being formally brought to public justice. Every body cried out against this as unconstitutional. What was the practice before this, in cases where the chief magistrate rendered himself obnoxious? Why, recourse was had to assassination, in which he was not only deprived of his life, but of the opportunity of vindicating his character. It would be the best way, therefore, to provide in the Constitution for the regular punishment of the executive, where his misconduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal, where he should be unjustly accused.
The problem with the distorted Benjamin Franklin story is that some government spinmeisters did not include the whole historical context of their assertion. Obviously, the government’s highly irresponsible claim that “Benjamin Franklin felt that impeachment was for the benefit of the executive” was thoughtlessly taken from the Framers’ Debates on the Impeachment Provisions at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. If we are to insert some pertinent supplemental information and actual quotations into the government’s claim, I believe it would definitely lose all its patina of lies and distortions.
The following historical facts and quotations are what the government propagandists omitted from their distorted historical assertion that could paint Benjamin Franklin, to some gullible political analysts and observers, as pro-dictatorship or pro-statism:
- Mr. Dickenson moved “that the Executive be made removeable bv the National Legislature on the request of a majority of the Legislatures of individual States.” It was necessary he said to place the power of removing somewhere.
- Mr. Sherman contended that the National Legislature should have power to remove the Executive at pleasure.
- Mr. Mason. Some mode of displacing an unfit magistrate is rendered indispensable by the fallibility of those who choose, as well as by the corruptibility of the man chosen . He opposed decidedly the making the Executive the mere creature of the Legislature as a violation of the fundamental principle of good Government.
- Mr. Davie. If he [Executive] be not impeachable whilst in office, he will spare no efforts or means whatever to get himself re-elected. He considered this as an essential security for the good behaviour of the Executive.
- Mr. Wilson concurred in the necessity of making the Executive impeachable whilst in office.
- Col. Mason. No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued. Shall any man be above justice? Above all shall that man be above it, who can commit the most extensive injusfice? When great crimes were committed he was for punishing the principal as well as the Coadjutors. There had been much debate & difficulty as to the mode of chusing the Executive. He approved of that which had been adopted at first, namely of referring the appointment to the Natl. Legislature. One objection agst. Electors was the danger of their being corrupted by the Candidates; & this furnished a peculiar reason in favor of impeachments whilst in office. Shall the man who has practised corruption & by that means procured his appointment in the first instance, be suffered to escape punishment, by repeating his guilt?
With the above-mentioned quotations, I strongly disagree with the government propagandists’ or spinmeisters’ interpretation that “Benjamin Franklin felt that impeachment was for the benefit of the executive.” What is clear is that Franklin was speaking about a “clause favorable to the Executive.” That clause pertains to presidential impeachment, which was the subject of the US delegates’ debates more than 200 years ago. Thus, he never said that impeachment per se intended benefit of the executive branch.
Contrary to the distorted interpretation of some government propagandists, the American founding fathers, which included Franklin, during the 1787 convention tackled a major controversy involving the impeachability of the president. This issue raised concerns that impeachment could serve as a check on the president. For instance, Morris, who opposed presidential impeachment, explained that the possibility of impeachment “would render the Executive dependent on those who are to impeach.” However, a number of delegates, namely, Franklin, William Davie, Elbridge Gerry, James Wilson and George Mason, argued in favor of presidential impeachment. For example, Davie argued it was “an essential security for the good behavior of the Executive.”
The result of that controversy or debate was that the delegates finally agreed on the impeachability of the President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States for Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors. Thus, the self-serving Aquino government claim is not supported by historical facts. Such a ridiculous assertion was simply based on some people’s wishful thinking and dishonest political agenda.
Another problem is that that government claim, which actually came from the presidential spokesman Atty. Lacierda, is incomplete. In his article ‘Impeachment: A Primer and Commentary’ published in The Philippine Star on Nov. 14, 2000, Lacierda wrote:
“The framers of the US Constitution were not satisfied with periodic elections. They were concerned that an executive, after ascending to office, would somehow be corrupted or become incompetent that a speedy and immediate remedy was necessary. Benjamin Franklin felt that impeachment was for the benefit of the executive because the alternative to impeachment on the obnoxious chief magistrate was recourse to assassination.”
I believe it is important to closely examine the historical and logical accuracy of Lacierda’s interpretation.
First, Lacierda simply misinterpreted the framers’ arguments on the controversy concerning the impeachability of the president. As stated above, some delegates were concerned that impeachment would operate as a check on the president, and this would render him “dependent on those who are to impeach.”
Second, the executive benefit Benjamin Franklin was talking about was based on historical events wherein history showed “the practice before this in cases where the Chief Magistrate rendered himself obnoxious [was to make] recourse to assassination [in] which he was not only deprived of his life but the opportunity of vindicating his character. It [would] be the best way therefore to provide for regular punishment of the Executive when his misconduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal when he should be unjustly accused.” That argument gained the agreement of Madison who also believed it was “indispensable” to provide a clause for presidential impeachment. Madison further argued that the president “might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation and oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers.”
My suggestion is that whoever wrote or formulated that government primer should include the full historical account of Benjamin Franklin’s ‘feeling’ about impeachment to avoid public confusion. In my own opinion, that was tantamount to an attempt to rewrite the real history of impeachment in the United States. I find it alarming that NO ONE in the academic circle or in the legal profession ever dared to question or refute that government propaganda as well as Lacierda’s misinterpretation of the framers’ arguments regarding presidential impeachment.
The government primer also informs its reader about the specific grounds for impeachment.
Now let’s use that information to determine whether mere dishonesty in submitting one’s statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) is an impeachable offense. We all know that 20 senator-judges convicted Corona for culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust. This means that dishonesty in submitting his SALn constitutes the impeachable offense.
However, Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago offered a different interpretation, saying the charge against the chief magistrate was not an impeachable offense. I strongly agree with Santiago’s arguments.
The good senator, who voted ‘not guilty’, raised the following arguments:
“The defendant admitted that he did not declare his dollar accounts and certain commingled peso accounts in his SALN. Did this omission amount to an impeachable offense? No.”
“Under the rule of ejusdem generis, when a general word occurs after a number of specific words, the meaning of the general word should be limited to the kind or class of thing within which the specific words fall. The Constitution provides that the impeachable offenses are: “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.” An omission in good faith in the SALN carries a light penalty, and is even allowed to be corrected. Thus, it is not impeachable.”
She explained that the Constitution simply provides that a public officer shall submit a declaration under oath of SALn. She also explained that constitutional provisions are not self-executory, adding: “All other constitutional provisions, such as the SALN provision, need implementing laws to provide the details. Hence, Congress, to implement this constitutional provision, has passed a number of laws, including the Foreign Currency Act, which confers absolute confidentiality on dollar deposits.”
Santiago further argued:
There is no conflict between the Constitution and the Foreign Currency Act. The perceived conflict is so simplistic that it is seriously laughable. If there is any conflict, it is between the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards, which provides for a waiver of confidentiality; and the Foreign Currency Act, which provides for absolute confidentiality.
It is for Congress to balance on the one hand, the need for public accountability from public officers; with, on the other hand, the desperate need for foreign investment, which entails confidentiality, on pain of driving away investors from our country. The argument that a dollar deposit protected from inquiry would nullify the principle of transparency is for Congress to resolve. We could retain the absolute confidentiality clause, with the amendment that Filipino public officers are not protected.
The prosecution mistakes admission for confession. In a confession, the defendant admits guilt. In an admission, the defendant merely states facts, which might tend to prove his guilt. In the instant case, the defendant did not make a confession, but merely an admission, with a legal defense.
If we are to strictly, or even liberally, analyze the charge against the chief justice, we would discover that dishonesty in submitting his SALn does not constitute the impeachable offense of culpable violation of the Constitution and/or betrayal of public trust.
According to the Aquino government primer itself, betrayal of public trust means “betrayal of public interest, inexcusable negligence of duty, tyrannical abuse of power, breach of official duty by malfeasance or misfeasance, cronyism, favoritism, etc. to the prejudice of public interest and in which tend to bring the office into disrepute” (Record of the Constitutional Commission of 1986, 272). I believe the definition of this offense is very clear. The offense committed by any impeachable officer, which constitutes betrayal of public trust, must be entirely related to his official function in that such an omission would bring “the office into disrepute.” The negligence he committed must also be “inexcusable” and his abuse of power “tyrannical” for him to be liable for impeachment. Since impeachment can ruin an impeachable officer’s career, life, future, family and reputation, the complaints raised against him must be serious and grave.
There is a need to consider the nature of public office held by the impeachable officer, particularly the vice president, the justices of the Supreme Court, the Ombudsman, and the members of the constitutional commissions. Unlike these impeachable officers, the President holds enormous political power at his disposal which he could easily abused or exploited for own his political benefit. This is what this we witnessed during the Corona impeachment trial. The President undeniably used all the available government machinery at his disposal to impeach and to secure the conviction of chief justice Corona.
On the other hand, culpable violation of the Constitution, based on the commissioners’ generally agreed view, implies:
“deliberate intent, perhaps even a certain degree of perversity for it is not easy to imagine that individuals in the category of these [impeachable] officials would go so far as to defy knowingly what the Constitution demands.”
That generally accepted definition clearly states that the intent of the impeachable officer in committing a high crime or serious offense must be “deliberate”, even to a certain “certain degree of perversity.” In the case of Corona, I disagree with the 20 senator-judges’ ‘guilty’ verdict that dishonesty in declaring SALn constitutes an impeachable offense because there was no deliberate intent on his part and that it was not attended with “certain degree of perversity.” If that’s how they interpret the basic concepts of impeachment, then, I believe it would be very easy to impeach, and even convict, an impeachable officer even without presenting to the court pertinent, unimpeachable, conclusive evidence. This means that any president who enjoys overwhelming congressional support could easily call for the impeachment and conviction of any impeachable officer who dares to stand against his political agenda. This means that the president can easily politically assassinate any public officer, whether impeachable or not, critical of his regime.
I agree with Sen. Santiago that this is not simply about your and my interpretation of the wordings of the Constitution, as most of its provisions are not self-executing. Constitutional provisions still need enabling laws for them to be executed and enforceable.
The tragic impeachment case of Corona clearly shows at least two major evils or wrongs about our country: 1) the worsening level of intellectual bankruptcy, and 2) systemic or political corruption.
The first– intellectual bankruptcy– shows the manner by which this impeachment issue corrupted or polluted the minds of our intellectuals and the public. Setting aside how the prosecution team perverted, abused and exploited our justice system, most people, based on surveys, simply took the lies and machinations creatively peddled by the anti-Corona lawyers and influential critics on faith. While the public willingly consumed the systematic, synchronized propaganda campaign against the chief justice, they however failed to see – or simply ignored- the president’s fingerprint or involvement all throughout the impeachment process.
I also agree with Sen. Bongbong Marcos’s keen observation about how the executive office worked hard to secure Corona’s conviction, “where the government has mustered all the resources at its disposal, not only to secure evidence against the Chief Justice but, further, to ensure his conviction.”
Sen. Marcos also made the following observation:
Evidence on some of these issues came from “questionable” sources … beginning with the unidentified “little lady” to documents anonymously left on gates and in mailboxes.
At the expense of the sub judice rule, evidence had been presented to the public on several occasions, even before they were formally offered before this Court.
Worse, information was grossly exaggerated with the apparent intention to predispose the public mind against the Chief Justice. Notable examples would be the Land Registration Authority report with the discredited list of 45 properties and the unauthenticated AMLC report claiming that the Chief Justice allegedly owned 10 million US dollars.
Still, the Chief Justice sufficiently addressed the accusations against him with regard to the filing of his SALN, and the disclosure of his real properties and peso and dollar deposits.
Isn’t that creepy? Those who religiously followed the impeachment proceedings should have better insight into how the Aquino government activated almost all government machinery in order to secure the chief magistrate’s ouster. There’s one fascistic philosophy that encapsulates this blatant abuse of political power by the Malacanang palace: that Machiavellian credo “the end justifies the means.” Perhaps that’s the brand of philosophy that also motivated the likes of controversial participant ‘small lady’, Ateneo academic Harvey Keh and others into joining the political circus in order to put the defendant in bad light and to secure his conviction.
Systemic or political corruption is simply the result of the country’s worsening degree of intellectual bankruptcy. Yes, it is our intellectuals and political elites who shaped and continue to shape our society in their own image. What we have now is the result of their political actions and decisions, beliefs, philosophies and virtues.
What’s more alarming and scary is not how the incumbent administration managed to abuse and exploit its political power in order to pin down the chief magistrate and to weaken the judiciary, but how the public and the media permitted, cheered, supported and goaded this abuse of power. Perhaps that’s how easy it is to establish dictatorship in this god-forsaken country.
The public and our intellectuals SEE that the downfall of the chief justice could fuel our government’s alleged anti-corruption campaign. However, what they don’t see is that the recently concluded impeachment drama gave the president more political influence and leverage. Yes, it’s the UNSEEN that keeps the public and our clueless intellectuals blissfully ignorant.
What they fail to see is that the Corona impeachment shows how the Executive office could easily pervert, not only our impeachment process, but also other government instrumentalities and processes to amass more political power. In fact, the Corona case shows what’s wrong with the kind of powerful people who run our government and the kind of intellectuals who influence our policies and culture. The system is there, as Sen. Santiago implied during her final speech on Tuesday; the problem is our political elites’ highly dangerous and mediocre worldview and misinterpretation of the Constitution’s provisions. That’s the problem. The Constitution clearly demands that impeachable offenses must be grave and serious and that they must be related to the public functions of impeachable officers; however, our political elites have a different interpretation.
Whom do they actually serve with that kind of mediocre interpretation? In the name of stamping out corruption in the government- and in the name of making sure no one is above the law- our political elites unwittingly, obediently act as the Executive branch’s political lackeys. Yes, they’re instrumental in granting the president extra-constitutional powers at the expense of a politically strangled judiciary and subservient legislative branch. Our lawmakers have willingly surrendered their power to the Executive branch by destroying our principle of separation of powers and the balance of powers in exchange for more political largesse and at the expense of the people’s freedom, rights and future.
Without a doubt, the recent impeachment drama proves that impeachment can be easily perverted by the Executive branch to execute an extra-constitutional power grab.