Senator-judges and public jurors

After only six days, we now know that impeachment is a very tedious exercise.  But that is how its inventors intended it. Barbara Jordan, the first Southern African-American woman to become a member of the US House of Representatives, put it well at the impeachment of Richard Nixon: “Common sense would be revolted if we engaged upon this process for insurance, campaign finance reform, housing, environmental protection, energy sufficiency, mass transportation. Pettiness cannot be allowed to stand in the face of such overwhelming problems.  So today we are not being petty.  We are trying to be big because the task we have before us is a big one.”

The Americans were aware that impeachment would agitate the most divisive passions, and that is why they sought to limit its use to “high crimes and misdemeanors.”  Gross incompetence, stupidity, and mismanagement may be urgent reasons for removing a president, but they are not valid grounds for impeaching a president.  They also knew that since it is the Senate that is sitting in judgment, and not just any ordinary court, the proceedings would not be strictly judicial.  The decision must strike a delicate balance between the political and the judicial.

Jordan quotes from Woodrow Wilson, who said of the impeachment process: “Nothing short of the grossest offenses against the plain law of the land will suffice to give them speed and effectiveness. Indignation so great as to overgrow party interest may secure a conviction; but nothing else can.”  The only hope for removing a president by impeachment must be sought in the capacity of the senators to transcend narrow political interests in order to appease massive public indignation over a president’s betrayal of his oath of office.

Why should they be sensitive to public indignation?  The reason is simple: The senators will be judging the president, but the public will judge them in turn. Senator-judges who ignore the weight of the evidence for or against the president and who allow themselves to be dictated upon solely by their partisan interests will not fool the public. They may as well bid farewell to their political careers, for they should never again win an election.  In fact, they can say goodbye to any public career, for they should be so morally destitute as to make it impossible for them to be accepted by any self-respecting community.

Listen to the prosecutors and the defense counsels.  They know more than anyone that the impeachment trial is basically a political process.  That is why they are careful to be understood not so much by the senator-judges as by the general public.  The latter is not a constituency of lawyers; it is a community of ordinary men and women who assess evidence by the light of everyday reason.  It will not look kindly at a court that suppresses evidence for mere technical reasons.

The public can accept that since the president is not on trial for breaking his marital vows, there is no point in asking about his mistresses unless the intention is to prove they were also beneficiaries of bribe money and public funds.  But it cannot understand why bank documents pertaining to a suspected account of the president should not be admitted as evidence, just because this account was not specifically mentioned in the original articles of impeachment.

The prosecution is right to say that the case against the president may be won or lost on the basis of bank documents.  Nothing else can conclusively show that the president knowingly accepted tainted money.  He would have been stupid to issue receipts for jueteng collections.  As he has denied receiving money from Chavit Singson, it is now the president’s word against that of his accuser.  He has also denied ever meeting Emma Lim, who claims to have delivered money to his office.  But one wonders how the president will explain the deposit of P200 million into the foundation named after him, headed by his brother-in-law, and financially managed by his personal lawyer.

At the forum of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP), President Estrada had said that he knew that the P200 million came from Gov. Singson.  He however claimed that Chavit Singson was attempting to bribe him with these funds.  Yet, when asked if he did anything to cause the arrest of Singson or to place the money in the custody of the authorities, he could only say this was not his job.  It is reasonable to assume that he accepted the money and that he meant to use it.

Of course, things are not always what they seem.  That is what the defense has been telling us this past week.  Those recorded calls made from the cell phone of Yolanda Ricaforte, alleged accountant of jueteng collections, to the phones of the president, Jinggoy Estrada, and the lawyer Edward Serapio need not have been taken by them personally.  Furthermore, it is not easy to prove that these calls were about jueteng collections.  For all we know, in making these calls, Mrs. Ricaforte was just moonlighting as a Campo Carne vendor.

But bank documents are a different matter.  Six checks deposited in the account of the Erap Muslim Youth Foundation, caught on microfilm passing through the banks’ clearing system, cannot lie. One of these days, President Joseph Ejercito Estrada will have to repeat what he told the FOCAP forum — that he knew about the P200 million but did not accept it, and that the money remained in that account because he intended to use it as evidence against Chavit Singson.

He owes it to the Filipino people to tell them this face to face, and not through his lawyers.  When he does, we hope, as the saying goes, that lightning strikes him.


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