Impeachment: Can it do any good?

Many reasonable people who are not explicitly for Chief Justice Renato Corona have warned that impeaching a member of the high court, let alone its chief, could undermine the judicial branch of government. If this happens, they say, the rule of law would be weakened. Tyranny would reign. Judges would become timid, leaving no one to review or check the conduct of politicians.

These fears are not unfounded. We have the record of martial law to show that such things can happen. But, we are far from being under martial law, whether declared or undeclared. Those who say we are, either do not know or have forgotten what it was like to be arrested without a warrant or detained without charges, or to disappear without a trace, live in constant fear, or forced to go underground or flee to another country for merely criticizing the government.

If the impeachment process is conducted in a fair and transparent way, the institutional gains could be immense. The boundary between law and politics would be sharpened, and the judiciary could come out of this vastly strengthened. Politicians, from the president and members of Congress down to the mayor of the smallest town, would be firmly reminded that it is not their business to interfere in the functions of the judiciary. Judges from the highest to the lowest court, on the other hand, would be strongly warned about incurring political debts in exchange for appointments, or getting embroiled in politics.

If we examine the history of impeachment in England where it originated, and in the United States from where we copied the concept, we would find that impeachment trials were extraordinary episodes in the life of governments aspiring to democracy. They were crucial points in the transition to modern society. Structural features like separation of powers and checks and balances in government slowly evolved as achievements of a modern society, rather than the self-executing constitutional mandates they are today thought to be.

Because ours is a relatively young political system, bound to procedures and practices borrowed from more mature societies, we have little choice but to turn to the experiences of these societies for guidance on how to conduct them and what to expect of them. At the same time, because our social conditions are different, we are slowly forging our own practices.

One of the ideas we have adopted from abroad is that impeachment is a political process. This has caused some confusion. Some think this means that a case may be decided along purely partisan lines. Others believe that while the power to impeach belongs to a political branch of government, its exercise must nonetheless observe established legal procedures. These two views do not necessarily contradict each other. The norm has been: the impeachment court must avoid being perceived as narrowly partisan, while allowing greater flexibility in its proceedings than one would expect in an ordinary court.

In what way is impeachment political? I think it is “political” in at least three senses: (1) Impeachable offenses like “betrayal of public trust” are treated as political crimes that may or may not be punishable as criminal offenses; (2) The object of impeachment is the removal of a public official from office; and (3) The judgment is rendered by a political branch of government, whose ultimate task is to decide whether the removal of the impeached official is good for the nation or not.

I believe a lot of the confusion arises from the notion that a public official may be impeached only for criminally indictable offenses like stealing, not paying taxes, or taking a bribe. By this standard, acts like interceding for a party in a case, or showing extreme bias for an individual to whom one is politically indebted, or exceeding one’s authority, would not qualify as valid grounds for impeachment. Yet a review of well-known impeachment cases that have been tried in the United States and England would attest to the open-ended meaning of phrases like “betrayal of public trust” and “other high crimes.”

It is obvious that the prosecutors from the House of Representatives are themselves hard-pressed to pin down Corona not just for manifesting partiality in his decisions but, more importantly, for unexplained wealth and graft and corruption. This would explain the current focus on Corona’s properties. They know that in the public mind only criminal offenses like undue enrichment of oneself while in public office would justify removing a chief justice from his position.

Fortunately for the prosecution, in a society like ours where the rich and powerful are wont to take shortcuts with the law, it is not so difficult for someone who is determined to dig deep to come up with evidence for an indictable criminal offense.

But let us not forget that what triggered the impeachment was something profoundly political, a valid reason that needs no embellishment. Corona’s original sin lay in his throwing away all discretion, all delicadeza, all sense of honor, when he accepted the midnight appointment offered to him by a discredited outgoing president. This is scandalous enough for anyone appointed under these circumstances to any other position in government. The institutional damage is immeasurable when the position is that of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a branch of government whose stable functioning depends almost wholly on its credibility as an impartial interpreter of the law.