IMPEACHMENT is an awesome power constitutionally vested in the Congress. It is shared by the House of Representatives which has the exclusive power to initiate and prosecute impeachment cases, and the Senate which has the sole power to try and decide such cases. For better or for worse, impeachment can reverse the electoral will when an elected official like the president is removed, or it can negate the appointing power of the president when a presidential appointee like a justice of the Supreme Court is ousted.
Why is the power of impeachment vested in the legislature, a political, nay, a partisan body? The following are the possible reasons:
- Since impeachable offenses are deemed committed against the people, the more numerous popularly elected representatives in the legislature are tasked to exercise the power to impeach and convict on the people’s behalf.
- The English parliament since the 14th century required the king’s ministers to be publicly accountable. As it evolved, the House of Commons initiated impeachment and the House of Lords conducted the trial and rendered judgment.
- The framers of the American Constitution adopted the British model as “they feared the potential for abuse of executive powers.”
Alexander Hamilton sustained the lodging of the power of impeachment in political bodies. However, he feared that impeachment proceedings “ran the risk of degenerating into partisan affairs.”
The Anglo-American system was adopted in the 1935, 1973, and 1987 Philippine Constitutions with modifications.
Hamilton’s fear of impeachment becoming a partisan enterprise actually happened in the Philippines when the partisanship of the ruling majority resulted in the dismissal of impeachment complaints against President Rodrigo Duterte and some of his predecessors, while the abandonment of political allegiance to the sitting chief executive resulted in the impeachment of President Joseph Estrada. A partisan agenda stampeded the impeachment of the late Chief Justice Renato Corona.
At the moment, there appears to be no specific or veiled instruction from the Office of the Speaker or Malacañang on the disposition of the impeachment complaint against Associate Justice Mario Victor F. Leonen. This is exceptional, but truly welcome.
Once the leadership and membership of the committee on justice are liberated from partisan pressures and are not threatened by loyalty checks, then they can judiciously assess the issues.
The justice committee decides today, May 27, 2021, on the sufficiency in form and substance of the Leonen impeachment complaint.
Section 3 of the House Rules of Procedure in Impeachment Proceedings provides that the complaint’s verification should be based on complainant’s “personal knowledge” or “authentic records”. With respect to form, the following questions are relevant:
- Does the complainant, Mr. Edwin M. Cordevilla, have personal knowledge of the allegations respecting the proffered grounds of culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust against Justice Leonen?
- Can complainant’s lack of personal knowledge be cured by referral to opinion columns and press accounts, which are invariably rejected as hearsay?
- What is the import of complainant’s failure to attach the authentic records or official certifications on Justice Leonen’s purported failures to seasonally decide cases and file his SALNs (Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth)?
Complainant’s verification stated that his allegations are based on his “personal knowledge” and “authentic records”. A reading of his complaint readily reveals his lack of personal knowledge. He vicariously relied on newspaper accounts and columnists’ opinions which are not authentic records and are considered hearsay. However, traditional liberality as to form may overlook these defects.
The requirement of substance “is met if there is a recital of facts constituting the offense charged”. Sufficiency in substance is limited to the averments in the complaint and their logical implications. Consequently, the following are relevant:
- The complaint charges that Justice Leonen committed culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust for failure to decide within 24 months about 37 cases assigned to him, thus purportedly violating Section 15(1) of Art. 8 of the Constitution which provides that “all cases or matters … must be decided or resolved within twenty-four months from date of submission for the Supreme Court”. The high court has categorically and consistently held that for Supreme Court justices and the high court itself, the subject constitutional provision is merely directory because “magistrates must be given discretion to defer the disposition of certain cases to make way for other equally important matters in this Court’s agenda” and as a court of last resort, the Supreme Court must have ample time and leeway to adjudicate cases. Non-compliance with directory matters does not constitute an impeachable offense.
- Justice Leonen allegedly failed to submit his SALN for the years 1989-2003 and 2008-2009. Granting again that this is true, it cannot be a ground for impeachment because such failure happened before he was appointed associate justice in 2012. Verily, an impeachable incumbent official should only be impeached for offenses committed during his incumbency. This forecloses malevolent searches for bygone skeletons in the closet. Moreover, the respondent’s qualifications and compliance with mandatory requirements had been vetted by the Judicial and Bar Council.
- Additionally, the offense of failure to file SALN prescribes after eight years pursuant to RA No. 6713 (incorporating the SALN Law) in relation to RA No. 3326 (Prescription of Offenses in Special Laws). This is doctrinal. The last year when Justice Leonen allegedly failed to file his SALN was 2009, the prosecution of which prescribed in 2017. Since impeachment proceedings are akin to criminal prosecution, then Justice Leonen cannot be impeached for a prescribed offense.
Impeachment is not a purely partisan enterprise, although it is a political exercise with judicial trimmings. It would be much better if there is confluence of ascendancy of reason and superiority in numbers in the initiation and adjudication of impeachment cases.