The impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon against Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno has been in the news since October this year. So far, its media coverage has not been illuminating for many, particularly those who are not familiar with the impeachment process. Commentaries for and against the impeachment of Serreno also add to the confusion.
On account of the highly controversial nature of this issue, some clarification is in order, not to favor the chief justice or to condemn her, but to set the record straight—at least, from the perspective of a neutral party.
Section 2, Article XI of the Constitution provides that the president, vice president, justices of the Supreme Court, commissioners of the Civil Service Commission, Commission on Elections, and Commission on Audit, and the Ombudsman “may be removed from office, on impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, and betrayal of public trust.”
Further, Section 3(1), Article XI of the Constitution provides that “the House of Representatives shall have the sole power to initiate all cases of impeachment. Although Section 3(2) of the charter allows a citizen of the Republic of the Philippines to file a verified complaint for impeachment with the House, that complaint cannot proceed any further without the endorsement of at least one member of the House.
Sections 2 and 3(1) above must be construed in the light of Section 3(6), which states that “the Senate shall have the sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment.”
From a holistic perspective, therefore, Chief Justice Sereno is an official who may be subjected to impeachment proceedings; that the House has the exclusive power to initiate the impeachment complaint against Sereno; that after the House acquires the required number of votes (at least one-third of the House membership pursuant to Section 3) to impeach Sereno, her case automatically goes to the Senate for trial and decision.
In other words, impeachment is not to be mistaken for outright removal from office. Impeachment takes place when the House finds sufficient grounds to believe that articles of impeachment should be filed in the Senate against the impeachable public officer, for any of the causes enumerated in Section 2, Article XI of the Constitution.
Once impeached by the House, the public officer concerned must face trial before the Senate. At the end of the trial, the Senate may either vote to acquit or convict the public officer.
Conviction requires a vote of at least two-thirds of all the senators—or 16 votes out of 23 even with the resignation of ex-Senator Alan Cayetano who was appointed Secretary of Foreign Affairs.
Upon conviction, the only penalty that may be imposed on the public officer is removal from office and disqualification from holding any public office in the future. Nonetheless, the party convicted remains liable for criminal prosecution, trial and punishment before the regular courts of law.
The Constitution explicitly provides that public office is a public trust. Since justices of the Supreme Court enjoy security of tenure and, therefore, hold office until reaching the compulsory retirement age of 70 years, the only way to hold them accountable to the people is through impeachment. Precisely because the justices enjoy security of tenure, erring justices of the Supreme Court may be removed from office only by impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate, before criminal charges may be lodged against them.
Contrary to the opinion of Representative Edcel Lagman, when the impeachment complaint is filed by a citizen, and not by a member of the House, that complaint must be construed liberally, and every opportunity to correct errors in form should be given to the complaining citizen. In other words, the impeachment complaint should not be dismissed on a mere technicality.
The reason for requiring liberal treatment of impeachment complaints filed by a citizen is in the Constitution itself.
First, there are only two instances expressly recognized in the Constitution when a citizen may directly file a case against an official act of any high ranking government official, even when that citizen has no actual involvement in the questioned act—a petition in the Supreme Court questioning the basis for the proclamation of martial law or the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, both under Section 18, Article VII; and a verified complaint for impeachment filed with the House under Section 3(2), Article XI.
Since the Constitution itself explicitly allows extraordinary direct action by the citizenry in those two instances, and considering that Section 1, Article II of the charter provides that “sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them,” the liberal treatment is not only warranted; it is mandatory.
Second, Section 3(5), Article XI states that “no impeachment proceedings shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a period of one year.” This provision is clearly an exception to the general rule on the public accountability of all public officers.
Therefore, to dismiss an impeachment complaint on mere technical grounds is to exempt the public officer concerned from public accountability for a whole year, and will thus render the concept of public accountability, a cornerstone of democracy and republican government, a teasing illusion. Likewise, dismissal on technical grounds is tantamount to allowing form to prevail over substance, and to letting the exception unjustly assume the status of the general rule. All that, of course, is unacceptable.
Accordingly, where the impeachment complaint filed by a citizen is not verified, or its verification is insufficient or does not conform to the form prescribed by the House for impeachment complaints, the complaining citizen should be allowed to amend the complaint, or to file a compliant pleading.
As in all proceedings that may eventually lead to a trial, substance must always prevail or form or technicality.
To be continued