SC spokesperson: Impeachment must prove lack of fitness to hold office

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Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te

Highlights

  • Accusations of betrayal of public trust, or other grounds of impeachment, must always prove "unfitness for office" to work
  • House and Senate have to define rules and impeachable offenses
  • SC rarely intervenes in impeachment processes

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 23) — The crux of an impeachment complaint is a lack of fitness to hold office, Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te said.

"The only objective in an impeachment is to determine continuing fitness for that position... regardless of the ground (of accusation)," Te said on CNN Philippines' The Source on Thursday.

"It is not a criminal trial. It is not a trial per se, as we understand it in the courts. It's not a judicial process. It's basically a political 'disciplinary process' as it were," he said.

Te added that the Supreme Court usually keeps out of impeachment complaints unless these are elevated to the high court. His explanation comes as the two highest officials in the country are threatened with impeachment proceedings.

Magdalo Party-List Representative Gary Alejano filed his impeachment complaint on March 16 against President Rodrigo Duterte. Alejano based his complaint on "culpable violation of the Constitution, engaging in bribery, betrayal of public trust, graft and corruption, and other high crimes" as possible grounds.

Read: Duterte faces impeachment complaint over alleged killings, corruption

As for Vice-President Leni Robredo, Marcos loyalists lawyer Oliver Lozano and Melchor Chavez have filed a draft impeachment complaint against her on March 20.

Read: Marcos loyalists ask House to endorse impeachment rap vs. Robredo

Relations between Duterte and Robredo have been lukewarm ever since Robredo resigned from Duterte's cabinet as housing secretary. Since then she's been a vocal critic of his war on drugs.

She even sent a video message to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs conference last March 13 to 17, where it was played at the sidelines of the event. Her video message was again critical of the government's anti-drug campaign, linking it to the thousands of victims of extra-judicial killings.

Lozano and Chavez say Robredo's video message was a "betrayal of public trust".

The impeachment complaints against Duterte and Robredo will have to be reviewed by the House of Representatives. Either or both complaints will only be forwarded to the Senate, if at least one-third of the Lower House membership – or 98 out of 292 – vote to support the complaint/s.

Once the Senate receives the complaint/s, it will then convene as an impeachment court.

House rules

Supreme Court Spokesman Te also explained, the House of Representatives would also have to draft the rules of the impeachment proceedings.

Te was also asked if the President's acts when he was Davao City mayor could be considered part of the impeachment complaint. (Duterte is being accused of leading the so-called "Davao Death Squad," that is supposedly behind the killings of drug suspects and criminals.)

In reply, Te said the Lower House would have the power to consider such acts within the impeachment process – if it chooses to do so.

"That would be part of the determination of the appropriate House committee or the House itself," Te said in the interview.

"They have to define if in their determination, ito ba ay sufficient in terms of, is it an offense that is impeachable," he added.

Defining 'betrayal of public trust'

When asked if Robredo's criticism of the administration qualified as betrayal of public trust, Te still emphasized that it will still have to connect to fitness in office.

"Iba yung standards na ginagamit [The standards are different] for speech, for expression, for criticism. We have a very definite and specific standard for that," said Te. "The only issue in impeachment is always fitness to continue holding the office."

He added that whether or not it constitutes an impeachable offense will be part of the discussion at the House and Senate.

He cited a case the Supreme Court handled involving former Deputy Ombudsman Emilio Gonzales III, who was charged for betrayal of public trust after an alleged bribery in 2010.

Malacañang Palace ordered Gonzales dismissed in 2011 , but the high court reinstated him in 2012 after ruling that his offenses did not qualify as betrayal of public trust.

SC worked with the definition that betrayal of public trust constituted "all acts not punishable by statutes as penal offenses but, nonetheless, render the officer unfit to continue in office."

In their decision, the Supreme Court wrote that said the "catch-all phrase 'betrayal of public trust' could be easily utilized for every conceivable misconduct or negligence in office."

"Because the Constitution defines only very specific offenses as impeachable offenses, there would have be a distinction between ordinary offenses and these impeachable offenses," Te said.

Supreme Court intervention

Te said that there have been "very limited" instances where the SC stepped in on impeachment complaints.

He recalled three, particularly a failed impeachment attempt against former Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr., in 2003 and the successful impeachments of former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez in 2011 and Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012.

In these cases, the Supreme Court did not have to review merits against the accused, as these are left to the House and Senate. Instead, SC decides on technicalities such as the validity of subsequent complaints or petitions.

"I don't want to speculate what SC will do in [the] future... but going by the methodology in these cases... the Court will be very specific and it will be very narrow in its decision," said Te.

He said that SC will likely "focus on a specific issue" and concentrate on matters that are "justiciable," or those within its power to decide.

"In fact the Court really said, we will not talk about the merits. We will not talk about whether [this has] ground, basis, (sufficiency)... because that's really for the political arm," Te recalled.

When asked if congressmen could ask Supreme Court to review cases based on content itself, Te responded, "No one has ever done that yet, so we don't know."

"The question the court will address is, first, can we even decide on this? Is there something for us to decide on?" said Te.

"Because that's a basic element before the Court will exercise its jurisdiction – can we even review this? Because if it says no, tapos na yan [the case is closed]."