Why impeach the president?

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The first impeachment complaint filed against President Duterte was effectively dismissed by the House of Representatives. In light of the attempt to remove the president from office, how does filing a case for impeachment affect public trust in our government officials? Photo by JAKE VERZOSA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When former president Joseph Ejercito Estrada was ousted from office in 2001, it was at the instance of an aborted and dramatic impeachment trial, which had several senators and prosecutors walk out after a vote deciding that a second envelope, containing bank documents under the name “Jose Velarde,” should not be opened. If not for the vote — and the chain of events that caused Estrada’s ouster thereafter — the trial would have proceeded, and the public would have witnessed, for the first time, how a president may be made accountable and removed from office through the mechanisms of impeachment.

It would not be several years later when the public would witness another trial of a public official — this time, the late Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2011 — which led to his historic removal from office in 2012. Considering the numerous instances of impeachment complaints filed (and declared insufficient) in the House of Representatives, Corona’s successful impeachment was the first of its kind in Philippine history.

Given the stringent requirements for an impeachment complaint to prosper in Congress — primarily, it must be sufficient in both form and substance, stating its grounds based on the Constitution and backed up with “ultimate facts” — to file such a complaint is one of the most extreme remedies that a dissatisfied individual (or group of individuals) can resort to in order to hold a public official accountable and remove him from office.

“An impeachment proceeding is a mechanism of accountability,” writes former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay in “The Nature and Function of Impeachment: A Practical Theory,” a mechanism to “determine whether or not certain high-ranking public officials should be removed from office.”

“It is an extraordinary removal mechanism,” he continues, and is so for three reasons: first, the trial is not conducted by judges, but largely by elected officials in Senate; second, the grounds for removal are couched in broad terms (such as the encompassing “betrayal of public trust”) and are based on the Constitution, as compared to the specific and element-based crimes in the Revised Penal Code; and third, impeachment is the only way by which to remove from office a specific set of public officials, including the president.

Magdalo party-list representative Gary Alejano filed the initial impeachment complaint against President Rodrigo Duterte, followed by a supplemental complaint for "betrayal of public trust" relating to maritime disputes with China.

The first impeachment complaint against President Rodrigo Duterte was filed on March 16, alleging that the president committed “culpable violation of the Constitution, bribery, betrayal of public trust, graft and corruption, and other high crimes.” Magdalo party-list representative Gary Alejano filed the initial complaint and the supplementary one after it, alleging that Duterte committed illegal acts (for drug-related killings and corruption) as president and as former mayor of Davao, and has destroyed public trust through his acts and statements regarding sovereign rights and territories in the West Philippine Sea.

The impeachment complaint was declared sufficient in form — meaning it was in the form of a verified complaint — but was declared insufficient in substance for being based on hearsay. Alejano said he had no personal knowledge of the alleged killings.

Nevertheless, while the complaint failed to prosper in Congress, to file the complaint itself is a worthy exercise in the attempt to hold public officials accountable at a time when legal and political constraints seem to limit the mechanisms by which the people can do so. If anything, it signifies that a democracy is still in place, and notwithstanding the unanimous vote that effectively dismissed Alejano’s complaint, that a single citizen (with endorsement from a member of the House of Representatives) has an avenue for redress of grievances against an erring public official. Impliedly, it also serves as a warning to the official that his or her actions are being weighed, and that even in the face of widespread support, public trust can wane and reveal cracks.

Impliedly, an impeachment complaint also serves as a warning to the official that his or her actions are being weighed, and that even in the face of widespread support, public trust can wane and reveal cracks.

The failure of the complaint to prosper can also help the communication before the International Criminal Court (ICC), filed by lawyer Jude Sabio against the president based on the alleged killings, to move forward. While the ICC does not strictly follow the rule on exhaustion of domestic remedies, the effective dismissal of the complaint may be construed as inaction on the widely- and internationally-reported instances of killings attributed to Duterte’s bloody drug war, a factor that may contribute in favor of the case being heard in the international court.

More than anything else, a case for impeachment (successful or not) holds all public officials up to a spotlight, where faults and offenses against public trust are suddenly held in closer scrutiny. After winning by popular vote through elections, the country’s highest public officials are put through another test, where public trust is measured anew. “Trust is a precious commodity for the accrual of political capital,” notes Hilbay, and the mechanisms for impeachment “allow the people to re-assess and withdraw that trust … on grounds that they themselves define, [and] re-evaluate the terms of contract between them and those privileged few who man the ship of state.”