The Senate, acting as an impeachment court, denied the motion of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona’s lawyers for a preliminary hearing to enable him (Corona) to show (1) that the impeachment complaint filed by the House of Representatives was not properly verified, and (2) that the House denied him due process for filing the complaint without giving him prior notice and hearing.
Sole power to decide. May the Supreme Court reverse this denial, dismiss the complaint, and end the impeachment proceeding? Otherwise stated, does the Supreme Court have constitutional authority to reverse rulings of the impeachment tribunal?
To begin with, the Constitution clearly grants the Senate “the sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment.” Without doubt, the Senate is not a subaltern of the Supreme Court. Basic is the doctrine that the three great branches of our government are supreme in their own respective spheres and are co-equal with one another. And under the system of checks and balances, each branch is given authority to check the others to prevent the abuse and misuse of their prerogatives.
As part of these checks and balances, the power to impeach the highest executive and judicial officials is granted “exclusively” to the House while the power to try and decide is lodged “solely” in the Senate. Why then should the impeached officials, especially the justices, be allowed to reverse impeachment actions against them? That would be self-serving. So, the common sense answer is: No, the Supreme Court cannot and should not stop impeachment proceedings.
Grave abuse of discretion. That is the general rule. However, there is an exception. Again as part of the system of checks and balances, the judiciary (not just the Supreme Court) is constitutionally granted “the duty… to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of government.”
Note that the Constitution speaks of “duty,” not “power.” A power can be relinquished, but a duty—in the words of Chief Justice Roberto Concepcion—“cannot under any circumstance be evaded.” Note too, the judicial duty covers “any branch or instrumentality of government.”
The Constitution does not define the meaning of grave abuse of discretion except that (1) the abuse must be “grave,” and (2) must amount to “lack or excess of jurisdiction.” On the other hand, jurisprudence has uniformly defined grave abuse of discretion as “arbitrary, whimsical, capricious or despotic exercise of judgment… arising from passion or personal hostility.”
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, speaking for the impeachment tribunal, denied the Corona motion on the ground that the impeachment complaint appears to have complied with this constitutional mandate: “In case the verified complaint or resolution of impeachment is filed by at least one-third of all the Members of the House, the same shall constitute the Articles of Impeachment, and trial by the Senate shall forthwith proceed.”
Citizen-judges. For the Supreme Court to stop the Corona impeachment proceeding, the question is: Did the Senate commit grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction in denying the motion for preliminary hearing? Specifically, in issuing its ruling, did the Senate act “arbitrarily, whimsically, capriciously and despotically”? I will let you, the readers, decide. After all, an esteemed senator calls you the “citizen-judges” in an impeachment.
Pending in the Supreme Court are five petitions filed by private citizens challenging the impeachment complaint on the same grounds of improper verification, and lack of prior notice and hearing. The Court, without giving due course to the petitions, asked both the Senate and the House to comment. Again, the main issue here is the presence or absence of grave abuse of discretion in the filing of the impeachment complaint.
Note that Chief Justice Corona is not one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court. However, he could—if he decides to—file a new petition for certiorari questioning the Senate ruling. If he does, he would in effect be joining (or in fact, leading) the five petitions. If he does not, then the five petitions would be orphaned. And the question would—in addition to the issue of the presence or absence of grave abuse of discretion—be: why should the five petitions be granted when the person most interested in the outcome has not joined them?
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Misreading and misleading. In his letter to the Inquirer, a former officer of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines berated me for allegedly “champion(ing) the rule of the mob” when I wrote two Sundays ago that impeachment is “more political than legal.” Obviously, he misread my article and then misled readers by attributing to me advocacies I did not make.
I did not champion “mob rule.” I was merely analyzing the nature of impeachment so our people can understand it better. The word “political” is not synonymous with “mob rule.” It is more akin to policy. Hence, I wrote, “In the end, the litmus test of an impeachment is policy oriented: will the people and the nation be better served by retaining or by ousting impeached officials?”
Comments, even criticisms, are welcome. But please do not misread my views and then mislead readers by attributing to me advocacies I did not make. In any event, to settle the matter, I invite the letter-writer and the readers to reread my column.
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