Standards of proof

One question that keeps popping up during the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona is the degree of proof needed to pass a judgment. Otherwise stated, what is the standard of proof in an impeachment case? As a start, let us look at standards in various disciplines.

Judicial standards. In criminal cases, the judicial standard is “proof beyond reasonable doubt.” This standard is very strict because in criminal prosecutions, the constitutional right to “life, liberty or property” is put at risk. Nonetheless, it does not entail absolute certainty. What is required, according to jurisprudence, is “that degree of proof which, after an examination of the entire records of the case, produces in an unprejudiced mind, moral certainty of the culpability of the accused.”

In civil cases, in which money or property or civil status (not liberty) is at stake, what is needed is only “preponderance of evidence.” Per the Supreme Court, this means “that, as a whole, the evidence adduced by one side outweighs that of the adverse party…” It refers to “evidence that has greater weight or is more convincing than that which is offered in opposition; at bottom, it means probability of truth.”

In administrative cases, which involve deprivation of a public office (of a “public trust,” not of life, liberty or property), truth may be proven by “substantial evidence,” i.e. “that amount of evidence which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to justify a conclusion.”

These concepts are difficult to comprehend and to apply. Lawyers argue endlessly about them. This is why in my Feb. 5 column, I opined that the senators, especially the nonlawyers, need not worry about them. If the Constitution wanted these perplexing standards to be used, then it would have lodged the power to decide impeachment cases in a judicial tribunal, composed of experienced jurists with proven competence in applying them, like the Supreme Court.

To insist that only judicial standards could be used in judging an impeachment case is to put nonlawyer-senators at a disadvantage. That could not have been the intention of the Constitution.

Other standards. There are other ways or standards of proving truth. To some, the standard is the laboratory. If a phenomenon is capable of being repeated in a laboratory under the same conditions with the same results, then the phenomenon is accepted as true. Example: Every molecule of water contains two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen, under the formula H20. The truth of this formula can be repeatedly proven in a scientific laboratory.

Others accept only what can be perceived by their senses. So their standard is “To see is to believe,” ignoring that the stars they see in the sky are not mere specks of light but huge astronomical bodies much larger than the earth. In contrast, to people of faith, the reverse is true: “To believe is to see,” meaning that miracles happen when the faithful start believing in the inexplicable, in miraculous healing and events that defy scientific or rational explanation.

Verily, the Good Book teaches, “To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see… It is by faith that we understand that the universe was created by God’s word, that what can be seen was made out of what cannot be seen.” (Heb. 11, Good News Bible)

To jurists, hearsay cannot prove truth. Only that which is personally known and passes the test of cross-examination can be the basis of judicial judgments. Under this test, some historical events cannot be proven. Some accounts of the heroism of Jose Rizal, or the “murder” of Andres Bonifacio, or the exact point where Magellan first landed may not muster judicial credence if written by “nonexperts” who had no personal knowledge of and could not be cross-examined on their “allegations.”

Impeachment standard. I do not denigrate the judicial process. In fact, as a retired jurist, I champion it in judicial cases. I am only saying that the senators are not limited to the confines of judicial, scientific, historical or religious standards. As the people’s alter egos, they have their own unique sense or standard of discovering the political truth. Our people elected them as their representatives to express their hopes and dreams. How they know what our people want and need is within their innate ability and capacity as the political leaders of our country.

Even the respondent, in his answer to the impeachment complaint, concedes that the impeachment process is “admittedly political in character,” but cautions against its misuse as a “partisan orgy, devoid of any mature deliberation and of lawful purpose whatsoever.”

Our Constitution lodged in the Senate “the sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment.” That sole power necessarily includes the ancillary authority to determine the standards of ferreting out the truth and of judging what is ultimately beneficial or wise for the people.

In the end, an impeachment decision is dependent on the sound discretion of the senators. In exercising their discretion, they are absolute and supreme, limited only by the constitutional safeguard against grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction. In my humble view, the ultimate impeachment standard is the national interest: whether the nation will be better served by ousting or retaining the impeached official. It is driven more by policy than by strict legality. Of this, the senators—not the lawyers—are the experts.

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