Estrada: Why was I ousted?

“The Constitution states that the Vice President may become President only in case of death, permanent disability, removal from office, or resignation of the President. Why then was I ousted, and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) installed as President when, clearly, I have not died, have no permanent disability, have not been removed from office, and have not resigned?” asked President Joseph Ejercito Estrada during our encounters.

More questions. He likewise lamented, “During my two and half years in office, I named several justices. Why is it that none of them dissented from the 13-0 decision ousting me? Why did Chief Justice [Hilario] Davide, whom I also appointed, swear in GMA as permanent President, not merely as Acting President?”

I do not have the space to detail the Edsa II events that triggered Estrada’s ouster and GMA’s ascension. But readers may refer to the Jan. 13, 2002, Inquirer on the “Filipino of the Year 2001” award to the Supreme Court and the Feb. 25, 2002, issue on the “riveting behind-the-scenes excerpts” from “The Fall of Joseph Estrada: The Inside Story” by columnist Amando Doronila.

In this piece, let me just focus on my conversations with Estrada. To begin with, the Supreme Court’s role in Edsa II began on the early morning of Saturday, Jan. 20, 2001. At that point, the massive, chanting throng at the Edsa Shrine was poised to march on and take over Malacañang where Estrada and his supporters were entrenched.

At that point also, the major commands of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police had publicly withdrawn their support from Estrada and pledged their allegiance to GMA. The majority of the Cabinet members had resigned. Clearly, Estrada could no longer govern the country, but GMA had no legal authority to lead either. In short, there was no effectively functioning government.

Worried that violence, civil strife and bloodshed would ensue, I proposed that Arroyo be sworn in as “Acting President.” CJ Davide agreed, and in a hurriedly-convened session that morning, the justices concurred. However, during the historic oath-taking at noon of that day at the Edsa Shrine, Davide swore in GMA “to act as President,” not as “Acting President.”

Totality test. The following Monday, Jan. 22, some justices were furious at the different oath administered. Davide accepted full responsibility for the change, saying that the words “to act as President” were neutral and could, at the proper time and case and after full hearing, be clarified.

After a lengthy deliberation, the Court unanimously passed a resolution “to confirm the authority of the Chief Justice to swear in” GMA as “President of the Philippines.” In Estrada vs Desierto (March 2, 2001) came the “proper time and case.” The Court, voting 13-0 (Davide and I inhibited on motion of Estrada’s counsel Rene A.V. Saguisag), upheld the ouster of Estrada and the legitimacy of GMA’s presidency.

The decision, written by Justice Reynato S. Puno and concurred in by five others—Justices Jose A.R. Melo, Leonardo A. Quisumbing, Minerva P. Gonzaga-Reyes, Sabino R. de Leon and Arturo B. Buena (who voted “in the result”)—explained that resignation may be express or implied.

It held that though Estrada had not written any express resignation, “the totality of prior, contemporaneous and posterior facts and circumstantial evidence,” put together, could be and were in fact construed as implied resignation—hence the term “constructive resignation.”

It said that the diary of then Executive Secretary Edgardo Angara serialized in the Inquirer provided “an authoritative window” on Estrada’s “intent to resign,” confirmed by “his leaving Malacañang … without saying that he was leaving the Palace due to any kind of disability and that he was going to reassume the presidency as soon as the disability disappears.”

It added that constructive resignation was strengthened by two more facts: (1) Congress confirmed Teofisto Guingona Jr.’s nomination as Vice President to replace GMA, and (2) Congress “clearly rejected” Estrada’s claim of being merely a “President on leave.”

Reality and redemption. Justice Josue N. Bellosillo opined that Estrada suffered from permanent “functional” disability. Justice Vicente V. Mendoza clarified that what enabled GMA “to assume the presidency was … the vacuum in executive leadership which made the government rife for seizure by lawless elements.” Justice Jose C. Vitug held that Estrada practically abandoned the presidency, an act equivalent to resignation.

Justices Santiago M. Kapunan, Bernardo M. Pardo, Consuelo Ynares-Santiago and Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez ruled that Estrada had not resigned. But the stark reality was that GMA had actually taken over the presidency and was recognized as such by Congress, the international community and the Filipino people. In Gutierrez’s words, “this Court has to declare as a fact what in fact exists.” Pardo, Santiago and Gutierrez were Estrada appointees. Their “reality” stance answers Estrada’s earlier question.

Though Estrada still maintains he did not resign, I think he has accepted the immutability of his fall. All he now hopes and prays for is to be given a chance to redeem himself in the way he knows best: by serving the people for one last time as mayor of Manila. After all, with full knowledge of his checkered past and his heroic effort to resurrect from misfortune, the people have spoken loud and clear. And in a democracy, the ultimate axiom is:  Vox  populi,  vox  Dei.

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