Withdrawal Method – Impeachment and the looming crisis

Posted: October 1, 2010 in Socio-Political
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“Why not just withdraw the second complaint?”

This was a question raised by some commentators after the Supreme Court issued a status quo ante order vs. the impeachment proceedings against Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. The High Court issued the order because, as its spokesman said, there were two impeachment complaints which appeared to be in violation of the constitution.

Pending before the House Justice Committee are two complaints filed separately by former Akbayan Representative Risa Hontiveros and the group of Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes, Pagbabago Co-Chair Mo. Mary John Mananzan, COURAGE chair Ferdie Gaite, KMP sec-gen Danilo Ramos and LFS Chair Terry Ridon. The complaints were referred to the Justice Committee at the same time. They were also found to be sufficient in form and substance.

Gutierrez sought a stop to the impeachment proceedings, saying her rights, not just the constitution, were being violated.

Now the House of Representatives appears to be on a head-on collision with the Supreme Court. The House Justice Committee voted that it will not abdicate its duty to initiate impeachment proceedings against public officials. When would it conduct its next hearing, we don’t know. But the message is clear that the House will insist that it has the exclusive power to impeach. Meanwhile the SC has said that the “rule of law” should be upheld.

So again, the question is asked, why not just withdraw the second complaint and avert a constitutional crisis?

In life as in politics, withdrawal doesn’t guarantee you’re safe from unwanted results.

First, the looming constitutional crisis is not brought about by the existence of a second complaint. It is brought about by the unwarranted and premature intervention of the SC in the impeachment process. There have been previous instances wherein SC petitions regarding the impeachment process were dismissed by the SC because they were premature. The court did this in 2005 when it dismissed Atty. Jun Francisco’s complaint assailing the decision of the House Justice Committee for junking an amended impeachment complaint vs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The SC said there were still other remedies that Francisco could avail of. The same should have applied to Gutierrez’ petition.

Second, the Gutierrez petition is not just about the two complaints violating the constitutional ban on impeachment. In her petition before the SC, Gutierrez also questioned the determination of form and substance of an impeachment complaint. She also questioned the ground for impeachment. So even if the second complaint is withdraw, that won’t stop Gutierrez from going to court to stop the proceedings.

But on a more fundamental issue, we believe that the filing of the second complaint is just move and does not violate any provision of the constitution. And that withdrawing it only strengthens the position of Gutierrez.

As we have said in our Comments to Gutierrez’ petition, we believe that the impeachment process, being the ONLY process of accountability for certain public officials, should be made accessible to the public. It should not be so restrictive as to deny the public the opportunity to make their officials accountable. The one-complaint-a-year interpretation of the Constitution is highly restrictive and favors the impeachable official. As we have seen over the past five years in impeachment complaints vs. Arroyo, the process has been turned into a rat-race. Defective “Lozano complaints” have been filed ahead of legitimate complaints in order to shield Arroyo from impeachment.

Once a defective complaint has been filed, other complaints are effectively barred.

Nowhere does is say in the Constitution that there can only be one complaint per year against an official. What the Constitution says is that there can only be one impeachment PROCEEDING initiated against an official in a year. We believe that multiple complaints within ONE impeachment proceeding should be allowed.

When do we say that an impeachment proceeding has been initiated? The prevailing jurisprudence is that impeachment proceedings are initiated upon the filing of a complaint and its referral to the committee. For us, even this remains restrictive on many aspects.

Signatories in the second impeachment complaint have asked the SC to reexamine and abandon certain portions of its ruling in Francisco vs. House of Representatives with respect to the initiation of the impeachment proceedings. Our contention is that impeachment proceedings are initiated upon the transmittal and filing the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate for the conduct of the impeachment trial proceedings. This is akin to a fiscal filing a case in court, which marks the start of the criminal proceedings. In this case, the House of Representatives takes on the role of fiscal while the Senate where the trial takes place, is the impeachment court.

As one lawyer puts it, it is only the House of Representatives that can initiate impeachment proceedings against an official. No person, no complainant can do the same by the mere filing of a complaint. The mere filing does not mean the impeachment proceedings have been initiated. So why be fixated on a one-complaint-per-year rule? There can be multiple complaints filed as far as were concerned, but these cannot mean that the impeachment proceedings have been initiated. It is only after the HOR’s transmittal and filing of the Articles of Impeachment to Senate can we say that the proceedings have been initiated.

How important is this issue before the SC? It is very important if we are to make Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her cohorts accountable for their actions over the past nine years. The Ombudsman remains a major stumbling block in our fight for public accountability. Even the findings of the so-called Truth Commission will have to be submitted to the Ombudsman before any case can be filed. If we lose this case, holding GMA et al accountable would be far more difficult.

The burden of averting the crisis should not be passed on the citizen complainants and their decision to withdraw the second complaint. The burden should be on the government, on the executive and legislative branches. They should show political will in going after Gutierrez. The burden should also be on the SC which, sad to say, appears to have shown inconsistency in its rulings pertaining to impeachment complaints. Some observers say that the SC behaves like this because they are impeachable officials too, and their rulings can also be used against them one day.

In the end, the people must show the three branches of government that we demand justice and accountability from our public officials. We have waited years to make them accountable and it is high time that we get things going, ASAP.

See you at the SC Oral Arguments on October 5, 2pm.

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