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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Bullies in the House

IF there are people who should be found guilty for culpable violation of the Constitution, it should be Edsel Lagman and his gang of minority members of the House of Representatives. In fact, they are guilty of an even worse offense when they threatened with impeachment the eight Supreme Court justices who voted to oust Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno from the post she illegally occupied for six years, unless they reversed their decision. Lagman and his gang are guilty of betraying their nature as thinking and rational human beings.

In their partisan desire to defend Sereno, they have transgressed one of the pillars of constitutional democracy, which is the separation of powers of the three branches of government. It is ironic that Lagman and the rest of the defenders and apologists of Sereno are accusing the eight justices of the very offense that they themselves are unabashedly committing. They publicly lamented the alleged politicization and loss of independence of the high court, and yet they themselves are arm-twisting the court to toe their partisan political line. This tendency to contradict themselves is apparently a trait that is common to many Sereno defenders. Former solicitor general Florin Hilbay, for example, even raised the possibility that Sereno might file a quo warranto petition against her successor when the political climate becomes favorable, thereby insinuating and anticipating a court that is compliant to political expediency.

Lagman’s gang is bullying the entire court, and not only the eight justices. After all, there is only one Supreme Court, and while there are dissenting opinions, every decision of the court becomes law, and is no longer just the work of the majority. It becomes a ruling of the court as one constitutional body, and not just of the ponente and the concurring justices. It cannot be atomized and divided into separable entities.

Certainly, every member of the Supreme Court can be impeached. However, the court cannot be subjected to an impeachment complaint for decisions it renders collegially, more so if it followed the established procedures and its decision stands squarely on solid jurisprudence. The members can only be hauled to the impeachment court individually for acts they have committed that rise to the level of an impeachable offense, which include bribery, graft and corruption, treason, high crime, betrayal of public trust and culpable violation of the Constitution. But here, Lagman’s gang will have to prove that the justices accepted material or monetary favors in order for bribery and graft and corruption to attach. Issuing an unfavorable decision is not a high crime. There were also no foreign enemy interests served or a government overthrow attempted when Sereno was ousted for the justices to be found guilty of treason.

The only possible ground for Lagman and his gang to anchor their case is to accuse the eight justices who voted to unseat Sereno as having committed a culpable violation of the Constitution and therefore having betrayed public trust. But even on this, their case doesn’t stand on solid ground. This is because they are taking the irrational and illogical stance of accusing the eight justices of violating the Constitution on the basis of how the latter interpreted it in the Sereno case. This is a ridiculous position to take, considering that the Supreme Court’s job is precisely to interpret the Constitution, and while one can disagree with its interpretation, one cannot use that to accuse the court or any of its member as having violated the Constitution. This is unlike the case when Sereno failed to submit her statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN), or when former Chief Justice Renato Corona misdeclared his SALN. These acts rose to the level of culpable violations of the Constitution because they are transgressions of its specific provisions.

In fact, if one goes back to the intent of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, one can find that in order for an act to become a culpable violation of the Constitution, it has to be done with deliberate intent and a certain degree of perversity. Commissioner Regalado Maambong, a member of the Constitutional Commission that framed the 1987 Charter, quoted a document pertaining to the impeachment of President Elpidio Quirino, which stated that “culpable violation of the Constitution means willful and intentional violation of the Constitution and not violation committed unintentionally or involuntarily or in good faith or thru an honest mistake of judgment.”

Thus, Lagman and his gang will have to prove that the majority of the court in the Sereno case willfully and with deliberate intent misinterpreted the Constitution. However, the facts of the matter strongly contravene this. The Constitution gives the court original jurisdiction over quo warranto petitions. The court did not infringe into the constitutional duty of the House of Representatives to initiate impeachment proceedings and of the Senate to hear and decide the case, considering that what the court addressed was a different proceeding with a different complainant, issues, cause of action and penalty. Whatever debate on whether impeachable officials are removable only through impeachment is not for Congress to decide, but for the court to determine, which is exactly what it did and for which its members could not be impeached for culpably violating the Constitution.

In fact, granting without admitting that the justices were wrong, such could not be considered as an impeachable offense when it emanates from an honest mistake of judgment. Unfortunately for Lagman and his gang, while every citizen can take part in interpreting the Constitution and the laws, it is only the Supreme Court that is given the final authority to do so. The adage that when the court is wrong, it is still right still resonates with clarity. And while the court is not infallible, it is still supreme on all constitutional matters.

Indeed, while Congress, as representatives of the people, is entrusted with the power to impeach, such is limited to the enumeration of impeachable offenses provided in the Constitution. Certainly, the justices could not be impeached simply because Congress disagrees with their decisions.

In the absence of clear evidence that one or several of the justices were bribed, or that their decision was arbitrary and not based on jurisprudence, and that it violated their own rules, then the threat of Lagman’s gang amounts to a partisan assault on the independence of the judiciary. In doing so, they behave like defeated bullies throwing a tantrum and miserably contradicting themselves.


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