Impeachment overkill

By voting against Duterte’s pet cases in the Supreme Court, Sereno did not endear herself to him and, chief justice for 14 more years, unless stopped by abnormal means, like impeachment, she could hound him beyond his term

Since impeachment is already conceded as a political process, not a judicial one, it should not be too much to ask for some measure of elemental fairness, civility, and magnanimity in its conduct. But then, what chances are there, really, that those simple formalities will be observed in a House of Congress taking orders from a boorish, vengeful, and autocratic president?

In fact, at the very beginning, the House elected both its majority and its minority leaders from the Duterte camp, denying the tiny, but true, opposition even token recognition; thus was made shamelessly plain the House’s intent to get its business done by sheer force of numbers.

Those are the precise conditions in which Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno has found herself standing accused. She comes under rules that are totally ridiculous. The mother of all those rules says it all: she may be represented by counsel, but the representation ends where justice begins; her lawyers cannot question her accuser or any of the testifiers against her.

The joke does not stop there. It falls to the chairman of the hearing committee himself to deliver the final punchline. He excoriates the accuser for having no “personal knowledge” of the offenses he is alleging (normally a defining requisite) or, in lieu of it, some documentary proof of the tales reaching his ears. The chairman observes that obviously he and his committee are being relied upon by the accuser “to fish” for the evidence.

Desperate hope of reason and fairness prevailing is thus inspired – until the chairman and his justice committee all the same oblige to go fishing.

In any case, Sereno has decided to take her chances in the Senate, where, once impeached in the House, she will stand trial and may reasonably expect to be given her day in court, more or less in the proper judicial fashion. True, the Senate is itself a Duterte den, but it labors under a great weight of tradition. Elected nationally, senators answer to a national constituency; they are naturally expected to be more broadminded than their Lower House neighbors who, installed on a parochial vote, tend generally to be, well, parochial-minded.

Moreover, as seems fair enough in a case where one branch of government is called upon to sit in judgment of the leader of another branch, a higher bar is set: a two-thirds vote (16 out of 24) is required to pronounce guilt.

To send the case to trial, the House has to deliver only a third of its vote (99 out of 297). But it’s not rushing; it is in fact going for overkill, in keeping with the character of the Duterte regime. It is dragging out the hearing to send a broad, malignant message to dissenters; at the same time, it is picking its priority targets.

The Chief Justice is the only one actually being impeached, but two others have been threatened with impeachment. Commission on Elections Chairman Andres Bautista escaped by resigning. But Conchita Carpio Morales, retired Supreme Court justice and now ombudsman, takes her threats as they come, calmly, but certainly not sitting down.

The latest threat was provoked by the revelation of Duterte family bank accounts her office had turned up in the course of its investigation of charges of unexplained wealth against the president. Replying to the threat, she said her office “shall not be intimidated,” then threw back at Duterte a line he liked repeating: “[One who] has nothing to hide…has nothing to fear.” He has not been heard repeating it since.

But why pick on Sereno, Bautista, and Morales? One reason is psychological, which is nothing to downplay, given Duterte’s aberration. Although they may be merely expressing their moral and professional convictions, Sereno and Morales possibly make the compulsively overreaching and narcissistic president feel like being put in his place. Another reason is practical, though practical only insofar as it, again, suits his deviant designs.

By voting against Duterte’s pet cases in the Supreme Court, Sereno did not endear herself to him and, chief justice for 14 more years, unless stopped by abnormal means, like impeachment, she could hound him beyond his term. For her part, Morales has set her own hounds off sniffing for anything of his to hide.

As for Bautista, being no Duterte man, he would not make a reliable vote counter for the midterm elections of 2019, when local, provincial, and congressional (including some senatorial) positions will be contested. Since Duterte’s leadership is a closed-ended one – if you’re not for him, then you’re against him – the vote will also serve, indirectly, as a validation of his presidency.

In this respect, ex-President Gloria Arroyo, a chief ally of Duterte’s, should be able to give him firsthand counsel: she herself took no chances; she installed her own vote counter./Vergel Santos/


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