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The Corona impeachment trial: A GMA News primer

What is impeachment?   Impeachment is a political process dealing with the misconduct of specific high-ranking public officials. Former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban recently wrote that impeachment “belongs more to the people than to lawyers, more to public wisdom than to legalisms.”    It is a power of Congress and part of the checks and balances of the legislative branch with the executive branch and the judicial branch, as well as other independent bodies of government.   The House of Representatives has the exclusive power to initiate all cases of impeachment, while the Senate has the sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment.    Impeachment is not a criminal proceeding. The only penalties are censure or removal from office. However, once removed from office, the impeached officer can be prosecuted criminally through the regular courts.   Who can be impeached?   Only 31 public officials can be impeached. These are the:   President Vice President 15 justices of the Supreme Court (including the Chief Justice) Ombudsman Members of the:
  • Civil Service Commission (one Chairman, two Commissioners) 
  • Commission on Elections (one Chairman, six Commissioners) 
  • Commission on Audit (one Chairman, two Commissioners)
  What are the impeachable offenses?  
  • Culpable violation of the Constitution
  • Treason
  • Bribery
  • Graft and Corruption
  • Betrayal of public trust
  • Other high crimes punishable under the Revised Penal Code and other laws
  What are ‘articles of impeachment’?   This refers to the legal document drawn up by the House of Representatives charging an official with specific impeachable offenses.    What punishment can be imposed on an impeached public official?  
  • Censure, which is basically a reprimand and allows the impeached official to stay in office; or
  • Removal from public office, which includes disqualification to hold any other public office.
  Who has been impeached in the Philippines?   The first official to be impeached in the country was former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada, in November 2000. His impeachment trial at the Senate was cut short by a popular uprising in January 2001 that deposed Estrada and catapulted his then vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, to the presidency.   The second is former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, who was impeached in March 2011 for alleged betrayal of public trust due to the low conviction rates during her term and her supposed inaction on five high-profile cases. However, she resigned a few days before the start of her impeachment trial in May, prompting the Senate to archive her case.     The third is Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was impeached in December 2011 for alleged betrayal of public trust, culpable violation of the Constitution, and graft and corruption.   (In 2003, an impeachment attempt against former Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. did not push through because the Supreme Court ruled that the second impeachment complaint filed against him was prohibited by the one-year ban under the Constitution. Interestingly, Davide was the presiding officer during the Estrada impeachment trial. This was because when the President is impeached, the Chief Justice presides – not in the Supreme Court, but rather in the Senate sitting as an impeachment court.) What is the significance of the Corona impeachment trial? If the impeachment trial runs its full course and the House prosecution panel succeeds in getting a conviction, Corona will become the first Philippine official to be removed through impeachment. How many times can a public official face impeachment?   The Constitution provides that “No impeachment proceedings shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a period of one year.”    The Supreme Court has clarified that “the term ‘to initiate’ refers to the filing of the impeachment complaint coupled with Congress’ taking initial action of said complaint.” That means, in the case of Chief Justice Corona, no other impeachment proceeding can be initiated against him until December 12 this year because he was impeached on December 12 last year.   Who gets to file impeachment complaints?    The 1987 Constitution provides that: “A verified complaint for impeachment may be filed by any Member of the House of Representatives or by any citizen upon a resolution or endorsement by any [House] Member.”   At least one-third of the entire membership of the House has to endorse the complaint before it is deemed to constitute the articles of impeachment and goes to the Senate for trial. In impeaching Chief Justice Corona, only 95 votes out of 284 Representatives in the 15th Congress were needed. But those who endorsed the impeachment complaint numbered 188. Who gets to prosecute Chief Justice Corona in the impeachment case?   The House of Representatives has designated 11 of its members to constitute the prosecution panel in the impeachment case. The panel is assisted by private counsels who shall remain “under the control and supervision of the panel of prosecutors.”   Who will defend Chief Justice Corona during the trial at the Senate?   Corona has secured the services of his own lawyers to defend him at the impeachment trial.   What are the Articles of Impeachment against Corona?
  1. partiality and subservience in cases involving the Arroyo administration;
  2. failure to disclose to the public his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN);
  3. his role in the issuance of flip-flopping decisions in final and executory cases, the appointment of his wife to a public office, and discussing pending cases in the SC with litigants;
  4. his role in the issuance of the “status quo ante” order against the House of Representatives in the case concerning the impeachment of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez;
  5. his vote in the decision in favor of gerrymandering in the cases involving 16 newly-created cities, and the promotion of Dinagat Island into a province;
  6. improper creation of the SC ethics committee;
  7. granting a temporary restraining order in favor of former President Arroyo; and 
  8. failure and refusal to account for the Judicial Development Fund and special allowance for the judiciary collections.
  What is needed to remove Corona from office?   Conviction in just one of the eight articles of impeachment filed against him would be enough to remove Corona from office. How many votes are needed to convict Corona?    At least two-thirds of all the members of the Senate must vote in favor of conviction.     Normally, this would mean 16 senators out of 24-member upper chamber. However, in the 15th Congress, there are only 23 Senators because Senator Benigno Aquino III did not finish his term of office after being elected President in 2010. Moreover, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago is set to leave the Senate later in the year to assume her new post as Judge in the new International Criminal Court, which would further reduce the membership of the Senate to 22.    Thus, it is possible that only 15 votes are needed to convict an impeached official. Put another way, acquittal of the impeached official would require at least seven votes – or one vote less as compared to a 24-member Senate.   Is there a deadline for Corona's impeachment trial?   Since the Senate of the 15th Congress is trying Corona's impeachment case, that means the trial will have to end before the officials of the 16th Congress assume office in June 2013.   Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto has said the impeachment trial may be over by March 23, before Congress takes its Holy Week break. Is the Senate's decision in an impeachment case subject to appeal? No. The Senate Rules in impeachment trials states that after a vote for conviction or acquittal, there can be no motion for reconsideration. Moreover, the accused cannot ask the Supreme Court to overturn the judgment because the Constitution gives the Senate the “sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment.”   - HS/YA, GMA News   This primer was prepared by Marlon Anthony R. Tonson, a lawyer who once worked for the Supreme Court Public Information Office during the failed impeachment attempt against former Chief Justice Hilario Davide in 2003. He also served as a Journal officer of the Senate, summarizing portions of the impeachment trial of former President Joseph Estrada in 2000-2001. Additional inputs and editing by GMA News Online managing editor Yasmin Arquiza.   Sources: 1987 Philippine Constitution, art. XI. Rules of the 15th Congress:Supreme Court decisions
  • Gutierrez vs. House of Representatives, G.R. No. 193459, 15 February 2011.
  • Francisco, Jr. vs. House of Representatives, G.R. No. 160261, 10 November 2003.