Saturday, September 18, 2010

Impeaching the Ombudsman

Floor proceedings of the U.S. Senate, in sessi...Image via WikipediaMany consider the filing of the second impeachment complaints by Akbayan and Bayan Muna against Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierez a litmus test for the new presidency of Benigno 'Noynoy' Aquino.  Or is it?

Under the 1987 Philippine Constitution, grounds for impeachment include culpable violation of the Constitution, bribery, graft and corruption, and betrayal of public trust.. Sections 2 and 3, Article XI of the Constitution  states that the House of Representatives has the exclusive power to initiate all cases of impeachment against the President, Vice President, members of the Supreme Court, members of the Constitutional Commissions (Commission on Elections,Civil Service Commission Commission on Audit), and the Ombudsman. The House of Representatives can endorse the articles of impeachment by a vote of one-third of its members and transmit the said articles to the Senate of the Philippines which tries and decide the case as an impeachment tribunal.

Reasons for impeaching
Ombudsman Gutierrez is accused of sitting on graft and corruption complaints against former president and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo who was Gutierrez' law school classmate of Mr. Arroyo at Ateneo.

In a rare and swift move, the House of Representatives’ justice committee has found the impeachment complaint against Gutierrez sufficient in form and substance and the next step would have been for the justice committee to hold hearings in preparation for reporting the complaint against Gutierrez to the plenary. Unfortunately for the justice committee of the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court upon petition by Ombudsman Gutierez issued a status quo ante order suspending the impeachment proceedings.

Iloilo Representative Niel Tupas Jr., chairman of the justice committee, and Deputy Speaker and Quezon Representative Lorenzo “Erin” Tanada III, said they will push through with the hearing set September 28 and 29, citing it is the constitutional mandate of the House to act on complaints against impeachable officials in 60 session days. Fortunately though, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte averted a possible constitutional crisis by issuing a timely statement that the House of Representatives will abide by the order of the Supreme Court.

With the quick intervention of the Supreme Court in stopping the impeachment of the beleaguered Ombudsman, many speculations are circulating. First is whether the Supreme Court, which is practically filled with appointees of the past President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, will issue an injunction dismissing the impeachment proceedings, or simply delay its resolution after the recess of the House of Representatives, thereby moving transmittal of the articles of impeachment to the Senate possibly next year.  The first scenario is obviously a victory for the Ombudsman, and a setback for the administration of President Aquino who has made as one of his political platforms the eradication of graft and corruption.

Second and the most important part is whether the Senate will rule on the removal of the Ombudsman assuming that the impeachment complaint will reach it, as the vote needed to remove and convict is 2/3rds of all members of the Senate who will act as Judges, or around 16 Senators.  For the record, Liberal Party which is the political party of the President, although in numbers can already transmit the articles of impeachment from the House of Representatives, does not have a commanding presence in the Senate to secure the commanding 2/3rds vote to convict and remove the Ombudsman.  This will be a litmus test for the President to secure the support of independent Senators, and this will not be an easy matter.

Another interesting twist is that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Renato Corona, who is very close to the former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, will jointly sit as co-presiding officer of the impeachment trial with Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile.  The Supreme Court Chief Justice will be asked to rule on legal issues during the impeachment trial, and his position may spell the difference between conviction or acquittal.

If we were to judge immediately past impeachment complaints, the picture is very gloomy.  In 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008, impeachment complaints were filed against President Arroyo, but none of the cases reached the required endorsement of 1/3rds of the members of the House of Representatives for transmittal to and trial by the Senate. But the situation now is different, as the person being impeached is not an elected President but an appointed constitutional officer who is the Ombudsman.  In addition, the 1/3rds vote needed for transmittal is almost a certainty, with the Liberal Party of the sitting President in the House of Representatives leading the way.

There appears only two scenarios that Ombudsman Gutierez can escape impeachment conviction.  Either the Senate trial will go her way with acquittal, or the Supreme Court will issue now an injunction against proceedings in the House of Representatives with a dismissal order.  But then, will the position of President Aquino on the issue influence a supposed independent Senate, or that the rule of law will be upheld by a co-equal branch as the Supreme Court?
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