Impeachment: Democracy at its Best

The ability to remove from office our highest official reflects the depth of our commitment to a government of laws, not men.

When 48 people sat down in 1986 to formulate our Fundamental Law, one of their primary goals was to institute a system of government that would prevent the rise of another Marcos. They took pains not to give the President too much power. They adopted measures to prevent him from becoming too powerful. The result was the weakening of the specific powers which were abused by dictator Marcos. The Commander-in-Chief powers that include the power to declare a state of martial law and to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus have been considerably reduced and put under the check of the other great branches.

However, they realized that all of the measures to keep the President within the constitutional bounds of his powers might not be enough. The framers felt that a constitutional mechanism for the peaceful removal of an oppressive or unfit President must be put in place. As such, we have this process called impeachment.

Impeachment is the process by which charges are brought against high government officials, which can result in their removal. It has been described as an inquiry into the conduct of public men. The word “impeach” is derived from the Middle English word “empechen,” meaning to impede or accuse, and the Latin “impedicare” which means to entangle or put in fetters.

Our Constitution provides that the President may be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust. Therefore, to remove the President, there are two processes involved, he must be impeached and then convicted of the grounds aforementioned.

Impeachment is done by the House of Representatives upon the support of at least one-third of all its members, though this means only that the House brings the charges or indicts the President. It does not conduct the trial or vote to determine whether the President will be removed from office. Thus, we say that Pres. Clinton has been impeached although not removed from office because he was acquitted on both Articles of Impeachment against him. The same is true of Richard Nixon who was also impeached but who opted to resign instead of being convicted in the Senate. In the Philippines, however, no President has ever been impeached though there had been previous attempts against three: Elpidio Quirino in 1949, Diosdado Macapagal in 1963, and Ferdinand Marcos in 1985. All three attempts failed to muster the required number of votes to place the President on trial in the Senate.

Our Constitutional gives the Senate the sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment and when the President is the one on trial, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court shall preside, but shall not vote. No person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two-thirds of all the Members of the Senate. Incidentally, the Senate votes separately on each charge or alleged ground for impeachment. If there is two-thirds vote to convict on any ground, the President is convicted and removed from office, even if he is acquitted of all other charges.

Impeachment is an expression and means of protecting our hard-earned and ever-precious liberty. It reminds the President of the elementary principle that a public office is a public trust; that the Presidency is not a license to commit wrongdoing; that the fixed term of six years does not give him security of tenure; and that he can be brought to heel if he abuses the trust the people place in him.

The removal of a President through the impeachment process will surely be a national tragedy and a national crisis, but nevertheless, it will be a display of democracy at its best. A president will be lost but a quintessential principle will be affirmed, that is “No man is above the law.” And the beauty in this is that this principle will be affirmed without bloodshed.

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