Can the Senate ever be a court?

By Prof. Harry L. Roque, Jr.

Some of our senators have to be reminded that while the Constitution refers to the Senate as an “impeachment court” for purposes of impeachment, this does not change the fact that: one, it is still the Senate, one of two houses of the legislative branch of government; and two, its members remain to be members of the Upper House, elected at large as representatives of the people.

The phrase “impeachment court” should hence not be construed to mean that senators are fulfilling a judicial role, as in fact they are not part of the judiciary. It should only be construed to mean that after an impeachable officer has been impeached, it is the Senators who will decide the fate of the said officer; that is, whether said officer should be removed from office.

Hence, it is wrong for our senators to be donning judicial robes which—in all jurisdictions worldwide—are worn only by judges from the judicial branch of government. The practice in the United States, from which we patterned our rules on impeachment, does not include the donning of such robes. On the contrary, senators treat such impeachment proceedings as part of the daily chores of the Senate. And typical of jurisdictions with strong party systems, American senators almost always vote along party lines.

When the Senate thus decides the fate of these impeachable officers, its decision would not be judicial in nature. It will be a policy decision. Senator Antonio Trillanes hit the nail on the head when he declared that the Senate will decide the fate of Chief Justice Renato Corona on the basis of what is best for the country. Certainly, evidence presented by the parties cannot be ignored.

But in the appreciation of this evidence, the rules of court, precisely because it is the Senate and not a court, is applicable only on a suppletory basis. It is still the interest of the country that should be the primordial consideration of the senators.

This is why I am alarmed that this early, the Senate leadership appears bent on conducting the impeachment proceeding as if it were a real court. For instance, it has said that it will gag the parties to the proceedings from commenting on the proceedings pursuant to the sub judice rule. This is glaring error.

To begin with, the sub judice rule was developed as a tool to protect the objectivity of jurors in court proceedings. In jurisdiction where the guilt of the accused is adjudged by a jury of his peers consisting of ordinary individuals with no training on the rules of evidence, it was originally thought important to protect them from any and all information that may affect their appreciation of facts. Its application to jurisdictions with no jury systems such as ours, have been tempered. Judges after all, unlike ordinary individuals, are trained in both law and evidence. Judges hence are less likely to be affected by extraneous information.

As held by a UK Court in Ref v. Duffy: “…A judge is in a very different position to a juryman. Though in no sense superhuman, he has by his training no difficulty in putting out of his mind matters which are not evidence in the case. This, indeed, happens daily to judges on assize.”

But even in jurisdictions that still rely on the jury system, the constitutional dedication to freedom of expression as a human right has drastically affected the application of the sub judice rule. One decision of the European Court of Human Rights held: ‘Provided that it does not overstep the bounds imposed in the interests of the proper administration of justice, reporting, including comment, on court proceedings contributes to their publicity and is thus perfectly consonant with the requirement under Article 6 § 1 of the Convention that hearings be public. Not only do the media have the task of imparting such information and ideas: the public also has a right to receive them. This is all the more so where a public figure is involved, such as, in the present case, a former member of the Government. Such persons inevitably and knowingly lay themselves open to close scrutiny by both journalists and the public at large. “

Moreover, our own Supreme Court has ruled that contempt for violating the sub judice rule is now subject to the clear and present danger test: In Chavez v. Gonzalez, the Court ruled: “Our laws are of different kinds and doubtless, some of them provide norms of conduct which even if violated have only an adverse effect on a person’s private comfort but does not endanger national security. There are laws of great significance but their violation, by itself and without more, cannot support suppression of free speech and free press. In fine, violation of law is just a factor, a vital one to be sure, which should be weighed  in  adjudging  whether  to restrain  freedom of speech and of the press.

“The totality of the injurious effects of the violation to private and public interest must be calibrated in light of the preferred status accorded by the Constitution and by related international covenants protecting freedom of speech and of the press.

“In calling for a careful and calibrated measurement of the circumference of all these factors to determine compliance with the clear and present danger test, the Court should not be misinterpreted as devaluing  violations  of law.  By all means, violations  of  law  should  be  vigorously  prosecuted  by  the State  for  they  breed their own evil consequence. But to repeat, the need to prevent their violation cannot per se trump the exercise of free  speech  and  free  press,  a preferred right whose breach can lead  to  greater evils”(emphasis supplied).

In Corona’s motion to cite the public prosecutors in contempt, the question is: what clear and danger arose from the disclosure of the Chief Justice’s condominium units? Absolutely none.

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