Wenceslao: Worrisome process

Bong O. Wenceslao

THE railroading by the House of Representatives of the impeachment proceedings against Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno has begun. The House committee on justice yesterday barred Sereno’s lawyers from participating in its deliberations on the impeachment complaint filed against Sereno by lawyer Larry Gadon. Judging from the statements and body language of the House leadership and pronouncements by President Duterte, Sereno’s impeachment is already a given.

Even then, the lack of substance in Gadon’s complaint is slowly being exposed. Gadon admitted in yesterday’s hearing, for example, that he based one of his serious claims, that tampered with a temporary restraining order recommended by Associate Justice Teresita de Castro in 2013, on a newspaper report and through his supposed inquiry with SC employees. He failed to confirm the allegation with de Castro, who has denied releasing any information on the matter to a reporter.

But if there is a will, there is a way, so that even if the bankruptcy of the complaint would eventually be exposed in the House hearing, Sereno is still not safe. This is the reason why her lawyers has expressed the preference for the House to already file the articles of impeachment with the Senate where they hope they hope “the rights of the chief justice will be protected.”

But if the Sereno case would become a full-blown impeachment trial, it would be good to remind the senators this early that the process is not only divisive, it could change people’s political fortunes fast. Good if the one impeached really has skeletons in the closet and these are exposed in the trial, like what happened in the case of the first impeached chief justice, the late Renato Corona. But what if the public sees something wrong in the way the trial was conducted?

In November 2000, the House impeached then president Joseph Estrada for bribery, corruption, betrayal of public trust and culpable violation of the Constitution, setting the stage for a full blown impeachment trial. The trial would be aborted months later, or in January 2001, after majority of the senator-judges rejected a motion to open the so-called second envelope containing bank documents that many people believed would have pinned down Estrada and Edsa 2 erupted.

What Edsa 2 showed was that in the age of the cell phones and the internet, public opinion could shift in a jiffy. The non-opening of the second envelope led then Senate president Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and 11 prosecutors in the impeachment trial to walk out. This was followed by a crowd gathering in Edsa (Epifanio de los Santos Ave.) and soon an uprising was forming, culminating into the withdrawal of support for Estrada by the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

So in the impeachment, there were the Estrada and Corona scenarios (in the latter case, the public accepted the impeachment court’s or Senate’s verdict) that one could learn from. What should worry the Duterte administration is when the impeachment trial is mishandled by its allies in the Senate. In a volatile setup that we have now, people can easily erupt in protest or chaos.