The Long View
Majorities and minorities
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 03:56:00 04/23/2009
There’s a temporary truce in the Senate while the senators try to figure out how to handle the case of former Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. The former Senate president considers the Senate Committee on Ethics a “kangaroo court” composed of his rivals for the country’ presidency.
His critics reply that – as Sen. Jamby Madrigal put it, relating how former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr. (not knowing that the complaint referred to his fellow former Senate president) reacted when he was shown the general facts concerning the complaint against Villar: “Whoever did this should be removed. Wow! This is big.” – that the case, in and of itself, is serious enough to warrant serious consideration. But Pimentel himself has publicly questioned the manner in which the ethics committee is going about its business.
I listened to Senator Villar defend himself, and it’s important, I think, to point out that he did not refuse to face an investigation; instead, he is questioning whether the ethics committee is the right venue for such an investigation. My impression was that he would not oppose the Senate constituting itself into a Committee of the Whole to tackle his case. Then the proceedings of the ethics committee would be subject to the Senate as a whole and its findings, whether rigged or not, would be recommendatory.
The danger is that the majority might use its numbers to ignore every argument of Villar’s on the pretext that he’s just stonewalling because he knows that even an initial – and negative – ethics committee report will hurt him, politically. This is a very great risk: both for Villar, if he doesn’t get his way; and even for the majority (including his rivals for the presidency) if they get their way, for it would also turn Villar into a victim of their ambitions.
At stake is something larger than the individual political career of Villar. In refusing to submit to the ethics committee, is Villar actually questioning the Senate’s committee system, and with it, the Senate as a representative body composed of minority and majority members with corresponding rights and privileges? On one hand, every majority is granted the privilege of selecting the leadership of the body and its committees; but on the other hand, the minority has rights which also apply to each and every senator.
This is why Villar and his supporters have been able to challenge the investigation, including the complaint itself and the proceedings. But that is also why Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson can insist that his committee has proper jurisdiction over the case. And perhaps, it isn’t entirely accurate to accuse Lacson and the others – their obvious lack of affection for Villar aside – of being a hanging jury. The real jury is the Senate as a whole, and the worst Lacson can be compared to is a fiscal who shoots from the hip, legally speaking.
Demeter’s three justifications for parliamentary procedure are that they are a necessity: first for â€œorderly procedure” to prevent “utter confusion, chaos and disorder”; second, for “the protection and liberty of the minority”; and finally, for “the expression of the will of the majority,” because it is “axiomatic that an assembly functions best when the majority rules.” Demeter adds that “democratic self-government implies that the minority, however convinced of its own wisdom, consents to be ruled by the majority, until in orderly process it can make itself the majority.”
Our current constitutional rules were put in place as a reaction to past majorities that were viewed as unduly unresponsive to either public opinion or basic concepts of fair play. However, things that were surely beyond even the wildest imagination of the framers of our present Charter have happened since then. And Villar has to ask himself how much he contributed to a system that now has him politically pinned against the wall.
In November 2000, when then-Speaker Manuel Villar Jr. transmitted the articles of impeachment to the Senate, he did so by means of a trick. Immediately after giving the opening prayer, he segued into the transmittal, taking the defenders of then President Joseph Estrada by surprise. The gallery cheered him on. But by doing so, he ignored a basic doctrine of representative bodies: to accord all sides the opportunity to debate the actions of the chamber. Having trampled on this right of his own majority – and the minority – all that the House could do was to oust Villar from the speakership.
The Senate itself, in organizing itself to try the impeachment charges, ignored an American precedent that placed the conduct of a president’s trial under the direct supervision of the Chief Justice. The senators, normally accorded the role of jurors, for example, hand in any questions they have, in writing, to the Chief Justice for him to ask on their behalf. Instead of adopting this more sensible American system when the Senate constituted itself as an impeachment court to try Estrada, the senators insisted on being “senator-judges.”
And then-Senate President Aquilino Pimentel was elevated to presiding judge in tandem with then-Chief Justice Hilario Davide, while senators took turns directly asking questions of the prosecution, the defense and witnesses. It made for dramatic television, but unduly tedious and confused proceedings.
And there have been other innovations that have blurred what should be the firm lines between majority and minority rights.
Impeachment itself, meant to arm House minorities with the power to hold even our chief executives accountable, has mutated out of all recognition by the “impeach me” tricks of the current dispensation, and the enduring reality that a large majority can easily gobble up enough oppositionists to make even the minority impeachment provision impossible to achieve.