The Explainer: What impeachment is and isn’t

Manolo Quezon – The Explainer

Posted at Mar 20 2017 09:23 PM | Updated as of Mar 21 2017 12:42 PM

WikiCommons image of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “The Death of Caesar,” (circa 1859-1867)

March 15 is known as the Ides of March. On that day, people fed up with the dictatorship of Julius Caesar ganged up and solved the problem of a power-hungry dictator the old-fashioned way. They assassinated him.

Of course it also led to a Civil War, and Julius Caesar the dictator ended up succeeded by Augustus Caesar who made himself emperor, turning a dictator-for-life into a hereditary dictatorship.


Which is why history is a list of assassinations and that other method for replacing leaders, revolutions, complete with spectacular executions such as that of Louis XVI of France.

When Americans were figuring out what sort of government to set up, Benjamin Franklin brought up this –even then—ancient history and asked, what do you do, when a ruler proves so obnoxious, the whole system feels it has no choice but to get rid of him?

Assassination, Franklin said, was the old-fashioned solution. He suggested impeachment was a better idea.

Alexander Hamilton, was a thinker and a politician before he was a Broadway sensation. He published a series of essays –think of them as überlong Facebook posts, explaining why the American Constitution was a good thing. In one of the Federalist papers, he defined impeachment as “a method of National Inquest into the conduct of public men.”

So what’s our takeaway from these two?

The first is that politics is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. The sovereign people in their wisdom can make a mistake. They can think they’re electing a statesman but end up with a traitor, a crook, a psychopath or all three. Then what do you do? There are times when the only thing to do is kick that person out of office. Richard Nixon knew his time was up, when both his allies in the House and his friends in the Senate told him he would not only be impeached, but convicted in an impeachment trial. So he resigned.

The second is that if you are going to kick someone out of office, there has to be an orderly procedure, yes; which is why the rules of court are used, to keep things systematic.

But you also need a procedure that is in the hands of democratically elected people, and not unelected judges. After all, the person you want to kick out has a rare and powerful thing: a mandate from the people or from the institutions established by the people. Therefore, the kicking out has to be done by representatives elected by the people.

And the third is that even if you are a traitor, a crook, a psychopath or all three, there are three things you cannot be deprived of without a slow, careful, and non-political proceeding in a court of law that assumes you are innocent until you are proven guilty. These are: life, liberty, and property. On the other hand, to lose public office does not risk your life, your liberty in the sense of rights all humans have, and it isn’t property. Only two things can happen to you if you’re impeached and then convicted in an impeachment trial: you lose your office, and you can be banned from holding office in the future.

So these are the things an impeachment is not, and the things it is:

Impeachment is not a criminal trial. It is about the abuse or violation of, public trust.

Impeachment is not about punishment. You do not have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt., the standard used in criminal trials. It is about whether you continue to be fit, in eyes and minds of our duly-elected representatives, to continue to hold public office. That is all.

Let me explain why. Impeachment is about this question: is injury being done to society itself, requiring the removal of this official?

In other words, is this person–president, vice-president, member of the Supreme Court or constitutional commission—so bad, in terms of his policies or the way in which the official conducts himself in office, that the country would be better off kicking that person out before the end of his or her term?

This is a question of policy, of the national interest, and oftentimes, this is an emergency question because only extremely grave abuses of power can lead to impeachment, which suggests that if things have gotten bad enough to result in an impeachment, it had better be solved as soon as possible.

Just because impeachment is a political process, it is not about letting loose a lynch mob. It does not mean, as superficial commentators sometimes say, that this is merely a numbers game. This is because while it is a political process, it is not just about the politicians. The public is expected to watch, understand, and form an opinion. Ideally, this means the public can see if the House and Senate are acting in the public interest or purely out of politically self-serving motives.

It’s a question best addressed by people who themselves hold a mandate equal to the one being impeached. In our case, only senators have a national constituency just like the president or vice president, for example. This is why both in the systems from which we borrowed it, and in our own system, impeachment is a political process and not a judicial one.

But, just to play safe, even if impeachment ends up a purely partisan exercise, the person impeached cannot lose life, liberty, or property because of impeachment –you will still have to go to trial in a proper court, to lose any of those things.

But let me close with a warning made by the late Senator Soc Rodrigo, who was one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution. He had misgivings about one thing that sets apart our impeachment process from most others. Only a small portion of the House –
one-third —is required to impeach someone. We put in this minority rule, because of how Ferdinand Marcos used his overwhelming majority in the Batasang Pambansa, to kill impeachment attempts.

But, Rodrigo warned, impeachment by design in the past, required very high numbers, because it was meant to be a safety valve in cases where there was an overwhelming clamor to evict a leader. Rodrigo said he was worried that in a multiparty-system, it might be easy for an organized minority to keep harassing the national leadership not out of the national, but purely selfish, interests.

The tyranny of the minority is as bad as the tyranny of the majority. With impeachment becoming not just a minority, but majority, activity, perhaps Rodrigo was being prophetic in putting his misgivings on the record thirty years ago.

That’s it, pancit!

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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