The first impeachment trial of President Trump by the U.S. Senate | Photo by Ninian Reid via Flickr/CC-2.0
According to Alexander Hamilton, impeachment is “a method of NATIONAL INQUEST into the conduct of public men” (Federalist Papers, No. 65). It is a constitutionally–created means to achieve political ends. By “public men,” we mean the government officials, particularly those named in the constitution as impeachable, including the president, vice-president, and justices. It was a new concept adopted in the United States Constitution when other countries were ruled by absolute monarchs who could not be removed legally and peacefully by the people they govern.
People can use impeachment to achieve an end genuinely beneficial to them. As people’s (or representatives of the people’s), the intention was non-violent against impeachable officials deemed to have abused their authority. That was the real intention of the concept. It is also a means for checks and balances between and among government branches and constitutional bodies. But because it is a concept created by law to achieve political ends, it can also be abused and used as an instrument to harass, intimidate, and eliminate obstacles to personal ambitions.
The U.S. Constitution enumerates the grounds for impeachment as “Treason, Bribery, or other high crimes and Misdemeanors” (Art. II, Sec.4). On the other hand, the Philippine Constitution lists the grounds as “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust” (Art. XI, Sec. 2). The “other crimes and Misdemeanors” may include crimes included in penal laws. And “betrayal of public trust’ may likewise include acts contrary to what the public expects from the public officials. The concept and the boundaries of “betrayal of public trust” are not so clear.
“While a few may initiate impeachment, the political party, or parties that make up the majority, determine its outcome. Voting has often been along party lines. The exception may be in the case of the second impeachment of Donald Trump. Ten from his party voted against him.”
However, Gerald R. Ford, who became the “accidental” U.S. President after a succession of resignations, is attributed to have said that “betrayal of public trust” could be “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” Note that as then-Speaker of the House, he became the vice president after the resignation of then-Vice President Spiro Agnew. This was a first in U.S. political history when office succession prescribed in the constitution came into play.
The House of Representatives, in both the United States and the Philippines, initiate impeachment. Impeachment refers to the charge(s) or article(s) of impeachment. The House decides on whether the complaint is sufficient in form and substance. After a Senate trial, it has to convict to remove the government official accused. The article(s) of impeachment is comparable to the complaint filed by a jury, while the Senate’s trial to a trial before a judge.
The result of impeachment or “NATIONAL INQUEST” is “regulated more by the comparative strength of parties than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt,” observed Hamilton. While a few may initiate impeachment, the political party, or parties that make up the majority, determine its outcome. Voting has often been along party lines. The exception may be in the case of the second impeachment of Donald Trump. Ten from his party voted against him. Given political party control and the heightened emotions surrounding the issues that caused the complaint(s), the reason may be beclouded, and the question of innocence or guilt becomes the sacrificial lamb.
In the United States, three presidents have been impeached by the House of Representatives, tried by the Senate, and subsequently not convicted. Thus, Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump were neither removed from office nor prohibited from holding any other public office.
In the second impeachment of Donald Trump for “inciting to sedition,” it remains to be seen whether the Senate will proceed with the trial even after his term of office expires or whether he will be acquitted or convicted.
The U.S. House of Representatives has exercised restraint in filing impeachments, and trials in the Senate have acquittals. A conviction may have been elusive because no single party may have had control of two-thirds seats (67) in the Senate. Crossing party lines is an exception rather than the rule.
“Winning or losing depends on numbers that are determinable from the beginning. If the prospect of impeachment and conviction are distant because the one or few who filed it does not belong to the majority’s political party, why then even go to the motion of filing? It is politics.”
In the Philippines, where party affiliation often changes and politicians jump to the party of the power in Malacanang, filing of impeachment, meaning filing of complaints or articles of impeachment, is more common but not approved prospect of conviction is distant. Except when the impeachment object is not favored by those who hold power in Malacanang and Congress. For example, take the case of Chief Justice Renato Corona, considered critical of the then administration. He was impeached, convicted, and removed from office. Or another Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Maria Lourdes Sereno, was threatened with impeachment but then subsequently removed through quo warranto.
As an example of a filing of impeachment on unabashedly political and personal ends, an impeachment complaint recently filed by people identified with the losing candidate for vice president of the Philippines against Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Mario Victor Leonen for “culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust.” Leonen is in charge of the election case filed by the losing candidate. The House of Representatives has not considered the impeachment case.
Winning or losing depends on numbers that are determinable from the beginning. If the prospect of impeachment and conviction are distant because the one or few who filed it does not belong to the majority’s political party, why then even go to the motion of filing? It is politics. The benefits of merely filing seem to appeal to its proponents who savor being in the public eye for a considerable time. It is a way of telling the public that their party or group remains relevant and consequential. Under these circumstances, however, the filings are a waste of public funds, a waste of time of other public officials, and a display of irresponsibility and disregard of and indifference to what the country and people genuinely need and deserve.
“In the kind of society we have and the government system we adopted, the quality of politics in how the law on impeachment is affected will depend on how the people want it to be. But then, one may ask a rhetorical question, when will that time come?”
Despite the imperfections in its use or its abuse to achieve personal ends, impeachment remains the ultimate non-violent weapon of the citizens against government abuse in the government’s highest echelons. However, a rational appraisal of the consequences lessens the propensity to file impeachment complaints primarily dictated by political expediency. It may be considered idealistic, but it is feasible in a government with officials who may somehow deserve to be called representatives of the people and a people uncorrupted by the transient lure of money on election days. In the kind of society we have and the government system we adopted, the quality of politics in how the law on impeachment is affected will depend on how the people want it to be. But then, one may ask a rhetorical question, when will that time come?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Manuel B. Quintal, ESQ., practices law in New York since 1989. He is active in the community as a member, an officer or a legal adviser of various professional, business, and not-for-profit organizations. He was a columnist of Newstar Philippines, an English language weekly newspaper published in New York, from 2006-2009. He was Executive Editor of International Tribune, an English language weekly newspaper for the Asian community, based in New York, from 2010 to 2012. He is admitted to practice law in the Philippines and New York State. He has graduate degrees in Political Science and an LL.M. major in International Law.