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Atty. Sta. Maria is the resident legal analyst of TV5. He is a professor at the Ateneo School of Law, and dispenses free legal advice on "Relasyon" on Radyo Singko 92.3 News FM, between 12 noon and 2 p.m. daily.
Subpoena duces tecum ad testificandum, abundante cautelam, ejusdem generis, falsus in unum falsus in omnibus and all those complicated, nay alien, words have mesmerized people watching the impeachment proceedings against Chief Justice Renato Corona. In the same breadth, however, they may also have confused, misled and exasperated the public.
All these legalese and jargon, to the non-legal mind, obscure a real understanding of the real essence of an impeachment and the trial we are now watching.
We have to refocus. And in doing so, we must start with the Constitution itself where the process of and grounds for impeachment are enshrined.
The Constitution is "not primarily a lawyer's document" (People vs. Derilion 271 SCRA 633). It was ratified by 76.37 percent of all Filipinos who cast their votes. It was approved by more than 22 million Filipinos from all walks of life. It is therefore a people's document.
The Filipino people ratified it in the way they understood it. In the interpretation of the Constitution, our Supreme Court said:
While it is permissible to consult the debates and proceedings in order to arrive at the reason and purpose of the resulting Consitution, resort thereto may be had only when the other guides fail as said proceedings are powerless to vary the terms of the Constitution when the meaning is clear. Debates in the constitutional convention are of value as showing the views of the individual members, and as indicating the reasons for their votes, but they give us no light as to the views of the large majority who did not talk, much less of the mass of the citizens whose votes at the polls gave that instrument the force of fundamental law. The proper interpretation depends more on how it was understood by the people adopting it than the framers’ understanding thereof. (Civil Liberties Union vs. Executive Secretary, 194 SCRA 317)
The people's understanding therefore is paramount. While no judge can discern the thoughts of 22 million Filipinos, one thing is nonetheless sure: they do not think like lawyers and politicians. They are ordinary people whose uncomplicated minds do not create any legalistic undertones on what they ratified as their Constitution. The words of the Constitution must therefore be understood in their obvious meaning and such understanding must guide the Consititution's implementation. In case of ambiguity in the Constitution's language, it "should be understood in the sense it has in common use" and "are to be given their ordinary meaning except where technical terms are employed." (Tan vs. Socrates 278 SCRA 154)
Plain meaning and not attributed meaning must be the norm for interpretation and implementation. For after all, it is the Constitution of the ordinary Filipino people and "not primarily a lawyer's document."
Going now to the ground for impeachment, specifically, "culpable violation of the Constitution" - How should it be understood? The phrase "violation of the Constitution" is not difficult to understand. Its obvious import must not be altered beyond what it plainly states. There is a violator. He violates an important Constitutional provision.
But for it to be a ground for impeachment, it must be "culpable". Is culpable a technical term in law? It appears that it is not so, for it simply means "blameworthy". It is an attribution that something was done or intentionally not done, which is wrongful. Culpability connotes seriousness which can be measured by the extent of what was done or not done, by the nature of the position of the infractor, and by the manner by which the act or non-act have been repeated. The violation bears upon the public official's accountability, which is the heart of a decent, honest and good government. Extent indeed can determine intent, but at the same time it is not unsusceptible to justifications.
Caution therefore must be exercised in order to prevent an overly-legalistic interpretation creating undue elements, uncompromising conditionalities and requirements, of what probably should not be interpreted that strictly. Over-interpretation may lead to unjustified narrow legal applications rendering ineffective the letter and the spirit of the Constitution. It can lead the impeachment proceeding in a direction overly court-like with all its hindering-technicalities, and remove it from a process seeking to achieve a more significant policy statement beyond the guilt or non-guilt of the respondent.