POSTSCRIPT / March 4, 2001 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Now GMA can work without that distraction

IT is significant that fallen President Estrada fell from a campaign stage in Cagayan de Oro just as the Supreme Court was promulgating last Friday its decision affirming that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is the legitimate President and that Mr. Estrada does not enjoy immunity from suit.

Erap Estrada must listen very carefully. It seems God is telling him something.

He has 15 days to file a motion for reconsideration. This time, he should listen to his conscience, and not to his lawyers. Erap should not bother filing such a motion, for although lightning supposedly does not strike twice, it just might.

* * *

WHY prolong the agony? Why not face the truth? Countless times, Erap has said he was itching to have his day in court so he could prove his innocence of the barrage of charges heaped no him.

Well, with him stripped of whatever immunity his lawyers have misled him to think he enjoyed, that day in court is dawning.

Unfortunately for him, also dawning is a probable stint in jail. With plunder a non-bailable offense, he is likely to stay detained while he is being tried for this heinous crime. This will be another test of our judicial system and the men running it.

* * *

WE’RE happy that the arguments we had trotted out in Postscript turned out to be along the same line followed by the Supreme Court.

Citing like we did the published diary of then Executive Secretary Edgardo Angara, the tribunal noted that a beleaguered Erap Estrada and the key men around him were negotiating with the GMA camp and seriously considering the option of resigning.

The Angara account painted a picture contrary to the formal claim of Erap that he did not resign and did not ever consider resigning. As the SC underscored it, the fact was that he did consider resigning, and he did.

* * *

BY his acts and statements in those interesting days last January, Erap’s departure and his valedictory cannot be construed other than as a resignation. The SC said it was an “effective resignation.” We called it “constructive resignation” in our Postscript.

That was the correct way to judge his acts and words. They had to be weighed and interpreted in the context of what was going on in his mind and outside on the political stage, including EDSA.

With his resignation having created a vacancy in the office of the President, the installation of GMA on Jan. 20, 2001, as the 14th President was legal and proper. It was, in fact, of urgent necessity since the resulting power vacuum could have sucked in anarchic forces.

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SO now the work of the Arroyo administration can be pursued in earnest. A top aide of GMA claimed that they were never bothered by the petitions filed by deposed President Estrada with the SC, but of course that is not true.

Everybody saw how the unresolved issue of legitimacy had distracted what should be a focused administration of GMA.

The only major distraction left now is the campaign for the May elections. But that one GMA can take in stride.

Let’s just appeal to everybody to now get back to work and rally around our President. Not so much for her, but for our own sake. We’ve suffered enough. The whole world is passing us. Gising na, Pinoy!

* * *

SORRY to say it, but it seems also that the Supreme Court has just handed poor Rene Saguisag another defeat to add to his string of outstanding litigation losses.

But truth to tell, Rene himself never believed in presidential immunity. As a lawyer, however, he had to stand by his client.

Before the SC decision was promulgated and announced, we received a letter from Rene wherein, among other things, he confessed his not being sold on that immunity bit. But what can we do, he said in effect, it was a doctrine laid down by the Supreme Court and errors of the high court become part of the law of the land.

It seems that with the decision announced the other day, the Supreme Court has just corrected itself in a manner of speaking, although Erap was denied immunity basically because he is no longer president.

* * *

WE had challenged Rene in our column to point to the section or line in the Constitution where it says that the President enjoys immunity from suit.

He failed to. Because it is simply not there. Remember, we even offered a prize to any reader who could cite us the charter provision granting immunity. Nobody did. Nobody could.

What Rene did, because that was all he could do, was to cite previous SC decisions laying down a doctrine that the President is immune from suit.

* * *

HERE are the substantive excerpts from Rene’s letter:

“Your lawyers can tell you that in this crazy country of ours, you cannot sue Presidents, Vice-Presidents and Members of the Supreme Court and Constitutional Commissions, and alas, not even the Ombudsman (others would even include lower officials by statute or case law).

“I have long criticized this doctrine as laid down by the Supreme Court in 1984, 1988 and 1995 but we all know that the errors of the Supreme Court become the law of the land.

“The Supreme Court case I filed has a strong pro bono publico dimension as you can see in the copy of the quo warranto petition you can borrow from Manong Max. Anyway, by e-mail, I will send to you an excerpt from our basic memorandum which discusses the strange immunity doctrine in this country. The scuttlebutt was that it arose because certain members of the Supreme Court of yesteryear wanted to cover their behinds.

“I’d be happy to see a system with no bluebloods. In the US, Kennedy, Nixon and Clinton got sued while in office. I would love to see Mr. Desierto lose his undeserved immunity. The Vice President has no official duties unless given some. Why should he not be suable? But, that is the case law here.”

* * *

HERE’S part of the basic memorandum mentioned by Rene:

“The impeachment trial was aborted due to the sadly unprofessional and highly political act of the prosecution walking out of the proceedings because of a negative vote.

“There was a possible motion for reconsideration, which could have been filed by one of the eleven Senators given the adverse public reaction. Politicians respond to public pressure. Indeed, Petitioner announced to the nation on January 19, 2001, that he himself had no objection to the opening of the second envelope, which idea could have been picked up by one of the said Senators.

“Our leaders could have gone to Mendiola on January 20, 2001, to avert bloodshed and remind the throng on the virtues of the rule of law, and, thereby prevent a needless assault on our bloodied and battered Constitution.

“Given such ending of the impeachment trial, we submit that it is not possible to prosecute Petitioner, not having been first convicted. The Constitution makes it a requirement as repeatedly interpreted by this Honorable Court. There is the Resolution of this Honorable Court of February 17, 1988 in Administrative Case No. 3135, and Lecaroz v. Sandiganbayan, which shielded the current Ombudsman from a disbarment charge in an administrative case filed against him for immorality:

“The Court must add that even if the letter-complaint of 18 November 1995 had succeeded in making out such a prima facie case, the Court must still dismiss the letter-complaint in the light of the following doctrines set out in Administrative Matter No. 88-4-5433.

“It is important to underscore the rule of constitutional law here involved. This principle may be succinctly formulated in the following terms: A public officer who under the Constitution is required to be a Member of the Philippine Bar as a qualification for the office held by him and who may be removed from office only by impeachment, cannot be charged with disbarment during the incumbency, cannot be charged criminally before the Sandiganbayan or any other court with any offense which carries with it the penalty of removal from office, or any penalty service of which would amount to removal from office. . . .

“Chief Justice Enrique M. Fernando, in his authoritative dissertation on the New Constitution, states that… [i]t is quite apparent from the explicit character of the above provision that the effect of impeachment is limited to the loss of position and disqualification to hold any office or honor, trust or profit under the Republic. It is equally manifest that the party thus convicted may be proceeded against, tried and thereafter punished in accordance with law… if the [impeachment proceeding] does not result in a conviction and the official is not thereby removed, the filing of a criminal action ‘in accordance with law’ may not prosper.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 4, 2001)

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