BETRAYAL OF PUBLIC TRUST
Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J.
Very much at the heart of the current impeachment proceedings is a search for a definition of “betrayal of public trust.” But as Justice Carpio Morales said, in the impeachment case against Chief Justice Davide, defining impeachable offenses is beyond the scope of judicial power. Hence, whether the offenses alleged Chief Justice Corona are impeachable offenses or not, is a difficult question for the impeachment court. How should the impeachment court evaluate those acts?
It should first be noted that betrayal of public trust was added only by the 1987 Constitution. As our constitutional text stands now, we have six impeachable offenses: “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.” Betrayal of public trust is only one of a set joined together by the conjunctive word “or.” Under the eiusdem generis rule, words linked together as belonging to a class are understood to have common characteristics. If we are to discern the meaning of “betrayal of public trust,” therefore, we must see what characteristics its companion offenses have. Let us see what the drafters of the 1987 Constitution said.
Commission Maambong, speaking of “high crimes,” quoted from Enrique Fernando’s which said: “In the United Sates Constitution, the term is high crimes and misdemeanors. The Philippine Constitution speaks only of high crimes. There is support for the view that while there need not be a showing of criminal character of the act imputed, it must be of sufficient seriousness as to justify the belief that there was a grave violation of trust on the official sought to be impeached.” Next Maambong quoted from the Congressional Record on the attempted impeachment of President Quirino: “High crimes refer to those offenses which, like treason and bribery, are indictable offenses and are of such enormous gravity that they strike at the very life or orderly working of the government.”
And from the same Congressional Record he quoted: “Culpable violation of the Constitution means willful and intentional violation of the Constitution and not violation committed unintentionally or involuntarily or in good faith or through honest mistake of judgment.” And again from Fernando: “Culpable violation implies deliberate intent, perhaps even a certain degree of perversity for it is not easy to imagine that individuals in the category of these officials would go so far as to defy knowingly what the Constitution commands.”
On the specific offense of “betrayal of public trust,” Commissioner Romulo said that it could “cover any violation of the oath of office.” But Commissioner de los Reyes, author of the amendment, elaborated: “And so the term ‘betrayal of public trust,’ as explained by Commissioner Romulo is a catchall phrase to include all acts which are not punishable by statute as penal offenses but, nonetheless, render an officer unfit to continue in office. It includes betrayal of public interest, inexcusable negligence of duty, tyrannical abuse of power, breach of official duty by malfeasance or misfeasance, cronyism, favoritism, etc. to the prejudice of public interest and which tend to bring the office into disrepute.”
Commissioner Nolledo added: “I think plain error of judgment , where circumstances may indicate that there is good faith, to my mind, will not constitute betrayal of public trust if that statement will allay the fears of difficulty in interpreting the term.”
For his part, Commissioner Guingona cited the proposal of the UP Law Center Project which specified “Acts which are short of being criminal but constitute gross faithlessness against public trust, tyrannical abuse of power, gross negligence of duty, favoritism, and gross exercise of discretionary powers.”
When we add up all these, what do we get? In all that has been said the common characteristic is gravity or seriousness of the offense. Not every form of deviation from a public officer’s duty is an impeachable public offense. The deviation must be intentional and as serious in gravity as treason or bribery which are the paradigms of impeachable offenses: treason because it strikes at the life of the nation and bribery because it impedes the proper functioning of government.
It was against this background that the 1987 Constitution Commissioners approved “betrayal of public trust” as an impeachable offense. But as Justice Carpio Morales observed, “An examination of the records of the 1986 Constitutional Commission shows that the framers could find no better way to approximate the boundaries of betrayal of public trust and other high crimes than by alluding to both positive and negative examples of both, without arriving at their clear cut definition or even a standard therefor.”
Having said all this, are the offenses alleged against Chief justice Corona impeachable offenses. To arrive at a conclusion the impeachment court will have to single out every alleged offense and decide whether the applicable rules on evidence justify the conclusion that they “involve what is thought to be a serious abuse of official power or a stark incompatibility between the offense and the offender’s ability faithfully to execute the duties of his or her office in a manner that will not endanger the office or the nation.” For example, is error in accomplishing the SALN, so muchdiscussed last week and so commonly committed even by high ranking officials, an impeachable offense?
Let us hope that the Holy Season will help the arrive at a fair conclusion!
26 March 2012