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The court of public opinion

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With the impeachment trial of Ombudsman Merceditas “Merci” Gutierrez soon to commence in the Senate, there will be another trial that would commence almost simultaneously as the Senate trial.  This is in the Court of Public Opinion where the collective opinion of the people would be formed not only in judging the guilt of Gutierrez but on how the 23 senator-judges would pass judgment on Gutierrez.

Ever since the House of Representatives had overwhelmingly voted to impeach Gutierrez, the public has demonstrated in no uncertain terms its interest on how Gutierrez would be tried before the Senate.  To convict Gutierrez of any of the six charges in the Articles of Impeachment, the constitution requires a 2/3 vote of the Senate; that is, 16 senator-judges voting for conviction.  Since there are six charges, the senator-judges would be voting six times, one for each charge. If Gutierrez were found guilty of one of the six charges, then she would be deemed impeached and removed from office regardless of the outcome of the rest of the charges. 

*“Craven Eleven”

If the senator-judges are going to weigh the array of evidence based on political considerations, the public would be able to see through it just like what happened during the Senate impeachment trail of then President Joseph “Erap” Estrada 10 years ago.

On that fateful day of January 16, 2001, the Senate, on an 11-10 vote, ruled not to open an envelope -- which allegedly contained “incriminating evidence” against Estrada -- based on the premise that the envelope was not part of the impeachment complaint; therefore, it was deemed inadmissible in the Senate trial.  The 11 pro-Estrada senator-judges who prevailed in keeping the controversial envelope sealed were known as the “Craven Eleven.” The group consisted of Juan Ponce Enrile, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Gregorio Honasan, Ramon Revilla, Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, Robert Jaworski, Tessie Aquino Oreta, Nikki Coseteng, Blas Ople, John Osmena, and Francisco Tatad.

In an unexpected move, the House prosecution team led by then-congressman Joker Arroyo walked out in protest over the decision of the “Craven Eleven” to suppress the evidence.  That abruptly ended the Senate trial. 

*All hell broke loose

One thing led to another.  And then all hell broke loose!  Public outcry over the chaotic outcome of the Senate trial triggered another people power revolution – EDSA 2.  Four days later, Estrada was ousted and then-vice president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was catapulted to the presidency.

While it is debatable whether EDSA 2 was fueled by spontaneous public reaction or by an adverse public opinion that developed during the length of the Senate trial, the fact remains that it was the arbitrary and callous decision of the “Craven Eleven” to suppress crucial evidence -- which could have been the tipping point to convict Estrada -- that ignited EDSA 2.  Indeed, Estrada could have been removed either way – by an orderly constitutional impeachment trial or mass action by the people.  In the end, “people power” prevailed and Estrada was forcibly removed from office.

*Survey favors impeachment to proceed

Recently, in a survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) prior to the plenary vote in the House of Representatives, 52% of the respondents agreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling to allow the House to resume the impeachment proceedings against Gutierrez.  And with the House approving the Articles of Impeachment by a tsunami of a vote, there is public exuberance over what many believe would be the turning point for President Benigno Aquino III’s crusade against corruption, which is supported by a large majority of the people.

Needless to say, the Senate trial would be monitored very closely by several civil society watchdog organizations.  How each senator-judge would perform during the Senate trial will be closely watched particularly the four senators (Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Joker Arroyo, Gregorio Honasan, and Jinggoy Estrada) who have allegedly voiced out that they were not supportive of impeaching Gutierrez.  In addition, Gloria’s allies, Ramon Revilla Jr. and Lito Lapid, who would most like vote against impeaching Gutierrez; thus, forming a formidable bloc that favors Gutierrez.

And then there are Enrile and Sotto – members of the “Craven Eleven” -- who are now Senate President and Sotto as Senate Majority Leader, respectively.  Together, they could easily steer the direction of the trial to go any which way they want.

And if with these eight senator-judges are set to vote against impeachment regardless of the evidence, the Senate trial is doomed before it could even start.  

*Public opinion

And this is where public opinion would come into play.  Would there be a public outcry similar to what happened in 2001?  More than likely, yes.  However, I don’t think it would lead to public unrest like it did then.  But there would be repercussions.

A failure to convict Gutierrez even with strong evidence to impeach her could unleash a tsunami of voter backlash against 12 senators -- whose terms end in 2013 -- who would most likely be running for re-election. They are: Edgardo Angara, Joker Arroyo, Alan Peter Cayetano, Pia Cayetano, Chiz Escudero, Gregorio Honasan, Ping Lacson, Loren Legarda, Kiko Pangilinan, Antonio Trillanes IV, Manny Villar, and Juan Miguel Zubiri.

In the final analysis, the people want the senator-judges to vote impartially, fairly, and justly solely on the evidence presented to them. Anything short of that would not be acceptable in the “court of public opinion.”

And there is no telling what the consequences might be should the ghost of the “Craven Eleven” rear its ugly head again.




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