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Betrayal of Public Trust: the framers’ intent

(Article published in the Jan 11,2012 issue of Manila Standard Today) 

 Seven of the eight articles of impeachment filed against Chief Justice Corona cites as basis “betrayal of public trust”.  What exactly is “betrayal of public trust”?

The 1935 Constitution, in Section 1 of its Article IX of on Impeachment stated, as grounds for removal on impeachment only “culpable violation of the constitution, treason, bribery, or other high crimes.”  The 1973 Constitution, in Section 2 of its Article XIII on Accountability of Public Officers, added a fifth, namely, “graft and corruption.” “Betrayal of public trust” was the latest addition to the grounds that was effect by 1987 Constitution (the current constitution) in Section 2 of its article on Accountability of Public Officers, renumbered as Article XI.

What makes a public office a “public trust” is not expressly explained anywhere in either the 1973 nor the 1987 constitutions.   We can safely assume, however, that by the use of that venerable word “trust”, both constitutions were invoking the centuries-long principle of equity jurisdiction that makes the trustee a fiduciary, i.e. someone who has powers that he or she was bound to exercise not for his or her own sake and gain but, instead, in the interest of someone else.  In the case of a public official, the indisputable assertion of the two constitutions is that he or she is a fiduciary of the people constituting the state.  For that reason, Section 1 of the relevant articles of the 1973 and 1987 constitutions require of him or her compliance with a certain standard of demeanor, both in official acts as well as private  behaviour.


Thus, the second sentence of the Section 1 of Article XI of the current constitution says that “Public officers and employees must, at all times, be accountable to the people serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency; act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives.”  “Accountability” and “responsibility” for one’s actions, “integrity”, “loyalty” and “efficiency” are explicit statements of the essential duties of a trustee under what trust practitioners know as the Prudent Man Rule; “patriotism” and “justice” are imperatives that arise from who the trust’s beneficiary is, i.e. the Filipino public; and “lead modest lives” is a measure that every public servant is to aspire for, precisely because he or she is a “servant”.  A servant is not one who sits at the head table; he or she is one who shoos away the flies while the master is eating.  The vocation, therefore, of a public official, is, if he or she were to take the constitution seriously, a calling to be a saint.

The framers of the 1987 constitution, who were not elected by the people but who were instead, under Article V of Proclamation No. 9 of the President Corazon C. Aquino appointed, knew, from personal experience or otherwise, that public officials like living saints are vulnerable to temptation.  Hence, they provided, under Section of Article XI, that they may be removed from office when they fail to live up to the standard.  Public officials were thus put into two groups, those who may be removed from office only by impeachment (i.e. the President, the Vice-President, the Members of the Supreme Court, the Members of the Constitutional Commission and the Ombudsman, all of whom must be given a greater measure of security of tenure by reason of the nature of their duties and responsibilities) and all the rest who may be removed as provided by law.

As stated earlier, “Betrayal of public trust” was, as admitted by Commissioner Christian Monsod in his sponsorship remarks as chairman of the Committee on Accountability of Public Officers, a additional ground that was being proposed in their Committee Report No. 17.  So, what exactly did the members of the Constitutional Commission of 1986 understand by and intend to achieve by adding “betrayal of public trust” as an impeachment ground under the present constitution?  The floor deliberations during the month of July 1986, as reflected in the Record of the Constitutional Commission, are instructive.

It was the resolution authored by Commissioner Rustico de los Reyes, Jr. that introduced at the Committee level the inclusion of “betrayal of public trust” but it was Commissioner Ricardo Romulo who, during the period of debate, initially explained what it meant.  Responding to the query of Commissioner Florenz Regalado on what was envisioned “as a betrayal of public trust which is not otherwise covered by the other terms antecedent thereto”, Romulo said that “betrayal of public trust” was a catchall phrase...[that] refers to his oath of office, in the end that the idea of a public trust is connected with the oath of office of the officer, and if he violates that oath of office, then he has betrayed that trust.”

The author himself was then asked to put in his inputs.  Commissioner de los Reyes explained, “The reason I proposed this amendment is that during the Regular Batasang Pambansa when there was a move to impeach then President Marcos, there were arguments to the effect that there is no ground for impeachment because there was no proof that President Marcos committed criminal acts which are punishable or considered penal offenses.  And so the term “betrayal of public trust” as explained by Commissioner Romulo is a catchall phrase to include all acts wich are not punishable by statutes as penal offenses but, nonetheless, render the 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 Romulo gave another example, obstruction of justice, saying “so if he does anything that obstructs justice, it could be construed as a betrayal of the public trust.” And finally, Commissioner Jose Nolledo added “toleration of violation of human rights.”  Illustrating, Commissioner Nolledo said, “And so, when the President tolerates violations of human rights through the repressive decrees authored by his Minister of Justice, the President betrays public trust.”

          Clearly then, the intent of the framers of the current constitution is to make the impeachable officers answer for any act, criminal or otherwise, that violates their oath of office.  That is the final question that the Senators would have to determine sooner or later with respect to Chief Justice Renato Corona.