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Betrayal of Public Trust:
Views from the High Court

(Article published in the Jan 18,2012 issue of Manila Standard Today) 

Looking to the decisions so far rendered by the Supreme Court to shed light on the meaning of “betrayal of public trust”, as a ground for impeachment, is not very encouraging.  Despite the many cases mentioning the phrase, no decision can be pointed to that fixes its precise metes and bounds. 

Examples of breach of trust abound, such as engaging by a public official in a marital relationship with a private contractor bidding for projects handled by his office, or borrowing by a superior officer of money at concessional rates from a subordinate and thereafter refusing to pay the debt contracted and offering the subordinate support for her promotion, but no case have I found that deals precisely on what constitutes betrayal by an officer removable only by impeachment and conviction.

          The case of Francisco, Jr. v. Nagmamalasakit na Manananggol ng mga Managgagawang Pilipino, Inc., reported in 415 SCRA 44 is, by far, the most recent and extensive treatment of impeachment of Chief Justice.  The Supreme Court had this to say:

“Although Section 2 of Article XI of the Constitution enumerates six grounds for impeachment, two of these, namely, other high crimes and betrayal of public trust, elude a precise definition.  In fact, 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 alluding to both positive and negative examples of both, without arriving at their clear cut definition or even a standard therefor.”


That sentiment about the amorphous content of “betrayal of public trust” was actually articulated early on, even by one of the framers of the current constitution.  Commissioner Wilfrido V. Villacorta during the period of sponsorship and debate of Committee Report No. 17 on the article on Accountability of Public Officers said:

“...I am not a lawyer so I can anticipate the difficulties that a layman may encounter in understanding this provision and also the possible abuses that the legislature can commit in interpreting this phrase.  It is to be noted that this ground was also suggested in the 1971 Constitutional Convention.  A review of the Journals of that Convention will show that it was not included; it was construed as encompassing acts which are just short of being criminal but which constitute gross faithlessness against public trust, tyrannical abuse of power, inexcusable negligence of duty, favouritism and gross abuse of discretionary powers. “

Commissioner Villacorta who had been listening to the sponsors, particularly Commissioner Ricardo J. Romulo, explain that “betrayal of public trust” refers to the official’s oath of office, “in the end that the idea of 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,”  sought to remove the possibility of the public missing the framers’ meaning. He thus suggested:

“...I understand from the earlier discussions that these constitute violations of the oath of office, and I also heard the Honorable Davide say that even the criminal acts that were enumerated in the earlier 1973 provision on this matter constitute betrayal of public trust as well.  In order to avoid confusion, would it not be clearer to stick to the wording of Section 2  which reads: ‘may be removed from office on impeachment for and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, and other high crimes, graft and correction or VIOLATION OF HIS OATH OF OFFICE (all caps in the original-RGG)” because if betrayal of public trust encompasses the earlier acts that were enumerated, then it would behove us to be equally clear about this last provision or phrase.”

The suggestion for indisputable clarity, however, did not see the light of day.  Still, it is clear that the current chief justice is to be judged, on the issue of whether he betrayed the public trust, on whether he broke his oath of office.  And as the nation gets transfixed on the vagaries impeachment trial, I suggest we bear in mind these words, also from Francisco:

“No one is above the law or the Constitution.  This is a basic precept in any legal system which recognizes equality of all men before the law as essential to the law’s moral authority and that of its agents to secure respect for and obedience to its commands...The Chief Justice is not above the law and neither is any other member of this Court.  But just because he is the Chief Justice does not imply that he get to have less in law than anybody else.  The law is solicitous of every individual’s rights irrespective of his station in life.

The Filipino nation and its democratic institutions have no doubt been put to test once again by this impeachment case...”

Francisco was decided in connection with the impeachment complaint against the then Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide, Jr.  Like in the Davide impeachment case, our nation and our democratic institutions are again being put to test by the impeachment proceedings that has gone the stage of the Davide case when Francisco was issued.  It is my fervent hope that, at the end of this test, we all come out the better for it.