Sunday, May 20, 2012

Clarifying some key terms in the impeachment process

By now most everybody should already have a clear idea of what “impeachment” means. In the ongoing proceedings against Philippine Chief Justice Renato C. Corona, it means “charging a public official before a competent tribunal with misconduct with the view of removing him or her from office.” In this sense, from a layperson’s standpoint, Chief Justice Corona’s impeachment was “a done thing” when the House of Representatives endorsed eight articles of impeachment against him by an overwhelming majority last December 12, and what we have been witnessing for over four months now in the Senate impeachment tribunal is the prosecution’s efforts to have him convicted for his alleged impeachable misconduct.

I would have left this matter with nary a comment except that last Wednesday, while my son Ed and I watched the impeachment trial on cable TV, one of the defense counsels, Dennis Manalo, made this statement while cross-examining a witness: “If the witness your honor is so declared as hostile, we will impeach this witness… by proving his bias and prejudice against Chief Justice Corona and his active involvement in a well-planned and orchestrated effort to destroy the reputation of Chief Justice Corona…”

At this juncture my son Ed turned to me and said: “Wait, Dad, didn’t the defense lawyer make a colossal word-choice blunder just now? He said he will impeach the witness, but how could that be? Has he forgotten that it’s his client—Chief Justice Corona—who has been impeached and is the one on trial in this case?”

“No, son,” I explained. “That defense lawyer’s choice of the verb ‘impeach’ is actually precise and calculated, except that he used the word in another sense—‘to cast doubt on or to challenge the credibility or validity of the testimony of a witness.’ That’s definition #2 of ‘impeach’ by our online Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary.”

“Well, shouldn’t he have used another word to avoid confusing laypeople like me? Perhaps ‘discredit’ would have been much clearer.”

“Yes, absolutely! But you see, ‘discredit’ isn’t a legal term; ‘impeach’ is the precise legal term for what lawyers would want to do to an adverse witness.”

This confusion over the dual meaning of “impeach” brings to mind this related comment posted in Jose Carillo’s English Forum recently by member Eduardo (Jay) Olaguer about an apparently imprecise legal usage: “I’m so tired of hearing Filipino newspapers refer to judges or lawmakers as ‘inhibiting’ themselves, meaning that they withdraw from participating in a decision due to a conflict of interest. Why don’t they use the word ‘recuse’ instead of ‘inhibit’? Those who recuse themselves are known as ‘recusants,’ like the English Catholics who withdrew from attending Anglican ‘masses’ during the English Reformation.”

I agreed with Ed that “recuse” is the more precise word for that particular act of self-disqualification by a judge owing to conflict of interest. Indeed, my Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate defines the transitive verb “recuse” as “to disqualify (oneself) as judge in a particular case” and, more broadly, “to remove (oneself) from participation to avoid a conflict of interest.” In contrast, it defines the verb “inhibit” in the general sense as “to prohibit from doing something” or “to hold in check.” And in English law, from what I can gather, “inhibition” is “the name of a writ which forbids a judge from further proceeding in a cause depending before him; it is in the nature of a prohibition.” In civil law, on the other hand, it is “the prohibition which the law makes, or a judge ordains to an individual.” The element of self-disqualification is absent in both definitions.

It’s abundantly clear, however, that even without the element of self-disqualification, the verb “inhibit” has gained more traction than “recuse” in Philippine legal language, so I guess we’ll just have to stick to our own home-grown sense of “inhibit.” (May 19, 2012)
This essay earlier appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the May 19, 2012 issue of The Manila Times © 2012 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.