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Philippines: Impeachement of Supreme Court Ruled Unconstitutional - 2003-11-10

In the Philippines, the Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional a move to impeach the court's chief justice. But opposition congressmen say they plan to go ahead with a trial in the Senate.

The spokesman for the Philippines Supreme Court, Ismail Khan, read out the court's decision on the impeachment of Chief Justice Hilario Davide. "On the issue of the constitutionality of the second impeachment complaint, 13 justices said it is unconstitutional," he says.

The spokesman did not explain the court's decision, but under Philippine law, a judge may not face impeachment more than once a year.

In June, lawyers for former President Joseph Estrada tried to impeach Chief Justice Davide, but were defeated in the House of Representatives.

Still, about 90 members of the House of Representatives three weeks ago signed an impeachment petition, more than the one-third of the number required for impeachment. They accuse the chief justice of diverting $800,000 of court money for the justices' personal use. Justice Davide denies the charge, saying it is politically motivated.

One of the congressmen who signed the impeachment complaint, Jesli Lapus, says he and his colleagues have agreed to push through with the impeachment when the House reconvenes late Monday. Congressman Lapus says the right to impeach rests exclusively in the hands of Congress, and that the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over the House of Representatives.

The president of the Senate, which would try the impeachment case, says it will wait for the House to reconvene. The case has sparked a confrontation between the legislative and judicial branches of government that has rattled commodity markets and lead to fears of a constitutional crisis.

The armed forces were placed on high alert last week amid street demonstrations and rumors of a coup attempt.

Philippines President Gloria Arroyo Monday issued a statement pledging to uphold the decision of the Supreme Court. However, the president said she believes what she calls a principled covenant is still the best way out of the confrontation.

President Arroyo issued the covenant last week. It proposes that the House withdraw the move to impeach the chief justice but would allow the House to further investigate the alleged irregularities.