By Ayee Macaraig | Rappler
MANILA, Philippines – Did Chief Justice Renato Corona betray public trust and violate the Constitution?
The historic trial of the Chief Justice was expected to wrap up Monday, May 28, the first to reach a completion after the aborted trial of ousted President Joseph Estrada in 2001.
In a twist of fate, one of Estrada's sons, Sen Jinggoy Estrada, sits as a senator-judge in the 23-member impeachment court.
The prosecution and the defense teams will present their final oral arguments Monday to persuade the senators to rule in their favor. Each side is given an hour to sum up its case before the judges.
The senators will most likely issue their verdict on Tuesday, May 29.
A "guilty" vote of 16 senators or two-thirds of the Senate will lead to Corona’s removal as the country’s top magistrate. This will disqualify him from holding any public office, setting the stage for possible criminal prosecution.
A vote of 8 senators acquitting the Chief Justice, or mere abstention, means that Corona, 63, will continue leading the judiciary, possibly seeing the end of his term in 2018 -- way beyond the end of term of the top official who pushed for his impeachment, President Benigno Aquino III.
At this point, Corona’s judges say the remaining issues are no longer factual, but legal, moral and even political.
In deciding whether to convict or acquit the Chief Justice, senators and pundits believe the impeachment court must answer the following questions:
1. Is Corona wrong in invoking the confidentiality of foreign accounts?
In his testimony last week, Corona laid out his main defense: that he was not required to declare his $2.4 million because the confidentiality of foreign denominated accounts is absolute. He cited Republic Act 6426 or the Foreign Currency Deposit Act (FCDA).
“There seems to be a conflict between the SALN [Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth] law and the FCDA law,” Corona told the Senate.
His statement is significant because he is the leader of the body tasked with interpreting laws. Senators say the question now is this: Is Corona’s legal interpretation wrong, and if it is, is this enough grounds to remove him from office?
For Sen Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Corona’s failure to declare his dollar accounts is not an impeachable offense. She told the Inquirer that the FCDA law, being a special law, prevails over the SALN law, a general law.
“It’s the duty of Congress to amend either the SALN law or the [FCDA] so these doubts could be raised but the ambiguity of the law should not be held against any person affected by it. It’s only natural that a person will choose an interpretation most favorable to him,” Santiago said.
Yet Sen Francis Pangilinan pointed out in last week’s trial that at issue is not just the two laws but also the Constitution, the highest law of the land. The Constitution requires public officials to declare their assets and does not distinguish between peso and foreign accounts.
“RA 6426 is a 1973 law, and the 1987 Constitution is a later law, and it is the Constitution,” Pangilinan said.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile has also cited the same constitutional provision in past occasions in the trial and during interviews
“The characterization of that amount regarding its source is immaterial,” said the presiding officer. “We only characterize it as asset. Was it included in the SALN or not. We are talking of non-inclusion, okay?”
Sen Franklin Drilon, a staunch Corona critic, called attention to the implications of the Chief Justice’s interpretation of the FCDA.
“The Supreme Court in one case said that you cannot use the [FCDA] as a haven for the corrupt and the criminals. To interpret it in the manner that the Chief Justice would want … is to say that the law could be used as a haven to hide proceeds of criminal acts.”
Drilon said the FCDA does not exempt Corona from declaring his dollar accounts because he should have declared the peso equivalent of these.
2. Is Corona dishonest or simply negligent in his SALN?
On day 31 of the trial, Santiago said the defense and the prosecution must show whether Corona’s SALN omissions were a result of dishonesty or simple negligence. Santiago said intention is crucial in determining this.
Corona told the Senate that he did not mean to hide his wealth. Referring to the FCDA, he said, “I relied on it in good faith.”
Defense lawyers have said that simple negligence in the SALN may be corrected, as provided by law.
The prosecution, however, rejected the “good faith” argument, saying this will trivialize the use of the SALN as an anti-corruption measure. Prosecutors also said the amounts omitted and years of delay in declaring some properties show Corona did not just make a simple mistake.
Senators have asked if SALN omissions constitute an impeachable offense.
Sen Joker Arroyo previously said, “Even a crime that may have been committed is not an impeachable offense.”
Sen Francis Escudero echoed Arroyo and said, “Assuming he’s seen on television jaywalking, is it already an impeachable offense?”
Chief prosecutor Niel Tupas Jr argued that while SALN omissions may not amount to a so-called high crime, Corona betrayed public trust, an impeachable offense. (Read: Defining moments)
3. Was due process followed in prosecuting Corona?
Santiago, Arroyo and Sen Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr have expressed concern with the way allegations were made against Corona – from the inaccurate 45 properties to the “proliferation of Mr. Anonymous in this archipelago.” (The publicized issue on the 45 properties, however, was never submitted to the court.)
A key issue that surfaced lately is how Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales got Corona’s bank records from the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC). Morales invoked the waiver in the SALN allowing her office to look into Corona’s assets.
Santiago and Marcos questioned the process, saying there should have first been an AMLC fact-finding investigation and a court order.
Fr Joaquin Bernas SJ, one of the framers of the Constitution, sided with this perspective in his Inquirer column.
“The Senate will have to decide whether the evidence presented by the Ombudsman was obtained following both the substantive and procedural requirements of the Foreign Currency Law and the AMLA. Or should the Senate disregard the issue of legality or illegality in the manner in which the evidence was obtained?”
Sen Edgardo Angara, however, said that the Ombudsman followed the presumption of regularity. Angara added that it was the defense that requested the Ombudsman to testify in the first place.
Political and Moral Issues
4. Presidential control or fighting corruption?
In a previous interview with Rappler, Sen Manuel "Manny" Villar Jr hinted at the thought process of senator-judges.
“Those who will acquit will probably have the view that we are moving towards a presidential control of our institutions,” said Villar.
In his testimony, Corona cited President Benigno Aquino III’s alleged plan to control the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government as one of the reasons for his impeachment.
The President is convinced that removing Corona is a crucial step toward cleaning up government. Still a presidential candidate when Corona was apointed chief justice in May 2010, Aquino accused then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of making a "midnight appointment" to save herself from prosecution.
On those who will convict Corona, Villar said, “[They] will side with the President. It’s political and [they] will assume that this is very important in his fight against corruption.”
Another political consideration is public opinion. Some senators admit this is a factor in deciding to convict or acquit Corona.
Sen Gregorio Honasan said, “You have to factor in evidence, testimonies, proof but it’s a political process. Ultimately, you have to factor in what will be good for the country.”
5. Is Corona morally fit to stay on as Chief Justice?
Senators say moral fitness is the crux of the whole impeachment process.
For Corona, they say it is all the more important because as an appointed official who can only be removed through impeachment, he does not subject himself to public scrutiny during elections.
Sen Antonio Trillanes IV told Rappler, “For the Chief Justice, remember just like all the justices and judges, they have the power to deprive somebody of freedom …. So it should be a requisite, a primary criterion that they should be above us as far as moral fitness is concerned.”
MORAL FITNESS. Senators say Corona's moral fitness to be Chief Justice is the bottomline of his impeachment trial. Photo by Emil Sarmiento MORAL FITNESS. Senators say Corona's moral fitness to be Chief Justice is the bottomline of his impeachment trial. Photo by Emil Sarmiento
With many non-lawyers in the court, the Senate did not decide on a quantum of evidence by which to judge Corona.
For Sen Sergio “Serge” Osmeña III, the ultimate issue is trust.
“In the totality of things, does this man deserve my trust? Am I comfortable with him continuing to be in the supreme position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of this country?”
American impeachment scholar Charles Black, often cited by the senator-judges, said that in the final analysis, “The remedy has to be in the conscience of each senator.”