By Gel Santos Relos
It was a historic moment in the Philippines. Chief Justice Renato Corona was convicted for failing to fully disclose his multi-million peso accounts in his statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs).
The impeachment process has been provided for by the Philippine Constitution as the remedy to remove from office, those who fail to deliver the required accountability of public officers of the government.
Article XI, Section 1 of the 1987 Constitution stipulates: “Public office is a public trust. 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.”
Those public officers who are given much trust and much power are held to higher standards.
“The President, the Vice-President, the Members of the Supreme Court, the Members of the Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman may be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust. All other public officers and employees may be removed from office as provided by law, but not by impeachment.” (Art. XI, Sec. 2 of the Philippine Constitution)
After grueling four months and 44 trial hearings, the Senator Judges -- mandated by the Constitution “to have the sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment” -- voted 20-3 for Corona’s conviction.
The impeachment trial has further polarized the already politically fragmented Filipino people. Senator-judges perceived to be leaning one way or another have been demonized, depending on the perspective and political color of the person speculating on their personal motives and political agenda.
This is why it was very enlightening and informative to watch and hear each Senator-judge speak out, to explain his/her rationale for voting for either a conviction or acquittal of the CJ. In a way, I, personally, was reassured they really went through the sacred process of discernment before casting their vote.
Analysts and even some Senator-judges say the CJ’s testifying in court sealed his fate, in terms of the inconsistencies of his testimony and his demeanor in the supposed august chamber of the Senate Impeachment Court.
The Senator Judges' Guilty Verdict
“Given his broad experience and practice in investment, these willful omission amounts to culpable violation,” Sen. Edgardo Angaro said as he explained the first verdict to convict the CJ.
The same rationale was presented by Sen. Ping Lacson: “Corona was in Sycip Gorres and Velayo (SGV is an accounting firm) [and] taught commercial law. I find it hard to believe testimony that he does not understand.”
Sen. Allan Peter Cayetano stated his rationale for his guilty verdict: “Gusto ko magbago ang aking bansa. May kanser ang ating lipunan -- na ang batas, pamantayan ay iba para sa mayaman..It is CJ's moral, human constitutional duty to protect constitution, not himself.”
Senator Pia Cayetano pointed out that RA 6426 (Foreign Currency Deposit Act of the Philippines) is not an exemption to the SALN law. To allow a contrary view would set a deadly precedent. “I have difficulty accepting defense of commingled funds. Huge amounts involved leaves much doubt in my mind.” Senator Pia argued.
“Logic dictates we accept slight inaccuracies.In case of CJ, assets SO HUGE, 50 times more than what he declared in cash,” stressed Sen. Ralph Recto.
Sen. Pimentel likewise said there's no law exempting commingled funds from SALN disclosure:"FCDA can't be interpreted for graft and corruption.Earlier law can't be interpreted to nullify purposes of later law."
“How can CJ claim good faith in twisted interpretation of law?,” Sen. Frank Drilon said as he debunked CJ’s defense.
Sen. Francis Escudero argued the Constitutional requirement of SALN and RA 6426 do not contradict each other as defense and their supporters claim. “Di ko masasang-ayunan ang posisyon ng CJ. Ang binabawal ng FCDU law ay bangko, hindi depositor..Kung ayaw niyong ideklara, huwag kayong tumanggap ng puwesto sa gobyerno.”
Sen. Serge Osmena echoed Sen Escudero’s point, and reminded the Court about the CJ and SC's decision to remove court interpreter Delsa Flores of Davao RTC from service for failing to disclose market stall.
Senator Lito Lapid presented a very “masa” perspective: “Di po ako magsasalita ng Republic Act. Ang ginagamit ko konsensya, representante ng masa, di marunong mag-Ingles.”
Sen. Gringo Honasan explained that the impeachment trial is not about personalities, emotion, partisan politics but whether highest magistrate is fit for the job: “Ang maliwanag po ngayon ay may duda na sa kakayahan ng ating punong hukom. Doubt is the opposite of faith.”
This was the position of Sen. Guingona as well: “Batay sa ebidensya at pag-amin ng nasasakdal, ang nasasakdal ay di na karapat-dapat sa pagtitiwala ng sambayanan.”
“Public trust is not administrative entitlement. I am disappointed concessions of disclosure of SALN belatedly done,” stated Sen. Loren Legarda. “My chief concern is credibility, trust of our people in most important institution whose mandate to interpret law,” Legarda added.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan argued that the CJ showed blatant disregard of law and quoted Corona as saying that dishonest members of judiciary should be disbarred. “Unless we punish more, lawlessness & disregard of laws will not be defeated. To convict him is to uphold rule of law.”
Casting the 16th vote that convicted the CJ, Sen. Bong Revilla explained that Corona failed to disclose all his assets in his SALN. “As much as CJ expects of all respect due to his office, he in return has responsibility to be the epitome of public servant” , Revilla said.
Senators Sotto, Trillanes and Villar likewise voted for the CJ’s conviction.
Senator Judges Vote for Acquittal-- Arroyo, Santiago, Marcos
In explaining for his vote for acquittal, Senator Joker Arroyo said: “What was started in House is NOT an impeachment. Impeachment requires formalities, solemnities, liberties...I can't imagine removing a CJ on account of SALN. This is not justice, certainly not law. It is only naked power.”
Sen. Bongbong Marcos questioned the prosecution’s process of making its case, arguing that the Bill of Rights stands supreme over powers of government and yet [the Aquino administration] mustered all powers at its disposal in this case.
“CJ must be presumed to have acted in good faith. What's needed is willful violation of Constitution,“ Marcos added in defense of Corona. “It is known to us that public officials hold same view that FCDU law stands.”
“Walang foreign investor n darating kung malaman nila na may batas dito na lahat ng dollar account mo idedeklara!,” Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago passionately argued. “It is for Congress to balance need for accountability, with the desperate need for foreign investments.”
Defending Corona, Santiago argued: “Kung nais niya itago 'yun, [bakit] nilagay niya sa pangalan niya?...Kung marami sa ating honest, why is PH often ranked one of the most corrupt countries? Nagpapakalinis kayo?”
The Constitutional Requirement for All Public Officials
Senate President and Presiding Officer Juan Ponce Enrile summed up the spirit behind the guilty verdict: “If we agree w/CJ that he's correct in not disclosing, can we expect SALNs to be more accurate and true? I don't think so.”
Senator Trillanes’ statement echoed the sentiments of so many kababayans clamoring for truth, fairness and the accountability of public officers: “From now on, no one is untouchable. We have considerably raised the standards for Chief Justice of our SC.”
But of course, the people’s expectations do not end here, Senator Trillanes. The rule of law that has convicted CJ Corona does not apply only to him. It applies to all in government positions.
Pursuant to the requirement of the Constitution, it is about time we keep only real public SERVANTS in public office. Transparency. Accountability. Service. The spirit of the law lives on.
READ SUCCEEDING ARTICLE : PROBING THE RULE OF LAW
(Asian Journal Article, May 30, 2012)