Impeaching the CJ: what’s in it for the people?

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

On Monday, January 16, the Senate will begin the impeachment trial on the eight charges filed against Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona by 188 members of the House of Representatives. The charges aim to substantiate three impeachable offenses: culpable violation of the Constitution, betrayal of public trust, and graft and corruption.

Given the heated clash of views and accusations between the P-Noy administration and CJ Corona and their respective supporters, played up in the media since the House sent the articles of impeachment to the Senate last December 13, the trial is likely to be protracted.

Corona has declared that he has reached “the point of no return,” ruling out his resignation that could either avert or cut short the trial. On the other hand, President Aquino has made it clear he wants Corona — and other magistrates whom he dubs as “Arroyo justices” — booted out because they allegedly impede his reform agenda, which focuses on fighting graft and corruption.

From the viewpoint of the people’s quest for justice against the crimes and misdeeds of high public officials, specifically former President Gloria Arroyo, Corona’s impeachment is significant because it is a step to removing a big hindrance in the effective prosecution of Arroyo and preventing her from fleeing the country to avoid accountability.

Although the eight charges must be examined and decided on by the Senate one by one, conviction on just one of them can lead to Corona’s removal as chief justice. Till then, contemplating the impeachment of other justices will have to wait.

The House prosecutors said they could finish presenting all the charges within three weeks. However, the panel expressed concern that the defense lawyers could resort to delaying tactics, which could prolong the trial for several months.

Of the eight charges, the one listed as No. 7 in the articles of impeachment — upgraded to No. 1 in the presentation at the trial — may be the strongest in proving that Corona has been partial towards Arroyo and that he protected her against prosecution.

This pertains to the early issuance by the SC of a temporary restraining order (TRO) against Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s watch-list order on Arroyo, prior to formally charging her in court last November with electoral sabotage.

The immigration bureau used the watch-list order to stop Arroyo from leaving the country, allegedly to seek medical treatment abroad.

The House prosecutors aim to prove that Corona used his vantage position to influence the tribunal into issuing the TRO early, without setting a public hearing five days after Arroyo had filed her petition questioning de Lima’s order. But de Lima defied the TRO and moved for its reconsideration.

When the SC took up the de Lima motion on November 18, it voted 7-6 that the TRO was not yet in effect because Arroyo had not fully complied with the three requirements it had set. Corona allegedly maneuvered to “correct” the decision, subsequently directing SC spokesman Midas Marquez to tell the media that the TRO remained in effect due to a 9-4 vote; therefore, Arroyo was free to leave.

However, the TRO was rendered moot by a last-minute filing of the electoral sabotage case and the consequent issuance by the Makati Regional Trial Court of a hold-departure order against Arroyo.

Another issue against Corona is his noncompliance with the constitutional obligation of public officials to disclose to the people their assets, liabilities, and net worth as provided by law. Already the prosecution panel has cited Corona’s alleged illegal acquisition of 45 real-estate properties.

In this regard, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism has reported, with corresponding documentation, that not only Corona, his associate justices and SC personnel, but also the Office of the Ombudsman and members of the 15th House of Representatives (except two), have not themselves complied with the required public disclosure.

The PCIJ report finds that the Senate “is the most exemplary agency in its compliance with the law. It has consistently disclosed the asset records of all its members over the years.”

This revelation has provided a bonus benefit to the people. It has prompted Rep. Niel Tupas Jr., the prosecution panel head and chair of the House committee on justice (who himself has not complied), to commit to initiate a congressional inquiry on the matter.

The public must press for such a probe to be sincerely and persistently pursued as soon as possible.

Now, assuming Corona will be convicted, removed, and replaced by P-Noy’s choice for chief justice, the people can’t be sufficiently assured that Arroyo will be fully made accountable. The administration’s sustained commitment to complete the task will be decisive for successfully prosecuting and penalizing Arroyo and her cohorts, not only for electoral sabotage but also for plunder, graft and corruption, and human rights violations.

Leaders of the progressive mass movement have questioned why the P-Noy government took 500 days before filing a formal charge against Arroyo — seemingly neglecting her other serious crimes against the people. They have thus initiated the filing of criminal charges at the Department of Justice and the Office of the Ombudsman.

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January 14, 2012

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