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Impeachment Cliffhanger

Leandro DD coronel By Leandro DD Coronel

MANILA

The chief justice’s impeachment trial here has put the nation in suspended animation after taking a break as Filipinos observe Lent.

The Senate serving as an impeachment court went on recess last March 22 until early May and left the people hanging as the fate of Chief Justice Renato Corona remained unresolved. The defense spent the two weeks before the recess trying to show that the expensive properties alleged to be owned but undeclared by Corona had either been sold already or were never his but were owned by his children.

Now, the nation has to wait.

Corona is accused of lying in the requisite Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth by not fully disclosing or by underdeclaring his assets, including pricey condos and houses, and secret large dollar deposits. The main charges against him are betrayal of public trust and “culpable” violation of the Constitution.

So far, the prosecution has alleged that Corona hid the real value of his properties and has stashed away in untouchable bank accounts extensive dollar holdings (up to now, the dollar accounts remain hidden). The defense, before the Lenten break, attempted to show that everything was legal and in order by showing documents that purported that the chief justice only had five properties to his name and the others that have been alleged to be his were really owned by his daughters or had already been sold.

There’s a great debate between the opposing sides that, even if true, mis- or underdeclaring Corona’s assets is not an impeachable offense, that at worst it’s simply negligence (or sloppy accounting). This contention by the defense is intended to lessen the gravity of the “crime” attributed to the chief magistrate and, therefore, get him acquitted of the impeachment charge that he lied about his properties and bank accounts. But, by asking whether Corona should be convicted for merely fudging his assets, the defense also tacitly admits that Corona did fudge his declaration of assets over the years.

The question, then, becomes: should or shouldn’t the highest judicial official of the land be removed from office for being dishonest? Should the chief justice be held to the highest standard of honesty and integrity or should he be judged as just an ordinary citizen who makes filing mistakes or tends to undervalue his or her assets? Should the strictest rules of correct official conduct be applied to him, who is the chief dispenser of justice to all citizens who are brought before the bar of the law?

So far, after eight weeks of trial, Corona appears to be a man who doesn’t stand out as a paragon of uprightness and rectitude, of integrity and fastidiousness with correct official behavior, of strict adherence to the requirements of the law and of ethics. He hasn’t shown an intentional and studied avoidance of any hint of wrongdoing or preferential treatment because of his lofty position.

What he has shown is that he is no better than many Filipinos who seek discounts from property developers, who crave the trappings of the good life, and who is not above accumulating wealth and stashing it away in a secret bank account. He is no better than many people who are obsessed with wealth. He has tried to be discreet about his holdings, to the extent of hiding his money in secret bank accounts that, by law, cannot be opened to public scrutiny. In short, he is an ordinary man who holds a high position with extraordinary powers, influence and supposed moral ascendancy.

But is being a man made of clay reason enough to bring him down from his lofty position and punish him with removal from office? Should an important person be treated as a common man?

Corona’s career has risen on a meteoric arc, starting in the private sector and later ascending to the rarified heights of politics as he hitched his star on key politicians like former presidents Fidel Ramos and Gloria Arroyo. It was Arroyo who put him in the Supreme Court and later made him chief justice.

It was this appointment to the highest perch in the judiciary that may have sent him to his downfall. The appointment was made during an election period in which no such appointments can be legally made. It was the time when Benigno Aquino III had already won the presidency and as such the outgoing president — Arroyo — was not allowed by law to make such appointments. And, by tradition and official courtesy, the outgoing president leaves it to the incoming president to appoint officials who, after all, will be working with him, the incoming chief executive.

This appointment was what precipitated the crisis that we have today which has the executive branch and the judiciary at loggerheads. From the time of Corona’s appointment as chief justice, Mr. Aquino had voiced his disagreement with it. Subsequent decisions of the Supreme Court favoring Mrs. Arroyo finally broke the camel’s back and Aquino signaled to his Congressional allies that he wanted Corona out.

And so, the nation is burdened with a political crisis, the chief justice is on the dock. With the House of Representatives having impeached Corona, will the Senate in turn convict him? That is where we are right now. And we will have to wait until the Senate returns after the Lenten recess.

Does the Observer have a guess on the outcome of the impeachment trial?

The impeachment being less of a judicial exercise and more of a political one, it is very difficult to predict how the senators will vote. There are so many dynamics, equations and factors to be considered. It’s like asking 10 economists when the US economy will bounce back where you’ll likely to get 10 different plausible answers. Or 10 lawyers whether to legalize same-sex marriage.

Watching the impeachment trial, one’s guess on the final verdict varies from day to day as the senators’ respective body language gives out different and often conflicting signals. One can only make a considered guess.

The Senate has 23 members at present (normally 24 but former Sen. Benigno Aquino III got promoted by the people). It takes two-thirds of the senators to convict an impeached officials, which means 16 votes. Ergo, it will only take eight votes to acquit.

By this equation, the respondent Justice Corona would appear to have the odds in his favor because it takes far fewer votes to earn an acquittal. But, as I’ve said above, this is a political exercise and politics is at best murky and at worst unfathomable.

Having said that, the Observer will venture a headcount of the senators. My count puts 10 senators convicting, six acquitting and seven undecided at the moment. It is, therefore, the seven undecided where the votes to convict will come from.

But, as I’ve indicated, politicians are among the most difficult people to read because they have their own considerations, alliances and past favors to pay back. Which makes my count totally unscientific and unreliable. Which puts us all back to zero.

The impeachment court’s cliffhanger of a break at Lent only makes the impasse even more unbearable and our wait seemingly interminable.

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