Stars of the impeachment

Leandro DD coronelMANILA

In the continuing impeachment trial here of the country’s Chief Justice, the prosecuting panel has been soundly routed by the courtroom-savvy private lawyers of the defense. It’s been a one-sided shootout so far.

Chief Justice Renato Corona is on the impeachment dock for violation of the Constitution, betrayal of public trust, and graft and corruption. This breaks down to his alleged judicial bias (in favor of ex-President Gloria Arroyo), corruption, infidelity to his high position, and other related offenses.

The prosecutors, who are members of the House of Representatives as called for by the Constitution, have so far been inept as prosecuting attorneys, clueless about trial tactics, and generally unprepared for a momentous fight that they themselves picked. Impeachments emanate from the House of Representatives and tried by the Senate sitting as an impeachment court.

At this writing, the trial has gone on for a couple of weeks. The pace of the proceedings has tediously resembled that of a pregnant snail, and the back-and-forth between prosecution and defense oppressively boring.

Unexpectedly, the star of the trial so far has been the presiding senator-judge, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, a veteran and wily politician who has had a long presence on the scene that has mostly been negative. He was Ferdinand Marcos’s chief implementor of martial law in the 1970s-80s. One of his more dubious claims to fame is that of faking an ambush to lay the basis for the declaration of martial rule and Marcos’s long dictatorship.

But, as fate would have it, Enrile turned against Marcos in 1986, but only because he had been on the outs with his boss and was said to be already on Marcos’s liquidation list. Enrile led a small group of mutineers against Marcos and appeared destined for a crushing defeat until they were saved by masses of people who by then had had enough of Marcos and gave the global lexicon the phrase People Power, which toppled Marcos.

At Corona’s impeachment trial, Enrile has been judicious with his rulings as prosecution and defense tangled. Perhaps this is his attempt at redemption, atoning for his political sins before he finally exits the political stage.

The lead defense counsel, ex-Supreme Court Justice Serafin Cuevas, has been hogging the trial with his exhibitions of courtroom mastery. Already in his 80s, Cuevas has virtually single-handedly taken on the prosecution, even lecturing them on their lapses in legal procedures. Clearly, Cuevas is in his element inside a courtroom, and knows the Law inside-out.

But his constant objections to prosecution moves and utterances has been annoying, not only to television viewers but, sometimes, also to Sen. Enrile, the presiding officer. Observers complain that Cuevas is overdoing his show of legal tactics and maneuverings, even delaying the proceedings.

What Cuevas is doing is showboating, like an exhibitionist who wants the public and the world to see how extensively he knows jurisprudence and legal precedents.

Members of the court, and even Enrile, respect Cuevas and he is treated, or tolerated, as a sort of legal curmudgeon who is himself annoying but who also gets annoyed when the opposing side drums up enough nerve to contradict him and engage him in debate. But his irritating tactics may turn the people against him and his team for being too much of a stickler for legal details. And, if further seen as causing the trial to bog down in procedure and move at the pace of an iceberg, then the prosecution might earn public sympathy which could translate into public violence and street action in case Corona is acquitted.

In this court, Cuevas lectures and Enrile scolds.

There’s a Filipino expression  — kulang sa pansin <D>or KSP — referring to someone who feels left out because of a lack of attention from others. Another “star” at the impeachment trial is one such KSP. Sen. Miriam Santiago is a loud, rough talker who berates anybody she doesn’t like. She calls people names and abuses, embarrasses and humiliates them if they happen to annoy her.

But what gives her the right?

The tragic thing is nobody dares to take her on for fear of embarrassment. So, most people simply accept her with amused tolerance. Like Cuevas (who, by the way, sports a funny hairstyle), Santiago knows the law. But, for the record, she passed the bar with a 79 percent grade average.

Santiago is an arrogant, crass and terminally insecure individual who is so KSP, she has to throw around big words to insult innocent people. Star? Bah!

The trial so far has all been procedure — marking of potential evidence and procedural debate over its relevance and admissibility. Boring stuff for most observers, something only lawyers relish.

Is the prosecution, with its ineptitude and errors of procedure, bound for defeat and, thus, Corona’s acquittal by the impeachment court?

It’s still early days to tell. They’ve not even completed the first article of impeachment on the table. Many developments are still to come, for sure. But, for now, the prosecutors had better get their act together if they want to win their case.

On the one side — the prosecutors — are like law student lawyers, mock attorneys, groping in the dark as they attempt to litigate a case, maybe for the first time in their lives as they’re not practicing barristers. Mostly young members of Congress, the prosecutors are virtual strangers in a courtroom. Courtroom trials are not these congressmen’s bread-and-butter; their bread-and-butter is how to make their bread and butter from the people’s money.

And on the opposite side — the defense counsel — are all trial-savvy, legal battle-tested, high-flying attorneys who practically live in courtrooms. Unfair, perhaps? Well, it seems in law, as in politics, there’s nothing unfair. All is fair in law and in politics.

A telling tableau from the first day of the trial was provided by the opposing sides’ respective attires. The members of the defense were practically all dressed up in expensive-looking foreign-brand woggy suits, including and especially the lead counsel, the crusty Justice Cuevas, who’s been seen in pastel-colored suits that hang too long, you wonder if he’s still living in the zoot-suit era.

And the prosecutors? They all came in the traditional Filipino formal shirt — the barong tagalog <D>for the men and the demure kimona <D>for the couple of women prosecutors.

Maybe there’s a metaphor somewhere there?

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