Enrile sets the tone.

Setting the tone: Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile

The final debate between prosecutors and the defense counsels in Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment trial at the Senate this afternoon showed the glaring difference between how the Prosecution and the Defense view the impeachment proceedings. The prosecutors framed their arguments more on on the basis of the fundamental political question of whether it is in the interest of the Philippines for the Chief Justice to remain in office. The Defense, on the other hand, wrapped their speeches with elaborate legalese that, for me, served only to buttress the Prosecution’s claims that the Chief Justice’s defense is merely an excuse. It doesn’t help that many among the senators are non-lawyers.

But the oral arguments aside, what caught my attention was the messages sent by several important players in this impeachment drama. I’m sure these messages are not lost on many political observers.

The first unambiguous message was Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s assertion of the Senate’s sole authority to conduct the impeachment proceedings. The Defense team has a pending petition for certiorari before the Supreme Court questioning the jurisdiction of the Senate Impeachment Court on grounds that the House of Representatives committed grave abuse of discretion in transmitting the Articles of Impeachment to the Upper House. Chief defense counsel Serafin Cuevas has also said that he will take the case to the Supreme Court in the event of an acquittal. The Senate President, however, sternly stated that the Supreme Court has no power to overturn the Senate’s decision. That, I think, was a message to the Supreme Court: Don’t encroach on our territory.

In an ambush interview with the Inquirer, Associate Justice Martin Villarama, who had been assigned to write the ruling on the impeached Chief Justice’s petition, said something that’s music to the Senate President’s ear: “We’ll accept the (Senate’s) verdict. Whatever it is, we’ll accept it.” It’s difficult to tell if this is the Supreme Court’s reply to the Senate President’s message, of course; but it’s an indication that the Supreme Court is no longer as assertive in protecting its chief as it was seen to be when it immediately released that TRO on the Senate’s inquiry into Chief Justice Corona’s dollar accounts, which the Senate graciously respected.

The second message, meanwhile, came from the House of Representatives through the speeches of Congressman Rudy Farinas and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte: “The House of Representatives has done its constitutional duty of impeaching Renato Corona and proving his guilt, not only by clear and convincing evidence, but conclusive evidence brought about his admission before the honourable Senate of the charge against him under Article II of the Articles on Impeachment.” I think this was the Lower House’s way of putting the Upper House on the spot before the court of public opinion. It was undoubtedly a challenge to the Senate: We’ve done our part, now do yours.

Finally, the third and most intriguing signal came, again, from Senate President Enrile. Just before the court adjourned, the Senate President posed several questions to the Defense’s star lawyer, Justice Serafin Cuevas.  The presiding officer basically laid down several premises: Firstly, a public servant’s disclosure of his foreign currency deposits has no inherent harm to his person. Secondly, the constitutionally-mandated duty of public officials to disclose everything they own is a sovereign command from the people themselves that all public servants must not ignore. Thirdly, and this is very telling, the word “culpable” in the impeachable offense of “culpable violation of the Constitution” is derived from the Latin word “culpa.” The Senate President pointed out that, according to basic Roman Law, culpa means fault deserving of blame; a contrast from dolus, which means intentional violation.

The Senate President’s insinuation is a very compelling one: In determining “culpable violation of the Constitution,” intent is irrelevant. Therefore, the Defense’s argument of “good faith” is immaterial. This, to my mind, stunned Justice Cuevas, whom I believe was roughly handled by the Senate President.

The exchange between the two legal eagles was not without humor and was extremely interesting, so I’m posting the video here:

Now, was Senate President Enrile setting the tone for the Chief Justice’s conviction on the basis of culpable violation of the Constitution and not just betrayal of public trust? Most observers think so. Congressman Farinas, however, burst the bubble by telling the presiding officer that the framers of the Constitution actually intended “culpable violation” to mean “willful violation.”

At any rate, the first two premises laid by Senator Enrile was telling: A public servant’s constitutional duty of disclosing all assets trumps the statutory privilege of keeping his dollars hidden from public view. To me, that was indicative of how the Senate President and his bloc of four senators will vote. This is significant because, the way I see it, the Enrile bloc can swing the verdict.

The Senate President’s voice holds considerable sway among the senators, especially those who are undecided. To me, his forceful interpelation of Justice Cuevas was his way of using that voice– and its influence– for the first time. He was indeed setting the tone.

I will be greatly surprised if the Senate acquits the impeached Chief Justice tomorrow.

UPDATE, MAY 29: The Senate votes 20-3 to oust Chief Justice Renator Corona from his office. The verdict is “immediately executory.”

UPDATE, MAY 30: The Philippine Star reports that the Senate President and his bloc of four senators met with the Nacionalista Party’s senators Loren Legarda and Manuel Villar, and Lakas chair Senator Ramon Revilla Jr. on Sunday, confirming that the Enrile bloc indeed swayed the vote.

Also, Yahoo! News reports that Senate President Enrile has categorically stated that the Senate will defy the Supreme Court should it try to overturn its decision.

More on the Corona impeachment drama here.

If you like what you read here, you will definitely like The Observers, a group blog on politics, society, history, and international affairs. The Nutbox has moved to the said website. 

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15 comments

        • The Nutbox

          Enrile is a stalwart of the Puersa ng Masang Pilipino, the party of President Estrada. He was actually instrumental in persuading Estrada in 2010 to agree with Renato Constantino Jr.’s strategy of attacking candidate Villar (Estrada was so confident of his base that he thought any negative campaigning is beneath him). And of course, Enrile had been an ally of Estrada since 1989. Enrile had described Jinggoy as his protege, and Jinggoy calls Enrile a mentor and father figure.

          Honasan’s loyalty, on the other hand, goes back to the RAM days during the Marcos regime and through the coup season under Cory Aquino.

          Sotto has said that the Enrile bloc will not vote as one. I don’t buy it, of course. Please see: http://www.rappler.com/nation/special-coverage/corona-trial/6098-corona-verdict-immediately-executory

  1. The Nutbox

    FROM TED TE:

    FROM WHERE I SIT: The closing arguments added little to what the Senators-Jurors ought to already know. While the summation by former Dean Delos Angeles was effective (especially in contrast to his counterpart from the House panel) and the summation by Congressman Farinas was an effective appeal to the least common denominator, for me, the most significant interventions came from the Senate President and the Speaker of the House.

    The Speaker’s first and only intervention in the proceedings proved to be invaluable as it provided the frame under which the proceedings could be viewed (considering the absence of cross-examination by the prosecutors of the respondent, which I still believe was a major tactical blunder)–that the Chief Justice’s defense was that he was entitled to preferential treatment from the SALN law which was mandatory to all. His pointed reference to the Chief Justice’s concurrence in opinions of the Court on lesser officials being dismissed for doing precisely the very act he now justifies ought to have been among the first questions that the House prosecutors asked on cross examination; the Speaker’s intervention, through closing argument, effectively placed on record that frame and preserved it for what appears to be an attempt by the respondent to seek judicial review should a conviction be obtained.

    However, it was the Senate President’s interventions, after Atty. Cuevas’s closing, that proved invaluable to a greater appreciation by the Senators-Jurors and the public at large of what is truly at stake here.

    The Senate President’s pointed “hypothetical” about the sovereign command for public officials to disclose all their assets in relation to “culpable” violations of the Constitution was the question that: (1) showed the most serious chink in Atty. Cuevas’s supposed armor of invincibility and erudition (the definition of “culpa” and “culpable offenses” being among the first to be taken up in criminal law; at least in my classes), (2) deftly steered the focus of the Senators-Jurors away from the need for intent and the defense of good faith and back to the indispensable element under the constitution–culpability, and (3) neatly summed up the nature of the command that was the overarching issue in the proceedings, a sovereign one that could not simply be cavalierly ignored, least of all by a Chief Justice.

  2. Diego

    Nice read, well done! Only one thing I noticed: “Chief defense counsel Serafin Cuevas has also said that he will take the case to the Supreme Court in the event of an acquittal.” Why would Att. Cuevas do that?

  3. counterflow

    I think I would agree with Fariñas concerning intent and violation of the Constitution. However, once the prosecution has shown that there is a violation, then the defense must show that the error was made in good faith. This is where the defense failed. Their tagline is: “I don’t have to” which is a far cry from “I’m sorry I was wrong, I didn’t mean to” which should’ve been the tagline of a defense based on lack of intent to violate the Constitution.

    The whole trial is a show of bad faith on the part of Corona. First to hide, then deny, then say he doesn’t have to declare all those money in his accounts. So yes, there is still a case for culpable violation in my inexpert opinion.

    As an aside, it was entertaining to see Cuevas look like a freshman law student.

    • The Nutbox

      I totally agree. The definition of “culpable” has been defined by the Constitution’s framers, as Farinas said. At any rate, if Enrile will deviate from the framer’s intent and define “culpable” his own way to justify conviction, he won’t be different from the Arroyo Court that played with the Constitution’s words, and deviated from the framers’ intent and Jurisprudence, to justify Corona’s midnight appointment. Indeed, it would be like Enrile playing a joke on Corona, who also deviated from the Constitution’s intent in justifying non-disclosure of his assets in his SALN.

      As I said on Twitter, it seems that if Corona can twist the law to justify an infraction, Enrile can also twist the law to justify a conviction.

      As an aside, I feel for the old man Justice Cuevas. I think this whole impeachment brouhaha has been generally demeaning to him.

  4. Tonying

    Enrile showed his true colorz! He pretended to be fair but i knew all along he shouldnt betrusted!

  5. Orlando Roncesvalles

    Teddy Boy crows that 18 is in the bag. Dean Bisquera says 19.

    TB may well be right, particularly if Estrada votes to acquit.

    Here’s the Bisquera ‘forecast’ set up by order of voting. He includes Estrada and the Cayetanos in the convicting group.

    For TB’s scenario to work out, one of the Cayetanos and Estrada will have to vote to acquit early. If not, then the vote is more likely to follow the Bisquera forecast.

    If after Legarda votes (she’s no. 13 in the order of voting), and the vote is 9-4, the game is over. Otherwise, there’s a chance of a cliff-hanger with Villar and JPE making the decisive votes.

    • The Nutbox

      Interesting forecast. Ellen Tordesillas’s source said Malacanang has at the very least 16 votes already, and that Corona maybe lucky to get four. But that’s before Corona’s walk-out and melodrama.

      Estrada might vote to acquit only if he panders to his psyche. I think the aborted impeachment of his father has given him a sort of a psychological complex that makes him tilt towards heavy emphasis on “rule of law” and not convicting without “due process.” But I still think he will convict since the political clouds point the way to conviction.

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