In an unprecedented move, impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona petitioned his own colleagues at the Supreme Court to stop his on-going impeachment trial at the Senate basically on grounds that the House of Representatives did not follow due process when it transmitted the impeachment complaint to the Senate.
Why the fact that Corona had already acknowledged the validity of the trial at the onset should not have estopped him from lodging this petition, only lawyers know. But what’s probably clear to both lawyers and non-lawyers alike is that Corona’s petition appears to be a sign of either panic or desperation, or perhaps both.
Corona’s petition was prompted by revelations that he maintains multiple multi-million peso bank accounts amounting to around thirty million pesos, and that he also maintains dollar accounts in several banks. These have shifted the tide of the trial in favor of the inexperienced prosecution team, who had earlier struggled to keep up with the legal acumen of Justice Serafin Cuevas and other high caliber defense counsels.
These revelations expose the glaring dishonesty in the Chief Justice’s Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN), where Corona only declared around three million pesos in cash assets. While Corona’s defense has yet to be heard, it appears that disproving the prosecution’s allegations that Corona misdeclared his SALN would be very challenging for the Chief Justice’s lawyers to do.
Indeed, when Corona’s defense counsels questioned the subpoena issued by the Senate on Corona’s bank records, the senator-judges voted to uphold the subpoena during their closed-door caucus. This vote, veteran journalist Ellen Tordesillas observes, could be indicative of how the Senate would ultimately rule on Corona’s impeachment. This is why it appears that the Chief Justice is seeking to shift the arena from the Senate to his home turf, the Supreme Court.
This is the height of shamelessness. In his desperate ploy to prevent his inevitable ouster, Corona is pitting the Supreme Court against the Senate and pushing the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis. What’s more, it seems that he has even allowed himself to be used by another political actor, the politically-influential religious sect Iglesia ni Cristo.
Unconfirmed rumors indicate that the influential Iglesia, who counts Justice Cuevas among its members, is siding with Corona on this issue due to its beef with President Benigno S. Aquino III. Intelligence reports by the Philippine National Police indicate that the seven thousand people that protested in support of the Chief Justice at Padre Faura Street yesterday was mobilized by the Iglesia. It is unclear what the Iglesia’s stake on the impeachment drama is, but my speculation is that it has something to do with the sacking of Magtanggol Gatdula, a member of the Iglesia, as Director of the National Bureau of Investigation for his alleged complicity in the kidnapping of a Japanese national. Allegedly, despite the fact that the Iglesia’s support was crucial in his winning the 2010 election, President Aquino, compared with former Presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, has been less accommodating to the Iglesia’s requests.
It remains to be seen if the Iglesia factor would affect how the Senate would ultimately decide on Corona’s impeachment. What’s clear is that the Senate as an institution has traditionally been protective of its own turf, and it would never allow the Supreme Court to, in the words of Senator Teofisto Guingona III, “emasculate” its “exclusive constitutional mandate of impeachment.”
Indeed, as Raul Pangalangan notes in his Inquirer column today, when Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile denied the prosecution’s motion to subpoena Supreme Court justices as witnesses in the impeachment court on grounds that, out or respect to a co-equal branch, the Senate should “scrupulously stick to its own turf” and shouldn’t “venture into the Court’s;” he was actually telling the Supreme Court that the Senate “expects the same deference in return.”
“The Senate decision not to issue subpoenas to the Court is a classic pre-emptive strike. The Supreme Court should read between the lines of the Senate order and, having done that, see the writing on the wall,” writes Pangalangan.
Should Corona’s colleagues grant his petition to stop the impeachment trial, the Senate would almost certainly ignore the Court’s order. This would cause a deadlock between the two political institutions. If such deadlock results in actual defiance of each other’s orders, the country will be in a constitutional crisis.
But in the event of such a crisis, where two institutions are issuing conflicting orders, the real arbiter would be the person who has the mandate to execute the State’s police power. That person would merely choose which of the conflicting orders to carry out. And unfortunately for Corona, that person happens to be his nemesis, the President of the Philippines.