Corona’s Original Sin

“I know the legal justifications for your appointment, but what’s the moral justification?”

This was my question to Renato C. Corona, the most controversial Chief Justice the Philippines ever had, during a dinner-meeting with several bloggers at his Supreme Court office in Manila last Wednesday. The said meeting was organized by Noemi Lardizabal-Dado, editor of Blogwatch.

“Well, modesty aside, if you see my qualifications, I think you’d agree that any president would appoint me, or at least consider appointing me, to the post,” he said.

“Yes, I do agree with you, sir. But why, then, did you not wait for President Aquino to appoint you instead?”

“Well, you see, the Constitution does not provide for an acting Chief Justice.”

But this doesn’t mean that designating an acting Chief Justice is unconstitutional, isn’t it? The Judiciary Act of 1948 states that in the event of a vacancy in the position of Chief Justice, the most senior of the associate justices shall assume the position in an acting capacity, until the new chief magistrate is chosen. Indeed, Hilario Davide served in this capacity before he was appointed by President Joseph Estrada in 1998.

For me, however you look at it, Corona’s appointment by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo two days after the election of President Benigno S. Aquino III should have been declared unconstitutional. The Constitution was clear in banning any presidential appointments two months before the current president’s term ends; but Arroyo allies, citing ambiguity in the language of the Constitution, asserted that this prohibition applies only in appointments to positions in the Executive branch. Yet the living framers of the Constitution insist that there is no such ambiguity, and that the ban also applies on members of the Judiciary. This is why, in 1998, Chief Justice Andres Narvasa refused to allow out-going President Fidel V. Ramos to appoint a replacement for Associate Justice Ricardo J. Francisco, who was then retiring.

Obviously, the reason why the framers of the Constitution enshrined the ban on midnight appointments is because they deem that, in a transition period, the President is merely a care-taker who must not do anything that would undermine the intentions of the President-elect.  This is supposed to be common sense: In 1953, for instance, the great Manuel Moran, even though he badly wanted the post, refused out-going President Elpidio Quirino’s offer to be appointed to the Supreme Court because he thought any such appointments should be a decision of the then incoming President, Ramon Magsaysay.

Arroyo’s father himself, Diosdado Macapagal, knew how inappropriate midnight appointments are: He voided 350 such appointments by his predecessor, Carlos P. Garcia, within twenty-four hours of assuming the Presidency. The Supreme Court upheld him, ruling that an out-going President “should not do acts which he ought to know would embarrass or obstruct the policies of his successor.”

But lawyers can always make what appears to be wrong right. The Corona-led Supreme Court upheld the Chief Justice’s midnight appointment, making it, at least technically, legal. But making an act legal doesn’t make it right, which is why my question was framed not on legalities but on the general wisdom of Corona’s midnight appointment.

“Yes, that’s the legal justification, but what makes it right?” I pressed the Chief Justice. “How harmful is a vacancy in the position of Chief Justice to the Judiciary that a president had to appoint you immediately, and only two days after the election of her successor?”

“Well, you see, there was no big case in 2010,” he said. “But what if there were?”

This answer implied that the Chief Justice is so important to the Supreme Court that a case could not be heard without him. I find this strange. Being merely primus inter pares, the Chief Justice’s only role is to preside over the hearing of a case. Without him, the most senior Associate Justice can preside. As Corona himself said that night, the Court is collegial, and the Chief Justice’s vote is only as important as his fellow justices’ vote.

During that two-hour meeting, I found Chief Justice Corona very pleasant and unassuming. He doesn’t inspire the same gravitas other national leaders do, but he was articulate and obviously intelligent. We share the same passion for history, and he was kind enough to show his collection of enlarged photocopies of historical documents showing the extra-ordinary role his wife’s family, the Basas, played in Philippine history. I understand now why many Supreme Court employees are all out in supporting him. He is likeable.

But I don’t think he was being truthful, or at least not completely. I don’t think he really believes that his midnight appointment is morally justifiable, which is why I chose not to press the matter further.

For me, the issue of Corona’s appointment is the crux of this whole controversy. The Supreme Court may have wrapped the said midnight appointment with all its elaborate technical legalese; but, from the perspective of the country’s general consensus of what is right and wrong– based on its political experience, jurisprudence and the intent of its Constitution—it was, at the very least, an act of grave imprudence and, at worst, a brazen attempt by a corrupt president to undermine her successor, thereby thwarting, for the third time, the people’s will.

Like the other bloggers who were present last Wednesday, I’m willing to give Chief Justice Corona the benefit of the doubt with regards to corruption allegations. But one thing remains clear: Offered an appointment that was clearly against convention, against precedence, and against good faith; Corona, if he really is the morally-upright man he claims himself to be, should have chosen to refuse, thereby upholding delicadeza. But he chose otherwise.

That, I think, was Corona’s original sin.


36 thoughts on “Corona’s Original Sin”

  1. no, hacienda luisita is the crux of this controversy. if it was indeed the midnight appointment…then noynoy should have railroaded an impeachment trial 2 months into his presidency.. not after a supreme court ruling unfavorable to hacienda luisita.

    1. Or in another angle, a much plausible one if I may, the House moved in such a hurry because the Corona-led SC tried to muscle the DOJ into allowing the Arroyo couple to leave the country.

      The hacienda card has already been dismissed by the hacienda farmers themselves, so please, for the love of everything probable, stop playing that conspiracy theory.

    2. Well, first of all, the Coujangco clan isn’t homogeneous. It is composed of many branches, including the Peping branch and the Danding branch. The Cory branch, I think, doesn’t control the Hacienda, and the President isn’t the scion. I believe it is Peping that has more stake, and we all know that Peping and the President are not in good terms.

      Second of all, it was the President’s own men– the Solicitor General and the Secretary of Agrarian Reform– that argued before the Supreme Court in favor of the Hacienda’s distribution. Why should the President impeach the Chief Justice in reaction to an adverse decision if he could have prevented that decision by pressuring his own Cabinet members not to pursue the case?

      Sorry, but linking the impeachment issue with the Hacienda issue is, for me, a stretch. Nice try, though.

    3. He has to prepare a case obsessed as he is against GMA in the two months of the Presidency. I am willing to concede the point of Luisita to you that he has railroaded the impeachment even when he’s not yet fully prepared. This blog still has a point, the first mistake was Corona’s in accepting the appointment.

    4. it can also be twisted the other way like the CJ rushed the ruling on the HL so that he will have a reason to malign the president in an impending impeachment case against him..
      the truth is, while still in the campaign, he has already hinted that an impeachment case was forthcoming. this was during ‘midnight appointment fiasco’.

  2. the same as saying “this is politically motivated” the usual spin of politicians never before uttered or deployed by any Judge or Justice. if indeed this hullabaloo is all about luisita then Pnoy must be the worse President we ever have. i cant bite that spin.

  3. trisha, it could not be hacienda luisita. unless you are suggesting that corona persuaded all the justices to vote that way OR that no supervening events like the manipulation of Corona in releasing the TRO in favor of GMA to appear that it was immediately executory (by Midas’ statement prepared by Corona) did not happen

    OR more importantly, that the case of Hacienda Luisita has been decided unfavorably against the Aquinos way before the impeachment. The decision that came out is only a product of reconsiderations and reevaluation of the stock distribution option, but the issue of giving the land to the farmers is a non-issue.

  4. there is no ambiguity in the constitution: the president appoints those ‘whose appointment is provided by law’ and that includes the chief justice..the constitution even provides for ‘those officials whose appointment are not otherwise provided by law’ meaning what is not included by the power to appoint are expressly provided for…

    excessive judicial construction, adventurism, and innovations to further ‘factional interests’ is an affront to the sub-rule on ‘equal applicability of laws for all’ in the doctrine on the ‘rule of law.

  5. Such arrogant nonsense! Since when has moral fitness depend on the ad hoc moral preferences of self-important bloggers? Their moral worldview can be summarized as: “moral” – non-Arroyo acts or words; “immoral” – Arroyo acts or words. That’s it. But what about De Lima, appointed by Arroyo to head the Commission on Human Rights? There’s an immoral person, surely. Or Ma. Lourdes Sereno, appointed to head the Philippine arbitration panel before the ICSID on the NAIA Terminal 3 case? That’s even more immoral, isn’t it? Is it any wonder, that the smartest lawyers in the country are passionately defending the Chief Justice — FOR FREE — while the prosecution can find only mediocre characters willing to work — for a fee?

    1. First of all, if you read the post carefully, you will note that the standards on which I based characterization of the midnight appointment as a “sin” (a metaphor, by the way) was not my “ad hoc moral preferences” or merely the fact that it was Arroyo who made the appointment. Rather, the standards I cited on which to base “the country’s general consensus of what is right and wrong” was the Philippines’ “political experience, jurisprudence and the intent of its Constitution.

      The issues regarding Secretary de Lima, Justice Sereno and the composition of lawyers are non-sequitur. But if you ask me, I think those smart lawyers are defending the Chief Justice so that their firms could gain his Court’s favors. In fact, these pro bono services are prohibited by judicial codes of ethical conduct. Also, for your information, I also criticized Secretary de Lima’s defiance of the GMA TRO. Please see this post:

  6. speaking about “delicadeza” – between Pinoy and CJ Corona, who has?….and the nerve to write about CJ Corona’s original sin…

    1. This isn’t about the President versus the Chief Justice. Raising the President’s delicadeza or lack of it is non-sequitur. But since you’ve raised it, why do you say the President has worse moral character?

  7. I didn’t write anything about the President versus the Chief Justice. I was just asking, WHO HAS? And could you ever quote any statement which I wrote, saying that the president has worse moral character? Really, what you’ve written above is non-sequitor (it doesn’t really follow anything, does it?)

    1. Of course, you didn’t say the President has worse moral character, and that this is the President vs the Chief Justice. But, if we take what you wrote in context, any thinking individual would infer that that’s what you meant. Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding then? Would you be kind enough to educate me on what exactly did you mean with your comment? Thank you.

  8. It’s not Corona’s fault. It’s the defect of the Cory Aquino’s Constitution. Anything not defined in the Constitution is unconstitutional. You quoted the Judiciary Act of 1948. Check the actual law. That Act used the 1935 Constitution which clearly states the provision in allowing for “acting SC Chief Justice” in case of vacancy and avoid Constitutional Crisis (a day without a clear Chief Justice is deemed unconstitutional and is deemed as a “national crisis”). Now, you quoted Davide’s case. By 1987 Constitution, that should have been deemed as “unconstitutional”. Fortunately for Davide, no one questioned it. In fact, all decisions at that period must be declared null and void.

    1. I agree that the 1987 Constitution has many defects. In fact, I’m not in favor of its protectionist policies. Also, I think it’s inconsistent with its intent of liberalizing ipeachments is inconsistent with its enshrinement of judicial review as duty of courts. See:

      However, I disagree that anything not defined in the Constitution is unconstitutional. If that’s the case, you’ll have hundreds of laws, including traffic laws, unconstitutional. In fact, it’s impossible for a constitution to define everything.

      Vacancy in the position of Chief Justice is a constitutional crisis? Check your facts. There were a couple of weeks of vacancy before the first Chief Justice, Cayetano Arellano, was succeeded by Victor Mapa. Cesar Bengzon did not succeed Ricardo Paras until more than two months had passed, and almost five months passed before Makalintal formally replaced Concepcion. In 1998, two days of vacancy passed before Andres Narvasa succeeded Marcelo Fernan. There were no constitutional crisis in all those instances, simply because a senior Associate Justice can always act as Chief Justice ad interim.

  9. Wrong! His original sin is lying about his honors during grade school, high school and college! Gold medal daw, yun pala gold medal in tagalog spelling lang naman pala!

    1. At the risk of sounding like I’m making an ad hominem attack, you are aware that Rigoberto Tiglao is an Arroyo loyalist, and that he became critical of Aquino only after his tenure as ambassador to Greece was not extended? Obviously, he is a partisan propagandist with vested interests.

      Anyway, this piece by Tiglao (which I’ve read; I read Tiglao regularly. Sometimes he makes sense. Sometimes he makes me laugh. Sometimes he makes me want to puke) is contradiction. Firstly, it says that the Court is colegial, therefore there’s no way for Corona to influence the justices to carry out pro-Arroyo ruling; but on the other hand it says that the Chief Justice is being taken out because of the unanimous ruling of the SC to distribute the Hacienda. What would Aquino gain from removing the Chief Justice regarding Luisita if the Court is colegial? Indeed, the decision to re-distribute is unanimous!

      Secondly, it failed to mention that first of all, the Coujangco clan isn’t homogeneous. It is composed of many branches, including the Peping branch and the Danding branch. The Cory branch, I think, doesn’t control the Hacienda, and the President isn’t the scion. I believe it is Peping that has more stake, and we all know that Peping and the President are not in good terms.

      Second of all, it was the President’s own men– the Solicitor General and the Secretary of Agrarian Reform– that argued before the Supreme Court in favor of the Hacienda’s distribution. Why should the President impeach the Chief Justice in reaction to an adverse decision if he could have prevented that decision by pressuring his own Cabinet members not to pursue the case?

      At any rate, the Hacienda Luisita ruling doesn’t change the fact that Corona’s midnight appointment leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

  10. i still think that Aquino’s reasons for Coronas impeachment are more selfish than GMA’s reasons for his apointment.

  11. by the way…i know who tiglao is… what im saying is… look at the message.. you can find valid truths in there.

    1. Yes, I did look at Tiglao’s message, and I find them very fallacious for reasons I’ve written twice already but you seem to ignore.

        1. My arguments are not about the personalities or the messenger. I have addressed all these, but you keep on dismissing them.

  12. I have a question:

    who paid for the dinner? Was it Mr. Corona, or will this be files under his RATA?

    And why was the venue at his office in the SC? The conversation all seem to be about
    his personal case, and nothing about official court business. Besides, Mrs. Corona was around,
    which made this “event” (forum shopping?) even more personal. She’s not in the SC plantilla, right?

    One of the prosecution lawyers stated last week that misuse of the RATA
    can be considered as technical malversation of funds. Was this the case here?

    And since this was a “bloggers’ night”~ was there a raffle? Did Midas give out loot bags?

    (the last line was a joke, obviously; the rest, quite serious)

    1. This is a very valid question. I don’t know the answer, but I assumed in good faith that Mr. Corona used his personal money for the expenses. Also, Mr. Marquez was unfortunately not there; I would have asked for an autograph, lol..

  13. Corona could not give a straight answer to your direct question. once again he hid behind legal arguments and hypotheticals. I am convinced the reason is there really was no moral justification for his appointment and his acceptance of it.

    After over 30 days of trial, I think the question is not anymore whether or not Corona is morally fit for the job. The question now is, what does the country really need, an independent judiciary or Renato Corona?

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