Corona’s gamble

On Monday, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and his protégée, Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada, exhorted the Defense to present impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona before the Senate Impeachment Court. The Defense heeded their exhortations the very next day, announcing that the Chief Justice himself would take the witness stand, but with some interesting pre-conditions: The Ombudsman and ten others must testify first. The Senate President immediately agreed.

It has now become clear that revelations regarding the Chief Justice’s dollar accounts has changed the dynamics of the game for the Defense, which explains why the accused has decided to take the stand.

The chief magistrate’s camp had initially been quite smug about his dollar accounts, thanks to that infamous Supreme Court TRO that barred the Senate from looking into his bank records. They obviously failed, however, to count Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales in their calculations, forgetting that the Chief Justice’s Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) actually empowers the Ombudsman to look into his accounts despite the TRO.

So, now that the Ombudsman has joined the fray by asking the impeached Chief Justice to explain his multi-million dollar deposits, the Defense has apparently re-calibrated its approach. There seems to be two prongs to the Defense’s strategy now.

Firstly, the defense lawyers are attempting to turn the tables on the Chief Justice’s accusers. By asking the Senate to summon the Ombudsman, along with the the ten civil society leaders who had lodged the complaint against the chief magistrate, as hostile witnesses, the Defense is shifting the burden of proof. The defense counsels would probably question the complainants’ sources, and confuse the public with their convoluted legal arguments on admissibility of evidence or the jurisdiction, or lack thereof, of the Ombudsman over the Chief Justice. The cross-examinations would probably be very interesting and boring at the same time.

Secondly, I think the Chief Justice himself will make a vigorous attempt to present a plausible explanation of where his ten million dollars came from. Indeed, it could even be that there’s no ten million dollars in the first place, contrary to what the media has been reporting. Perhaps the accounts contain only five million, or even just 750,000. Remember the comical case of those alleged 45 properties? If this turns out to be a similar case, the Chief Justice can point out that these accusations have been nothing but a dirty demolition job.

This would of course skirt the main issue: Even assuming that the amount is indeed lower than ten million, and that it was really acquired through legitimate means, why did the Chief Justice not declare these in his SALN?  In the court of public opinion, the Defense would probably leave this main issue unadressed. In the Senate court, on the other hand, the Defense could argue that the non-disclosure was unintentional, can be corrected, and therefore not an impeachable offense. This would allow senators who would vote for acquittal anyway to wrap their decisions with elaborate legalese.

But the wild card here would be the testimony of Ombudsman Carpio-Morales.  This is where the success of the Defense’s strategy would depend. Chief Justice Corona would almost certainly calibrate his explanations based on the extent of the Ombusman’s revelations. If the Ombudsman has more damning information to share, the Chief Justice would surely have more problems than he can handle.

Moreover, Liberal Party senators and prosecutors will surely have a field day once Chief Justice Corona takes the stand. The risk of having all his alleged shenanigans bared for all the world to see is real.  This could further solidify public opinion against the chief magistrate and make it difficult for senators to justify a vote for acquittal.

Clearly, by agreeing to testify, the Chief Justice is making the ultimate gamble.

NOTE: The original version of this post had the following paragraph:

“Senators Enrile and Estrada are members of the Partido ng Masang Pilipino (PMP), which is one of the two core parties in the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), Vice President Jejomar Binay’s presidential campaign vehicle. UNA stalwart Ernesto Macedo has said that a vote for the Chief Justice’s acquittal is a vote for the Vice President. Of course, Vice President Binay has distanced himself from this statement, but he can’t deny the fact that an acquittal would diminish President Benigno S. Aquino III’s political capital and therefore boost his. Just saying.”

I removed this paragraph because I thought, in retrospect, that the insinuations it contained are unfair. The Senate President and the Senate President Pro Tempore have so far shown impartiality in the course of the trial. Mea culpa.


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