I have long maintained that impeachment is a policy-making exercise as much as it is a judicial one. Therefore, the senator-judges must decide not only based on the articles of impeachment but also on the general question of whether or not it is in the interest of the nation for the impeached official to remain in his office. Based on the behavior exhibited by Chief Justice Renato Corona in his appearance before the Senate Impeachment Court the other day, it should now be a no-brainer. He must be convicted.
His three-hour testimony was full of irrelevant innuendoes that besmirched the reputation of a number of people. He threw far-fetched accusations (a leftist haciendero?) against the President that can best be described as non-sequitur. He practically admitted that the Ombudsman’s testimony was actually correct, after he had called it a “lantern of lies.” He offered inconsistent explanations behind his unexplained wealth. He wrapped his refusal to open his accounts up for scrutiny with a repulsive Red Herring, which is nonetheless a stroke of political genius: he said he would only waive his bank secrecy rights if all the prosecutors and Senator Franklin Drilon would waive theirs.
At the end of the day, after promising to explain himself, and to open his dollar accounts “in due time”, all he offered in his testimony were baseless assertions that are, at best, hearsay. Senator Allan Peter Cayetano even asked chief defense counsel Serafin Cuevas yesterday if the Chief Justice would offer proof to back his assertions up, and Justice Cuevas said the senators would just have to take Corona’s words because there are no proofs.
The worst part, of course, was the arrogant conclusion of his testimony. Addressing himself by his lofty position and in the third person, he said: “And now, the Chief Justice of the Republic of the Philippines wishes to be excused.” In an imperious fashion, he rose without waiting for the presiding officer to discharge him, shook hands with Jose Roy III and another defense lawyers, and, with the equally overbearing Cristina Corona and Midas Marquez in tow, walked out. Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile banged the gavel and, within hearing distance of the Chief Justice’s entourage, asked Justice Cuevas to bring his client back, but Corona ignored him.
Clearly taken aback, the heretofore very lenient Senate President Enrile sternly asked the Sergeant-at-Arms to seal the Senate building and prevent the Chief Justice, whose car’s engine was already fired up, from leaving. Senate guards blocked Corona’s way to the elevator, prompting the Chief Justice to ask the Sergeant-at-Arms, “Am I being arrested?” Mrs. Corona said, “Is this Martial Law?”
The Chief Justice’s son-in-law, a physician, then claimed that Corona left the witness stand because he was suffering from a hypoglycemic episode. He claimed that the Chief Justice had skipped lunch, which was belied by a TV5 report. The Chief Justice, now on a wheelchair, was then ushered back into the Senate Hall. Justice Cuevas, who appeared genuinely out of the loop, apologized for what he said was a misunderstanding. The Chief Justice didn’t mean any disrespect, he said; he was just on the verge of fainting.
To most observers, the events of that fateful day were clear. Chief Justice Corona never intended to submit himself to direct and cross-examination in the witness stand. He felt it beneath him. As blogger Leo Alejandrino said, he just wanted to talk.
I have written about the enormous risk of a cross-examination by prosecutors and Liberal Party senators, especially since Corona is not known for being articulate. My take is that he merely wanted to turn the witness stand into a press conference as a last-ditch effort to gain brownie points in the court of public opinion. How else could one explain the logical fallacies in his three-hour monologue? As Chief Justice, he should have known that witnesses are not allowed to give speeches in the stand. Their testimonies are supposed to be delivered through direct examination.
Moreover, as Chief Justice, he knows that whatever he would say on the witness stand would be privileged. Meaning, he will not be held accountable by libel and defamation laws. That’s why he was free to slander just about anyone, including a dead man.
He had, of course, under-estimated the resolve of the Senate President, who was clearly intent on upholding the dignity of the institution he represents. The presiding officer gave the Chief Justice until Friday to come back for direct and cross-examination; the Senate would give its verdict either on Monday or Tuesday. The Chief Justice, who had been rushed to a posh hospital after the commotion at the Senate, remains confined in the intensive care unit (ICU) of the said hospital.
I suspect that the Chief Justice would no longer appear at the Senate, and therefore break his promise of explaining himself and opening his dollar accounts up. I will not be surprised if he would shift the battle to his home turf, the Supreme Court, and claim that the Senate acted with grave abuse of discretion because he was denied due process. If it goes that far, I’m sure the Senate would hold its ground and the country would again be on the verge of a constitutional crisis, one that the Supreme Court would ultimately lose.
Meanwhile, the senator-judges would now have to determine whether the Chief Justice’s glaring failure to declare all his wealth in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) constitutes betrayal of public trust. But beyond this issue is a question posed eloquently by noted sociologist Randy David:
“Let us for a moment set aside the issue of the four dollar accounts he has virtually admitted to owning, and assume the law indeed allows him to treat these as non-assets in view of their confidential nature. Let us likewise grant his claim of lifelong frugality that supposedly enabled him to accumulate millions of dollars in savings. Let the impeachment court answer only one question: Is it right to continue entrusting the leadership of the justice system to this man?”
Renato Corona eschewed delicadeza by accepting a midnight appointment; believes that the absolute secrecy of dollar deposits is more important than transparency and accountability; fudged his explanations regarding his unexplained wealth through logical fallacies; slandered many people; and acted in contempt of the Senate Impeachment Court. He even appears to be not above dragging the whole institution he leads, and even the country itself, into a constitutional crisis just to keep his position. Clearly, this man does not deserve to remain chief magistrate of the Republic.
UPDATE: Reports say Justice Cuevas has announced that Corona would be attending tomorrow’s trial.