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.