COTANGENT – By Daphne Cardillo
Into the second year of President Benigno Aquino’s administration, we see a friction between the two branches of government as the Impeachment Trial of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona proceeds. After a few weeks since the trial started in 16 January 2012, the Senate of the legislative branch and the Supreme Court of the judicial branch came to a few question of institutional supremacy and independence as the two bodies exercise co-equal powers in our republican mode of governance. Fears have been raised that the country is heading towards a constitutional crisis.
Earlier, it was the executive branch which came to a clash with the judiciary when the Department of Justice defied a temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court. This happened on the account of ex-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo trying to leave the country to avoid possible lawsuits with the pretext of seeking medical treatment abroad and aided by her midnight appointee Chief Justice Renato Corona. Previous to that, the Supreme Court ruled out as unconstitutional the creation of a Truth Commission proposed by the Office of the President.
The problem with Corona heading the judiciary was finally thrown to the legislature through an impeachment case. But the speed with which the Articles of Impeachment was crafted—substantial enough in content but defective in form to pass the rigid rules of procedures in a court of law—created a lot of issues during the impeachment trial. Our country’s state of insecurity—even if Corona was not in a flight mode unlike GMA—resulted in the unnecessary haste in filing the impeachment complaint. The culture of impunity that prevailed in the previous administration could also trigger a state of anxiety that drastic measures have to be taken for justice to be done.
That justice will be done in this impeachment trial is also hard to determine as the search for truth has been suppressed in the process. The Senate sitting as an Impeachment Court in its caution not to impinge on a co-equal body has ruled out issuing subpoenas to Supreme Court justices and members of the House of Representatives. Early on, the Supreme Court also issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the impeachment court from investigating Corona’s Philippine Savings Bank peso and dollar accounts. But the final gag order came when the Supreme Court made a resolution on 14 February 2012 preventing any of its employees from testifying at the impeachment court.
As the impeachment trial proceeds, the friction between the Senate and the Supreme Court increased as each body is trying to assert its institutional powers, the Senate having “the sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment” while the Supreme Court acting as the sole interpreter of the law. The matter gets more complicated as the person on trial is the Supreme Court Chief Justice himself. Is a Renato Corona worth all the trouble? Or should an impeachment case against a member of the Supreme Court must lead to a constitutional crisis? This country will fall on its own feet if public officers are not accountable for their acts while holding public office.
What I see in this impeachment trial is the extent of corruption that perpetuated in the previous administration and finally rendering its destructive influence on the judiciary. The earlier Senate investigations have shown us how individuals occupying various positions in government have skimmed off the fat, appropriating people’s money in every possible ways; from the security forces, government-owned and controlled corporations, to the various line agencies in the bureaucracy. Now we see a Chief Justice being tried for culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust—and again for probably having likewise skimmed off the fat.
Far from heading a constitutional crisis, this impeachment trial and the other Senate investigations showed us the inner workings and mechanisms in the government bureaucracy and also those in the private sector like banks among other private institutions. Details of rules and procedures are highlighted revealing to the public structural defects or the looseness or lack of internal control in the different agencies and institutions. It is these various descriptions of defective structures where corrections can be made—most likely through legislation or organizational change—notwithstanding the corrections to be made to those erring officials. Strengthening the bureaucracy is still the best deterrent to malfeasance. And, a court of law that is strong enough to deliver justice and not simply be swayed by the sophistry of smart and highly paid lawyers hired by wrongdoers.
March 12, 2012