DEATH came to former Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona, 67, in Pasig City last Friday morning, ending his brave and lonely fight for personal honor, justice and fairness against the most determined political forces of a highly driven partisan regime. He was the 23rd Supreme Court Chief Justice of the Philippines, but the first and only one to be impeached and removed at the behest of an imperatorial President, for clearly personal and political reasons.
Exactly four years after his removal from office, even those who were originally part of the lynch mob now seem to see that what President B.S. Aquino 3rd and his lackeys did to Corona was clearly indefensible and unjust; his innocence is now as clear and compelling as the malice and guilt of his congressmen-accusers and senator-judges.
The Constitution wrecked
Corona’s impeachment and conviction put an end to a distinguished legal and judicial career and began the systematic destruction of the Constitution, the law and jurisprudence and the Supreme Court itself. Upon his death, the Court, under Maria Lourdes Sereno’s incongruous and unseemly leadership, looks several times deader than its departed former Chief.
In the celebrated Grace Poe Llamanzares case, which has a critical bearing on the May 9 elections, nine members of the 15-strong Court managed to deface the Constitution and the Philippine presidency, particularly with respect to the constitutional qualifications of those who want to become President.
On Friday evening, I came to pay my respects to the deceased at Heritage Memorial Park in Taguig. With me were some friends from the National Transformation Council – Archbishop Emeritus Fernando Capalla of Davao, Pastor Arturo Corpuz of Manila, former National Security Adviser and Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales, Antonio “Butch” Valdes, convenor of Save the Nation Movement, Baby Nebrida Ballesty and her husband Gene, and Evelyn Kilayko of Tanggulang Demokrasya (Tandem).
Corona was a founding member of the NTC, which stands for systems change, and earlier that day, which was the NTC’s fifth founding anniversary, Archbishops Ramon Arguelles of Lipa and Capalla with some priests in attendance had offered a Mass in Quezon City for him. We also adopted a statement, copy of which we furnished his widow.
Sleep of the Just
The deceased looked like he was simply asleep in the simple but elegant casket with a spray of freshly cut white flowers. Seated close to him was his wife Tina, while children Carla and Francis and older brother Arturo “Toti” Corona sat close by. Toti is a brilliant lawyer; according to his late brother, he is the one with a judicial temperament and should have been the one who entered the Judiciary.
As young lawyers, Toti and Rene used to work with me at the Department of Public Information in the seventies. But Toti left for advanced legal studies in the United States after a while. Upon his return, he had become overqualified for his old post and had to find something more appropriate. He eventually became Cory Aquino’s DOTC Secretary, but resigned rather than yield to extrinsic pressures to approve a big infrastructure contract, which he thought was against the law and the national interest.
It was a joy to see him again after so many years.
On Friday, the family had not yet decided the funeral’s final details. One daughter, Charina, had not yet arrived from the United States, where she now lives. The Supreme Court, which has ordered the flag in all judiciary buildings to be flown at half-mast as a sign of mourning, will obviously want to hold a necrological service, where his former brethren could formally say their farewell to the dear departed; but as of Friday evening, this had yet to be decided.
Amidst the prayerful peace and quiet inside Heritage, the political import of this fallen jurist’s death acquires much greater breadth and depth. In a few days, the nation will choose a new President; by June 30, the tin god that was behind everything the deceased had suffered will ride into the sunset. Yet the very character of this grand event has been altered by what Aquino did to this fallen SC chief. Nothing like Corona’s impeachment and removal has turned our Supreme Court, our Constitution, the rule of law and jurisprudence upside down, with such unnerving promise of permanence.
Until it happened, one could not imagine anything remotely like it happening. But on Dec. 12, 2011, it did. At Malacañang’s behest, 188 members of the House of Representatives signed eight Articles of Impeachment against Corona, even without reading and verifying the document. Only 95 votes were needed for the House to carry out its mandate as the body with the exclusive power to initiate all cases of impeachment.
On Jan. 16, 2012, the Senate, convened as an impeachment court with Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile presiding, commenced the first impeachment trial of a Chief Justice. Twenty-three senator-judges, (the 24th senator having become President of the Philippines), all robed in black like SC justices and sworn to render “impartial justice,” began the proceedings that would surpass the travesty of the aborted impeachment trial of then-President Joseph Ejercito Estrada in 2000-2001.
On May 29, 2012, 20 of the 23 senator-judges voted to convict and remove Corona as Chief Justice; only three voted against it. Nineteen of the 20 received P50 million or more each after the vote. Sen. Franklin Drilon, then chairman of the powerful Senate finance committee and now Senate President, received the biggest amount of P100 million. Francis Escudero, now running for vice president, received P98 million; Enrile, P92 million. VP candidates Alan Peter Cayetano and Antonio Trillanes IV received P50 million each, more or less. Everybody else received the same amount.
All of the recipients are now running for public office. But this bribery scandal has never been raised against them. Sen. Panfilo Lacson was the only one who voted for conviction but did not receive any bribe. The three who voted to acquit Corona and received nothing were Miriam Defensor-Santiago, now running for president, Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos, Jr., the vice-presidential frontrunner, and Joker Arroyo, who ended his second consecutive term and recently died in retirement.
Sen. Jinggoy Estrada revealed the payoff in a privilege speech on the Senate floor on Sept. 25, 2013. This came months after Enrile lost the Senate presidency to Drilon in June that year. Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad confirmed the specific amounts released to the 19 senator-judges, saying they all came from Aquino’s Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), which the Supreme Court, in a rare act of courage, struck down as unconstitutional in July 2014.
Three judges jailed
The supreme irony is that in June 2014, three of those who had voted to convict Corona were charged and detained for plunder, although without reference to the Corona conviction bribe. These include Enrile, Estrada, and Ramon Revilla, Jr. Only Enrile, for reasons of health, was recently allowed to post bail. But even this is being protested by some sectors.
Review of conviction imperative
Corona’s death may have provided the reason and the opportunity to inquire into the validity of his conviction and removal, given the clear facts of the case.
First of all, the personal and political motive for Aquino to have him removed was never in doubt. He appears to have blamed Corona for the Supreme Court ruling that finally allowed the farmers of Hacienda Luisita to own his mother’s family’s sugar estate, which Cory had exempted from the operation of land reform when she was President.
But even before that, Aquino showed so much bias against Corona just because he was the Chief Justice. Thus, when he took his oath as President on June 30, 2010, he asked Associate Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, now the Ombudsman, rather than the Chief Justice, to administer his oath, in utter disregard of legal and political tradition and customary practice. He also deliberately omitted acknowledging the CJ’s presence during his inaugural address.
On Dec. 6, 2011, six days before the 188 congressmen signed the unverified eight Articles of Impeachment, Aquino personally attacked Corona in his presence during a speech before the National Criminal Justice Summit at the Manila Hotel, hosted by the Supreme Court. This, too, was unprovoked and unprecedented.
There are also very strong legal grounds to impeach the verdict of the senator-judges. The bribery has been confirmed by Malacañang itself. And the proceedings appear to have been legally defective. Out of the eight charges against Corona, the prosecution formally dropped five for lack of evidence on Feb. 29, 2012, and abandoned two of the remaining three evidently for the same reason, leaving but one charge, Corona’s alleged failure to publicly disclose his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth.
Under the Constitution, the impeachable offenses include culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes or betrayal of public trust. Corona’s accusers saw no basis to charge him with graft and corruption, so they charged him with failing to disclose his SALN instead. But this was not and is not an impeachable offense, and they should have dropped it, like all the other charges.
Not impeachable ground
Under the law, an official who fails to make an accurate declaration in his SALN has the right to correct it, without incurring any criminal liability. At the impeachment trial, the prosecution, with the help of Ombudsman Morales, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, Anti-Money Laundering Council, etc., tried to show, and succeeded in showing, that Corona had made certain errors in his SALN statements.
He had the right, like anybody else, to be allowed to correct these. But he was convicted and removed from office by venal and corrupt senator-judges instead.
He is no longer around to be reinstated in office should his innocence be officially reestablished. But this grave offense must be corrected. Will some patriotic and just member of our highly damaged and weakened Supreme Court initiate this move, in the name of Truth, Honor and Justice?