IT was shameless. After opposing Chief Justice Renato Corona’s appointment, then dispensing with the tradition of having the CJ administer his oath of office, President Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III asked a favor from the man he disdained.
Just weeks after his inauguration, Aquino spoke with Corona at a close family member’s home, according to an unimpeachable source present at the meeting. There the Chief Executive conveyed his request to the Chief Justice regarding his Cojuangco clan’s Supreme Court petition against the redistribution of Hacienda Luisita.
In 2005, the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) under Aquino’s predecessor Gloria Arroyo had ordered the 6,453-hectare sugar plantation parceled out. The Department of Agrarian Reform recommended redistribution after finding that the alternative land reform scheme using shares of stock did not benefit Luisita’s 6,296 landless farmers.
One-and-a-half years later, in Nov. 2011, the Supreme Court decided in a 14-0 vote to redistribute. The Cojuangco elders were said to have been livid, with one lamenting that after holding onto the land through the Marcos regime, they would lose it under their own flesh and blood.
Soon after the Luisita decision, Aquino lambasted Corona in a criminal justice summit in Malacañang. A week later, congressmen receiving pork barrel funds signed the Articles of Impeachment against the Chief Justice, many of them never reading the eight charges. Amid even bigger largesse, including the illegal Disbursement Acceleration Program, 20 senator-judges convicted Corona in May 2012.
Then followed years of prosecution on tax charges, which took their toll on his health. His pains finally ended two Fridays ago on April 29 when his heart failed at age 67. Thus, Corona, interred yesterday, paid the price of defending justice, the rule of law and the national interest against the powers that be.
The courage of Corona
In our time of escalating lawlessness, the nation and our institutions of democracy and justice owe CJ Corona and his family a debt of gratitude for their sacrifices for the Republic, democratic institutions, justice and progress until his last breath.
First and foremost, Corona stood up for the rule of law and the independence of the Judiciary against the collusion and bullying by its two co-equal branches. And this judicial independence was best shown under his watch in the 2011 unanimous High Court decision affirming the PARC’s redistribution order for Hacienda Luisita, advancing the rights and welfare of the poor against profiteering landlords.
In the Palace-orchestrated reprisal, Corona fulfilled the imperative for national leaders to maintain dignity and statesmanship even in the face of ruthless, mindless politicking and character assassination.
The CJ also exemplified transparency and accountability in facing senator-judges and accusers at his impeachment trial, despite unashamed partisanship, anomalous trial procedures, and unlawful presidential interference.
Lastly, the Chief Justice and his family together upheld the paramount value of family oneness and love, facing their trials together and giving full support to one another, especially Corona himself in his sacrifice for justice and democracy.
Justice for the people
Supreme Court opinions Corona penned since joining the bench in 2002 evinced a deep regard for human rights in a democracy. In his dissenting opinion in Raul Lambino vs. the Commission on Elections, which blocked the 2007 people’s initiative to amend the Constitution, Corona stood by the people’s right to propose charter change as “an exercise of ‘direct democracy’ as opposed to ‘representative democracy.’ ”
Religious freedom also gained. In Dominador Taruc et al. vs. Bishop Porfirio de la Cruz, Justice Corona argued that “it is not for the courts to exercise control over church authorities in the performance of their … functions.”
And in Islamic Da’Wah Council of the Philippines vs. Executive Secretary, the justice likewise rejected state encroachment upon “the religious freedom of Muslim organizations to interpret for Filipino Muslims what food products are fit.”
Justice Corona also embraced a deep understanding of the delicate balance among co-equal branches of government. In his separate concurring opinion in Romulo Neri vs. Senate Committee on Accountability of Public Officers, Justice Corona made the following statements—which have turned out to be prophetic in the last several years:
“The hands that wield the power of legislative investigations are powerful…[The respondent Senate] Committee disregarded the procedural safeguards purportedly in the name of truth and good governance. In so doing, they dealt a devious blow … on our cherished traditions of liberty.”
Those statements were made in defense of executive prerogative. Little did Corona know that the warning over congressional abuse would apply to his beloved Judiciary, as well as his own good name, against Executive-Legislative attack.
Serving in suffering
Many probably believe Corona’s impeachment travails ended his contributions to national advancement, democracy and justice. In fact, it marked his most important achievement in his principled struggle.
For in the fight to uphold justice, democracy and the rights and welfare of the marginalized, the hardest test is having to sacrifice position, prestige, privilege and personal finances for the often thankless, losing battle against gargantuan elite forces.
In their suffering all the way to and beyond his illness and death, Corona and his family sacrificed and endured so much, even as most Filipinos hardly took notice, and many even maligned the CJ and his brood.
But such suffering is inevitable in any struggle for truth, justice and right. By undergoing those trials, the Coronas showed Filipinos who care about those ideals the high price of such lofty principles, and the courage we must muster to uphold them.
And only by witnessing Corona and other brave, longsuffering martyrs to the cause of justice and right can the rest of us be stirred to join the struggle, even at the cost of our own fame, fortune, comfort and security.
So it has always been in the history of great ideals in the march of human civilization, from the execution of early Christians to the sacrifice of 44 police commandos defending the Republic in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.
Thus, we mourn Renato Corona’s passing and salute his sacrifice. God rest his soul.