Two Impeachments, Separate Truths

Posted by cmfr | Posted in In Medias Res | Posted on 16-03-2018

By Melinda Quintos de Jesus



NEWS ACCOUNTS tracking the House hearings of the Larry Gadon motion of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno make the inevitable reference to the impeachment proceedings against former Chief Justice Renato Corona, the first such trial in the country’s political history. But government officials pursuing the Sereno impeachment has not referred to the Corona case as much as one would have expected, given the obvious points of comparison. Supporters of the administration and even some of its critics see the current case, according to their narrative, as a natural, maybe even logical consequence of the previous: What is happening to Sereno merely repeats the chain of actions initiated by President Benigno Aquino III, which led to the ouster of Corona from the High Court in May 2012.

Those who recall Corona’s trial sense a more intemperate motivation driving the political process against Sereno. At its earliest stage, the hearings seemed lacking the rigor required by law.  Gadon cited news reports as a basis of a number of his accusations, but the committee members overruled the questions of a member who protested that the complainant had no direct knowledge of the basis of his charges; and found the motion adequate in form and substance. The resort to quo warranto so long after the chief justice has been in office and the mobilization of judges of the regional trial court to join the bandwagon call for Sereno’s removal or resignation can only be part of a political campaign running on overdrive — to terminate Sereno’s tenure as Chief Justice.

It is important to understand the differences between the two cases for impeachment in the same way that we should discern the different qualities that distinguish politicians and public officials from one another. These differences establish the basis for civic participation in public affairs and in democratic governance. The turmoil of the current course of impeachment can yield some valuable opportunities for political discernment.

First, significant differences can be found in the political context and in the interaction between Aquino and Corona, and between Duterte and Sereno.

In August 2016, Duterte publicly named six judges whom he said were involved in drugs, demanding their surrender or arrest. Sereno responded in an official letter to the president, very carefully worded and expressed with respect, to say that the judges can be supervised only by the Court, asserting the independence of the co-equal branch of government.

Media reports noted the president’s agitation over Sereno’s message. From a Rappler report: the president “took offense. . .saying he did not appreciate being ordered by a woman. . .Would you rather I declare Martial Law?” In July 2017, she and senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio had written separate opinions warning about the proposed declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao.

In October 2017, Duterte announced that he would file impeachment cases against Sereno and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales. What did the president have to complain about? Almost every case filed with the Supreme Court has so far enjoyed the favor of a positive decision, supportive of his political agenda, including the proclamation of ML in Mindanao and its extension.

In contrast, in his first two years in office, President Aquino lost every case brought to the Corona Court such as the nullification of Executive Order No.1 creating the Philippine Truth Commission and the grant of the TRO against the hold departure orders against the Gloria and Jose Miguel Arroyo.

More telling were decisions which countered the impeachment of Merceditas Gutierrez, then sitting as Ombudsman, and the status quo ante order against the immediate application of Aquino’s recall of midnight appointments made by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Corona was himself appointed during such a period when the outgoing incumbent is proscribed from making such appointments. In the consolidated petitions, the petitioners, with the exception of Soriano, Tolentino and Inting, submit that the incumbent President can appoint the successor of Chief Justice Puno upon his retirement on May 17, 2010, on the ground that the prohibition against presidential appointments under Section 15, Article VII does not extend to appointments in the Judiciary. The Court agrees with the submission.

The kind of conflict between President Aquino and the Supreme Court was unprecedented. During his term of office, the number of appointees made by Arroyo dominated the court. Aquino’s appointments are still outnumbered by those of Duterte and Arroyo combined. Justices should be independent and it does not matter who appointed them. Unfortunately, the politics of the Court is a sad reality.

Second, the SALN issues raised against Corona and Sereno are not quite the same. The alleged missing SALNs of Sereno are not those required for her term of office as chief justice, but those arising from her appointment as professor of law at the University of the Philippines. Corona’s case had to do with a current SALN, which did not declare his assets and liabilities gained while in office. The grievous offense was not so much the incomplete SALN submission; it was the magnitude of unexplained wealth hitherto hidden from public scrutiny (PHP180 million, by Corona’s admission).

It was this betrayal of trust that set the course of the trial and turned public opinion against him. Media investigation led to prime real estate properties which stirred the Senate to probe even more deeply into the issue of unexplained wealth.

Should such revelations be made about the wealth of Lourdes Sereno, the public which has so far demonstrated its support for her, could just as easily turn against her.

One must ask why there is such a great need to take Sereno from the scene when she, like only a few others like her in the past, wields so little power as a minority chief justice. Why Sereno has to go seems an overreach of executive power.

So where did the push for Sereno’s ouster originate? Is it all just part of Duterte’s inability to deal with a woman in a co-equal office?

Among the political alliances forged by President Duterte, the former president, now representative (2nd District, Pampanga ), Gloria Macapagal Arroyo seems to have benefitted the most. Arroyo’s effective acquittal from charges of plunder and the misuse of intelligence funds amounting to PHP366 million freed her from the extended detention under hospital arrest. Since this court decision, Arroyo has returned to her seat in Congress and is rumored to be waiting in the wings for higher office should there be a shift to parliamentary government. Her supporters recommended for appointment by Duterte are well placed in the bureaucracy.

Many tend to devalue the efforts of Aquino to fight corruption and viewed the prosecution of Arroyo as expressive of his personal vindictiveness. The same see Sereno’s woes as the natural outcome of Arroyo’s wielding power again. It’s all just a matter of who’s in power.

Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, former actor and president and another Duterte ally, attributes the removal and restoration of politicians according to the people’s will to the cyclical nature of politics. Politics, he quipped, is “weather-weather lang. ”

Moral equivalence is an easy position to take. It omits the thoughtful consideration of right and wrong. It does not grapple with truths and lies. Government is often reduced to political maneuvering to further expand and enhance the power that comes with public office.

Substantive questions of right or wrong, along with the honest evaluation of effective good governance, would be pointless if politics were simply about the exercise of power for self-interest. The use of public office for personal gain is corruption.

The memory picks through the remains of Supreme Court history. During the period of his impeachment, Renato Corona had supporters holding rallies in the office grounds, using the same Monday flag ceremony as a platform for Supreme Court employees to demonstrate their solidarity with him.  Sereno was asked by her peers to go on indefinite leave, a gesture that will be retained in public mind for its ignominy. Some of those calling for Sereno’s resignation now were the same ones who rushed to Corona’s defense.

Concerned Filipinos should distinguish the critical points of difference in the two impeachment cases. Politics and power go together.  But how power is used and for what purpose can create an ennobling politics, the kind that helps people and their leaders seek the higher goals of justice and truth. # With research by Melanie Pinlac