If attentive observers of the developments at the Senate impeachment court are appalled to discover that Chief Justice Renato Corona and his wife enjoyed VIP perks from Philippine Airlines while the company had a case pending at the Supreme Court, and are naturally eager to learn more, what are they to make of a ruling by the court rejecting the PAL executive presented by the prosecution to testify on the matter? Would they not be wondering why someone who can credibly be described as a competent witness would be deemed irrelevant to the case?
But that was exactly how Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile ruled on Tuesday, leading to an early adjournment. Initially testy, the court’s presiding officer went on to full-fledged annoyance and chewed out the prosecution for supposedly being careless, reckless and undisciplined in its allegations. For good measure, he assailed the lead prosecutor, Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr., for not properly learning “the art of pleading” and issued the grim warning that he should not be pushed into ordering what could at this point be facetiously termed as a fate worse than death: that the articles of impeachment be sent back to the House of Representatives for amendment.
If the flight privileges purportedly enjoyed by Corona and his wife during a pending case involving PAL cannot be considered covered by Article 3 of the impeachment complaint, which accuses the Chief Justice of betrayal of public trust for, among others, “failing to meet the stringent standards” of competence, integrity, probity and independence that the Constitution requires of members of the Judiciary, what’s the nonplussed nonlawyer to do?
According to Enrile, bribery, which was “the tendency of the evidence” that the prosecution was presenting, should have been properly stated in Article 3. He bristled at Tupas’ statement that “technicalities cannot be allowed to prevail” in the trial, and invoked the court’s “very, very liberal” stance as a means of declaring that it had been bending over backward to accommodate the prosecution’s novato ways. And thus did Day 21 of the trial conclude, with fundamental questions—for example: Did the Chief Justice fail the test of integrity by accepting flight privileges from an airline involved in a pending case at the Supreme Court?—again left unanswered by dint of a legal stricture that would not even allow the questions to be posed in open court. (That the Coronas enjoyed tickets to and from various countries through PAL platinum cards was nevertheless allowed to be read into the records. But it is not certain whether this would be subject to the senator-judges’ deliberations.)
Almost a month into the trial, the political-legal creature that is the impeachment court continues to confound. Sui generis it may be, but more often than not its supposed one of a kind nature takes on the dimensions of a criminal court, with the defense so ably led by Serafin Cuevas running to the Supreme Court, the very turf of the accused, for recourse. Yet it is particularly imperative for this impeachment case to be resolved to the satisfaction of the people as they march, as the poet said, “in the darkness with a great bundle of grief.” It involves the Chief Justice, after all, who, in an ideal world, is the paragon of integrity, wisdom and honor—else how can he lead the institution that, even only by its name, should command the people’s respect? It is imperative for the people to see that in this violently imperfect world, even the supposed avatar of virtue can be removed if he is shown to be less than forthright in sworn documents and impervious to the stringent demands of his post.
The point bears repeating: The people’s representatives are duty-bound to protect the national interest, which necessarily includes a judiciary beyond reproach, a judiciary imbued with, simply, in the words of Cesar T. Tirol, dean emeritus of the University of San Agustin College of Law, “moral authority, high public esteem, independence and autonomy, and legitimate power to decide.” In discussing the “political question” connected to impeachment, Tirol was clear: “It is said to be one which the Constitution left to the sound discretion of the legislature, over which the courts have no jurisdiction.” This includes, he said, issues “concerned with the wisdom, not with the legality, of a particular act or measure, to be decided by the people in their sovereign capacity…”