For the second time in two weeks, the Senate impeachment court avoided a confrontation with the Supreme Court when it rejected on Monday a prosecution petition to subpoena Associate Justice Lourdes Sereno to testify at the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona.
In ruling against the petition, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile chided the prosecution for driving the impeachment court into a clash with the Supreme Court. The rebuke came two weeks after the impeachment court averted a collision with the high court when it voted 13-10 on Feb. 14 to obey a temporary restraining order issued by the latter on the opening of Corona’s dollar accounts at the Philippine Savings Bank. Legal circles regarded that ruling as an important turning point of the trial that began on Jan. 16. The prosecutors’ petition was the latest in a series of reckless actions mounted by them in their increasingly unraveling case against Corona.
In striking down the petition, Enrile advised the fumbling prosecutors to instead “invite” Sereno to testify. “We are calibrating our moves so that there would be no blunders,” he said. “If the system of government is destroyed, it’s not us who will suffer. It’s the people who will suffer.”
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago joined Enrile in the rebuke and chastisement of the prosecutors. “Do you recognize that you’re asking this nation to go into a direct collision between two separate branches of government? Have you fully thought out your position?” she told Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares.
This was followed up by Enrile, who told Colmenares: “You know, Mr. Prosecutor, this court and its presiding officer are going slow in their moves in this impeachment case because we are trying to avoid something.” He said that the prosecutors should have talked with their prospective witnesses “instead of using the compulsory process of this court,” and that only if a witness refused to testify would the impeachment court consider producing a subpoena or an invitation.
Both Enrile and Santiago said the three branches of government enjoyed the confidentiality of closed-door deliberations. Enrile said that if he wanted to go against the principle that all three divisions were coequal, he should seek the amendment of the Constitution.
Colmenares argued that the Supreme Court’s rule on the confidentiality of court proceedings was not “absolute.” He said that Sereno, an appointee of President Aquino, would testify on “distortion” and “judicial misconduct” in relation to the high court’s TRO on Nov. 15, 2011, allowing former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to travel abroad. Prosecutors allege that Corona, through the issuance of the TRO, favored Arroyo, who appointed him chief justice shortly before she stepped down in 2010.
“That distortion should not hide behind the cloak of confidentiality,” Colmenares said, referring to the high court’s Feb. 14 resolution denying access to records regarded as “predecisional and deliberative.”
Enrile reminded Colmenares that the House also had internal rules related to the confidentiality of its closed-door deliberations.
Said Santiago: “Let’s think about this first because we are talking about the entire nation. This is not a question of who is supreme to the other…. Or which is more powerful between the Supreme Court and the impeachment court. As much as possible, we are trying to avoid a confrontation.”
She also reminded the prosecutors that the Senate and the House had their respective rules on confidentiality similar to the Supreme Court’s. She cited the executive sessions, the topics of which could not be discussed outside.
“So, why are we now singling out one branch of government so that we can penetrate the rule of confidentiality?” Santiago said. “Do you want also that the institution of deliberative process, not only for the judiciary but also for the legislature and executive branches of government, would also be made to come tumbling down over our heads?”
Even as the impeachment trial is ongoing, President Aquino has gone out of his way to make speeches at public gatherings, campaigning for the removal of Corona. The President has said that the evidence unveiled by the prosecutors in the mass media and outside the impeachment court were sufficient to convict Corona.
By his public statements, Mr. Aquino pronounced Corona guilty even before the impeachment court could hear the latter’s side. In this campaign, he made his own interpretation of the law, like a chief justice, even though he is not a lawyer.