It’s been two months since the historic impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona began. Week 8 opened with the defense panel taking its turn to offer its own evidence. The public had waited for this with much anticipation. Days before, Mr. Corona hopped from one radio-TV program to another to announce that all questions about his properties will now be answered, including his supposed dollar deposits. But what a great disappointment the week has been.
Government functionaries were presented to testify that Mr. Corona was earning more than a simple look at his monthly salary might indicate, and that the figures he declared in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) are consistent with the official “assessed value” of his real estate assets. But the one question that remained unanswered is why he omitted the much higher acquisition price at which his condo units were bought. For such properties, “acquisition value” seems a more truthful measure of net worth. Indeed, there is a column for this in the SALN form but, year after year, the Chief Justice left it blank. It is no excuse to say that such information is anyway available in other public documents like deeds of sale and income tax returns. If that were a valid reason, then the whole SALN requirement itself would be superfluous.
I’m often asked how this impeachment process will end. My answer has been: I don’t know. Politics is anything but predictable. As I have argued in past columns, impeachment is basically a political exercise that takes on the form of a judicial process. The purpose of the trial is not to determine whether or not to send an accused person to jail. Its sole purpose is to determine whether a top public official who occupies a position of trust is fit to remain in office. The individuals assigned to discharge this function are not from the judiciary. They are senators –political representatives of the people – who, whether they like it or not, have to be attuned to public opinion.
The last time a public official was tried by the Senate impeachment court was in 2001. Who would have known that the trial of President Joseph Ejercito Estrada would end the way it did? The trial came to an abrupt halt when the House prosecutors stormed out of the session hall, after a majority of the senators voted to block the opening of an envelope believed to contain bank records damaging to Estrada. Had it been allowed to run its course, the trial would have ended in Estrada’s acquittal. The voting on the crucial “second envelope” gave a good indication of that. The collapse of the trial triggered a civilian-military uprising that subsequently unseated the incumbent president.
The endgame for the Corona trial is no less uncertain. Although Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile has vowed to see the process to its end, many unforeseen events can happen. An adverse procedural ruling, for example, can spark a similar uproar. It may goad the Supreme Court to intervene at a crucial moment, invoking its power of judicial review. The resulting impasse may pave the way for a compromise in order to avert a constitutional crisis. The one who wears the crown might then offer to make the supreme sacrifice of resigning, without admitting any of the charges. If that happens, would the process still continue? Most likely not.
But a scenario like this obviously does not unfold by itself. It requires the shuttling back and forth of political agents who are adept at arbitrating the recurrent crises of elite politics. They need time to do their work. And what better time is there than the season of spiritual contemplation that is coming up with the onset of Holy Week? For the actors in this trial, it is a good time not only for prayer but also for a clear-eyed assessment of where they stand and how much further they can press their case without straining the public’s credulity and patience.
If there is any chance for anything like this, the best time for it to happen will have to be before Mrs. Corona, or Mr. Corona himself, takes the witness stand. Their appearance in the impeachment court will definitely take the process to an altogether different plane. It will set off its own dynamics. It is difficult to predict how each of the 23 senator-judges will make use of the situation. We do not know either how the Coronas will handle moments of in-your-face impudence. In a personalistic culture like ours, I can only assume that the injury will be incalculable, leaving little room for a negotiated exit.
But, if Chief Justice Corona is confident that he has nothing to be defensive about, then total transparency will be his best ally. He should take the witness stand himself at the very first hour, and not allow his lawyers to waste the time of the court in unproductive meandering. He only needs to convince eight senators that he has not betrayed the public trust or done anything improper or illegal that can reasonably be regarded as impeachable – in order for him to keep his office. But this is not as easy as it might seem. He is starting not from a neutral point, but from a position of negative public esteem. He lost public sympathy when, against all good sense, he accepted a midnight appointment as chief justice from a despised outgoing president who had been his abiding political patron. And so, beyond proving he did not steal any money or cheat on his taxes, his is the burden of showing that he is a man of integrity, good faith and temperance – qualities that will make him truly worthy of being the country’s chief magistrate.
That is the only conceivable endgame that can help him win.
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