Passion For Reason

No factual, only legal and moral, issues left

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Chief Justice Renato Corona’s statement during the impeachment trial has been commonly seen as an appeal to emotion, rather than law. I don’t entirely agree. There were key portions directed to legal arguments but they would matter only if there remain swing votes among the senator-judges.

Those portions pertain to three issues: the Basa-Guidote expropriation money, the duty to disclose dollar accounts in the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth, and the question of whether the SALN omissions rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

One. The Basa-Guidote saga is legally irrelevant. Why then do both the prosecution and the defense fixate on it unduly? Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile has already said many times before that the internecine feud is none of the Senate’s concern. It doesn’t matter what the heirs fought over, or who sued whom over how much. All that matters for impeachment purposes is that, in the end, money passed to the Chief Justice’s wife, Cristina Corona, but wasn’t reported in his SALNs.

Yet why does the prosecution take pains to trace the story from the brawl over the estate, the libel conviction, the auction of the company, the Manila city government’s expropriation of the Sampaloc property, the corporate authorization for Cristina Corona, their corporate status before the Securities and Exchange Commission, to how the Corona family ended up with the expropriation payment? The opposing family faction even called a press conference on Wednesday, apparently with the full blessings of the prosecution.

The same with the Chief Justice. On Tuesday, he recounted the family grudges among his in-laws, even branding a rival Basa heir as an overgrown “spoiled brat.” It is understandable because the prosecution has raised matters of personal privilege, so to speak, but why be preoccupied when much more is at stake? I think it’s because much more indeed is at stake.

For both the prosecution and the defense, the Basa-Guidote money can lay the basis for an acquittal. Sympathizers of the Chief Justice already say that the expropriation money can actually be used to explain either the dollar accounts or the fancy condominium purchases. It provides the Chief Justice grounds to bring his finances within the pale of the plausible. That is why neither would let go of the issue.

Two. The Chief Justice confronted his nondisclosure of the dollar accounts in his SALNs. He admitted the nondisclosure and presented the rather extreme legal interpretation that, because foreign currency deposits are “absolutely confidential” under the law, there is no duty to report these in the SALNs. This calls on the Senate to make a legal interpretation of the constitutional principle of public accountability and a statutory right of confidentiality, and whether his reading, if wrong, is impeachable.

Three. This brings us to Corona’s challenge of whether the admitted SALN omissions rise to the level of an impeachable offense. Again this is a legal question addressed to the judgment of the senator-judges. To use a classic Holmesian metaphor, “the Constitution do[es] not establish and divide fields of black and white, [drawing lines] with mathematical precision and divid[ing them] into watertight compartments…” There is room for weighing and balancing by the senator-judges.

But if there was one portion of the Chief Justice’s statement that truly goes beyond the law, it is, strangely enough, the most legal-sounding of his arguments. He signed a waiver of confidentiality but only if his 188 congressional accusers and his Senate nemesis, Sen. Franklin Drilon, similarly signed waivers. He relied on the classic irony of “the pot calling the kettle black” and Biblical incantations on who can “cast the first stone” or notice “the speck that is in [his] brother’s eye.”

Had the Chief Justice’s Tuesday walkout succeeded, the denouement would have shifted the burden to his accusers to reply to his dare. I doubt if we have heard the last here. Indeed, on Wednesday, Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Chiz Escudero asked some prosecutor-congressmen pointblank if they would oblige the Filipino nation with the waiver. Already, at least three lawmakers—Kalinga Rep. Abigail Faye Ferriol, ACT Rep. Antonio Tinio, and Pangasinan Rep. Kimi Cojuangco—have called the bluff and signed waivers. The others stonewall and argue that it is Corona and not they who are on the dock. That argument is legally correct but morally unconvincing. They should follow the fine example of Ferriol, Tinio and Cojuangco.

At this stage, Corona’s conditional waiver hurts him more. There remains no factual issue: He has admitted to at least four dollar accounts and their nondisclosure in the SALNs. The trial has boiled down to precisely that issue—the core of the second Article of Impeachment. He said the omission was excusable. Then let him open the accounts so that we can judge for ourselves. After all, he has explained that his dollar accounts came from his career-long savings. There is no point in keeping the accounts secret, unless it is out of personal pique at his accusers. But even then, it is strange that he lets pride get in the way of honor.

The legal arguments may not sway the senator-judges who have already made up their minds. These arguments matter only if there remain undecided senators genuinely wavering between removal and acquittal. The Chief Justice’s entire statement will be expunged from the record unless he is cross-examined. For his own sake, he must appear today, waive his confidentiality, and then look us straight in the eye.

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