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The moment of truth

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The principal charge now against Chief Justice Renato Corona is his failure to declare his dollar accounts in his various statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs).  While admitting that he did not declare his dollar accounts, his defense said last Tuesday and Friday that under the law his dollar accounts are absolutely confidential and he did not have to declare them.

Let us look at the relevant laws on the subject. We can begin with the constitutional provision found in Article XI of the Constitution which says:

Section 17. A public officer or employee shall, upon assumption of office and as often thereafter as may be required by law, submit a declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities, and net worth. In the case of the President, the Vice President, the Members of the Cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Commissions and other constitutional offices, and officers of the armed forces with general or flag rank, the declaration shall be disclosed to the public in the manner provided by law.

Clearly, the Chief Justice is covered by the constitutional provision commanding the declaration of assets, liabilities and net worth.  That is not all, however.  The same provision says that in the case of high-ranking national officers including the Chief Justice “the declaration shall be disclosed to the public in the manner provided by law.”

How do I read the limitation that the declaration shall be made “in the manner provided by law”?  I take this to mean in the manner provided by law either already existing in 1987 when the Constitution was adopted, or promulgated after 1987. Let us therefore look at the various laws on the subject.

The 1960 law, Republic Act 3019, already required public officials to submit annually “a true detailed and sworn statement of assets and liabilities, including a statement of the amounts and sources of his income, the amounts of his personal and family expenses and the amount of income taxes paid for the next preceding calendar year.”  This was affirmed in subsequent laws prior to 1987.

After 1987, came RA 6713 in 1989.  Like earlier laws, it reiterated the duty to submit periodic declaration of assets and liabilities and net worth.  Moreover, according to Section 8, justices of the Supreme Court must submit their SALN to the Clerk of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Corona claims that he has done this religiously.  But what should the declaration contain? This is where there is controversy.

The contention of the Chief Justice is that there is no legal obligation to include dollar accounts in the SALN because of their absolute confidentiality provided for in the  Foreign Currency Law, RA 6426, which says: “All foreign currency deposits authorized under this Act, as amended by PD No. 1035, as well as foreign currency deposits authorized under PD No. 1034, are hereby declared as and considered of an absolutely confidential nature and, except upon the written permission of the depositors, in no instance shall foreign currency deposits be examined, inquired or looked into by any person, government official, bureau or office whether judicial or administrative or legislative, or any other entity whether public or private.”

RA 6426 is a 1974 law.  It is therefore older than the 1987 provision. But, as I stated earlier, the constitutional phrase “in the manner provided by law” means provided by law either before 1987 or after 1987.

The question of whether the absolute confidentiality of foreign deposits is something that prevents the impeachment court from looking into dollar accounts is now before the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court has issued a TRO on the subject, and the Senate has voted to honor the TRO.  In the case of Corona, however, this issue is now moot because he has issued an unconditional waiver on the confidentiality of his bank accounts.

Similarly, the issue of whether the general waiver Corona signed in his SALN also covered dollar accounts has also been rendered moot by his unconditional waiver.

What remains for the Senate to assess is whether the nondisclosure of the dollar accounts was done in good faith and not in defiance of public policy and therefore not an impeachable offense.

With the dropping of five of the eight articles of impeachment, what remain now are “culpable violation of the Constitution, other high crimes or betrayal of public trust.” Under the eiusdem generis principle, their gravity must be as high as treason and bribery, the paradigmatic impeachable offenses.

In an earlier column I also offered the view that “high crimes” already cover “culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust.” But I have also taken Charles Black Jr.’s position that “high crimes” refer to “those offenses which are rather obviously wrong, whether or not ‘criminal,’ and which so seriously threaten the order of political society as to make pestilent and dangerous the continuance in power of their perpetrator.”  This is what the eiusdem generis principle requires.

Now comes the moment of truth. Will the Senate consider Corona’s omission of dollar accounts such a “rather obviously wrong offense” and a “high crime” and therefore an impeachable offense?  Will the disagreement among senators and the public confusion about the meaning of the SALN law be factored into the characterization of the offense as an “obviously wrong offense”?


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