The impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona, which resulted in his dismissal after he was found guilty of betrayal of public trust, devastated the tripartite system of coequal distribution of power in Philippine democracy so severely that the balance of power has tilted so decisively in favor of the executive branch.
No less than a major rebalancing of the powers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches can save our democracy from the creeping authoritarianism of President Aquino.
The conviction of Corona was undoubtedly a decisive victory of the moralistic political objectives of the Aquino administration, encapsulated by his glib slogan on good governance—daang matuwid (straight path)—but left enfeebled the legislative and judicial branches, with the judiciary taking the worst pummeling.
Within six months of relentless, single-minded campaign by the Aquino administration to remove Corona from the Supreme Court, the President has consolidated his grip on power such that the presidency has now achieved control of Congress and the high court, let alone the executive branch (in reality, the most powerful of the three branches), as well as the subordination of the independent institutions, such as the Commission on Audit, and the Office of the Ombudsman.
In this consolidation, Mr. Aquino has succeeded in undermining the Supreme Court, a feat not done by previous Presidents denounced for authoritarian tendencies—Ferdinand Marcos, who imposed martial law in 1972, and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who imposed a brief state of emergency during her second term (2004-2010). The administrations of both leaders were engulfed by corruption scandals.
Previous Presidents had controversies with the Supreme Court over its decisions, but only Mr. Aquino acted aggressively to remove the Chief Justice for acts and decisions of the high court deemed by his administration to have stood in the way of his political goal.
The Aquino regime initiated the impeachment campaign to make the preceding administration accountable for wrongdoing during its watch and to clean up vestiges of its corruption.
Senator Joker Arroyo, a judge in the Corona impeachment trial, gave a succinct and accurate description of the consolidation of Mr. Aquino’s powers. In explaining his vote to acquit Corona, he accused the Aquino administration of using its “naked power” and mobilizing all its resources to secure a conviction.
Arroyo said: “Impeachment is a political process, not a political assassination. An impeachment aspires to be a judicial proceeding that makes imperative that it sticks to judicial rules. An impeachment must ever uphold due process that no citizen, high or low, can be denied.”
He noted that what the House of Representatives initiated against Corona was “not an impeachment” because an “impeachment is an accusation accompanied by necessary formalities and attended by appropriate solemnities, and flanked by the liberties and guarantees that a genuine grand jury proceeding upholds.”
Bill of attainder
The Senate was being asked to remove the Chief Justice from office all because he submitted an allegedly erroneous statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN), Arroyo said. What has happened is the passage to which the Senate President once warned “they were veering close to a bill of attainder.”
Arroyo explained that a bill of attainder was a law submitted by one House and approved by another, “creating an offense where there was none, inventing a crime out of actions, willful or not, that were innocent when they were performed.”
He added: “I can’t imagine removing the Chief Justice on account of the SALN. Today, we’re one step away from violating the Constitution and passing a bill of attainder. No one can stop us if we do not stop ourselves.”
“This is not justice, political justice, political or legal. This is certainly not law; for sure, it’s not the law of the Constitution. It’s only naked power as it was in 1972,” Arroyo said.
“I have not thought I would see it again so brazenly performed but for what it is worth, I cast my vote, if not for innocence falsely accused, of offenses yet to exist, and if not for the law and the Constitution that we were privileged to restore under Cory Aquino, then because it was dangerous not to do what is right when soon we shall stand before the Lord.”
No stopping Aquino
With Corona out of the way and with Mr. Aquino in firm control of the executive and legislative branches, and in a triumphalist mood, and still enjoying a high trust rating in opinion polls, there is no stopping the President from appointing a Chief Justice who would best serve his political objectives.
Would he be comfortable cohabiting with an independent-minded Chief Justice, or court, for that matter? Will he appoint a Chief Justice compliant to his wishes? What is more important to him, a compliant Chief Justice or one who has a mind of his own?
The majority of the justices are appointees of the previous administrations of Arroyo and Fidel Ramos. They have to be aligned to the priorities of the Aquino regime. The larger issue involves the restoration of the balance of power of the three branches.
It is not wishful thinking that after all the exposure of the partisan excesses of the Corona court during his trial, the public should be craving for a Chief Justice who is the exact opposite of Corona. In short, the public expects a Chief Justice whose integrity and independence are beyond reproach to enjoy public trust.
The public will find it hard to accept a presidential toady as the next Chief Justice. This new court leadership is an essential element in rebuilding the independence of the court.