Senate trial is not Holy Inquisition
Brainwashing the public with derogatory information on impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona has remained unabated in the countdown to the start of his impeachment trial in the Senate on Jan. 16.
As late as Friday, President Aquino’s spokesperson Edwin Lacierda was still stepping up a sustained campaign to press Corona to disclose his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN), which is emerging as a key issue in the impeachment trial.
The second charge in the eight-article indictment alleges that Corona committed culpable violation of the Constitution and/or betrayed the public trust when he failed to disclose to the public his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth as required under Section 17, Article XI of the 1987 Constitution.
This particular charge has now shaped up as the centerpiece issue of the Aquino administration’s effort to pin down Corona for graft and corruption.
A controversy has developed from intensified pressure by the Aquino administration to force Corona to disclose his SALN even before the trial begins. This has sown the seeds of potential anarchy in the run-up the trial.
Centers of authority
The threat of a turbulent or disruptive trial has now loomed as several centers of authority have asserted to claim control over the course of the impeachment proceedings.
These centers of authority are the Senate, which is the constitutionally mandated impeachment tribunal; the House prosecution panel, which is undermining the Senate’s function by unloading sub judice evidence on the property acquisitions of Corona and his wife; and the Aquino administration, whose officials have now intervened in the impeachment process by passing judgment that Corona’s salary as a public official would not have been sufficient to pay for the purchase of premium properties in Taguig City.
This conclusion is based on the evidence that was disclosed by the House prosecution panel surreptitiously in briefings with the press—not to the Senate tribunal.
With these contending centers of authority trying to seek control over the impeachment proceedings, the ground has been laid for a chaotic trial—reminiscent of the impeachment trial of Joseph Estrada in 2001, when the Senate in a close vote decided to suppress the disclosure of the contents of a brown envelope containing documents of Estrada’s bank transactions that purportedly established the paper trail of his alleged corrupt acts.
This suppression of the evidence sparked the abortion of the impeachment trial, shifting the crisis from the Senate to the streets and resulting in the so-called Edsa II that led to the ousting of Estrada and the collapse of his administration when military and Cabinet officials withdrew their support.
This anarchic climax of the Estrada trial underscored the perils arising from unwanted interventions in impeachment process.
It warns us of the dangers in the Corona impeachment trial of the vacuum of authoritative decision making if the House panel continues to undermine the Senate’s role in conducting a fair trial governed by due process and feed the press with evidence not yet introduced in the Senate trial.
The interventions have opened a wide cleavage and fueled tensions between the Senate and the House, with the former trying hard to defend its autonomy after the latter had surrendered its independence to the executive branch when it rushed the impeachment of Corona.
When the Senate seeks to take control of the Corona impeachment trial and conduct the trial under the rigors of evidence and due process, and put some semblance of order in the proceedings, it should correctly be understood that there is a higher principle involved in the case—i.e., that Corona should be removed not by the howling clamor of the lynch mob in the streets to send him to the gallows but by due process under the rule of law.
This is why the manner in which Corona is removed or acquitted is extremely important—indeed, more important than the consideration that his removal, by hook or by crook, will serve the policy objective of the Aquino administration of making the past administration and its cohorts in the Supreme Court accountable for past wrongdoing, corruption and abuse of power.
This is why the Senate and its leadership angrily denounced the House prosecution panel for violating the rules on impeachment, after the latter disclosed details of Corona’s property acquisitions in press briefings, thereby preempting the functions of the tribunal.
These actions were so provocative that on Thursday, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile warned the House prosecution team to just withdraw the impeachment complaint should it continue to present its evidence outside the Senate.
“If they want to try the case outside the Senate,” Enrile said, “then they should withdraw the case and expose whatever evidence they want to the entire world.”
The warning raised fears that if the House prosecution panel persisted with its practice of presenting its case directly in the arena of raw public opinion and pandering to the passions of the cackling gallery, it could provoke a crisis between the Senate and the House that would lead to the abortion of the trial, sending the case to the lynch mob in the streets.
The use of the streets or even the news media as the forum for disclosure of evidence would render the Senate tribunal redundant.
Release of SALN
The Aquino administration did not appear to take the warning seriously, as the administration released to the media the SALN filed by Corona on July 22, 1992, shortly after then President Fidel Ramos appointed Corona assistant executive secretary for legal affairs, and on April 8, 2002, the day before then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo appointed Corona to the high court.
The two documents showed that the assets of Corona were worth P14.9 million when he joined the Ramos administration and were worth about P1 million less when he left the executive branch under Arroyo to join the Supreme Court in 2002.
When the senators remonstrated against the actions of the prosecution in unloading by stealth evidence to an improper forum—outside the impeachment tribunal—they sent a strong message.
The message is that the Senate is not going to serve as the Holy Inquisition for an administration in pursuing its self-appointed mandate to right wrongs and its claim of divine right to do as it pleases.
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