Obey Supreme Court
The Senate impeachment tribunal averted on Monday a head-on collision with the Supreme Court by voting 13-10 to obey a temporary restraining order (TRO) issued by the court against opening the dollar accounts of Chief Justice Renato Corona with the Philippine banks.
The decision palpably relieved tensions over fears that such a clash would trigger a constitutional crisis. Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, presiding judge of the impeachment trial of Corona, read the resolution following a caucus attended by all 23 senator-judges.
Those who voted to “respect” the TRO were Enrile, Senators Joker Arroyo, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Manny Villar, Ralph Recto, Francis Escudero, Aquilino Pimental III, Loren Legarda, Gregorio Honasan, Ramon Revilla Jr., Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Vicente Sotto III and Senate President Pro Tempore Jose Estrada.
Those who voted to disobey the TRO were Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano, Senators Franklin Drilon, Serge Osmeña III, Edgardo Angara, Pia Cayetano, Francisco Pangilinan, Antonio Trillanes IV, Lito Lapid and Teofisto Guingona III.
The vote painted a mosaic of the multiple party affiliations in the Senate and gave a clue on how the impeachment tribunal would vote on whether to convict or acquit Corona who has been charged with betrayal of public trust and graft and corruption with eight articles of impeachment. It revealed that the senator-judges were showing independent streaks that would be hard to amalgamate to a three-fourths vote of all Senate members, or 16, required by law, to convict Corona. The Liberal Party, President Aquino’s party, has no more than four seats in Senate.
Enrile announced the decision, “After the deliberation of the issue, the majority of this court has decided to respect the temporary restraining order of February 9, 2012 issued by the Supreme Court, in the case filed by the Philippine Savings Bank in so far as the foreign currency deposit is concerned.” But while the Senate respects the decision of the Supreme Court, Enrile said, the chamber “would reserve its right to vigorously defend its position before the high tribunal.” He emphasized the point that “The Senate asserts that it has the sole and exclusive jurisdiction to try and decide all impeachment cases.” The Senate had earlier ruled to allow the opening of Corona’s dollar accounts, citing previous rulings of the high tribunal.
The resolution handed a rebuff to the President and a warning not to interfere in the trial, after the President and some cabinet officials had accused the Supreme Court of weakening the impeachment tribunal when it issued the TRO barring the tribunal from opening the dollar accounts of Corona. The impeachment court’s decision to respect the TRO was a far cry from that of the executive branch when it defiantly disobeyed a previous TRO that barred the Justice Department from enforcing its hold-departure order against the flight of ex-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to seek medical treatment abroad. The message of the impeachment court was that in contrast to the Executive Branch, which initiated the impeachment case against Corona, it was more respectful of the high court and it would not allow the Executive to dominate the impeachment tribunal and destroy its independence.
The caucus was held a day after Corona’s lawyers accused Malacañang of dangling P100 million before senator-judges for them to defy the high court’s TRO.
Members of the Senate tribunal took pains to submit statements explaining their votes, for the historical archives, indicating how important the trial was for their political careers.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, one of the more articulate senator-judges and an authority on constitutional law, submitted a statement explaining her vote to obey the court vote. She cited at least six grounds why she favored the high court’s ruling.
“These six grounds are based on the ideology that the impeachment court is not almighty, not absolute, not illimitable, and not more supreme than the Supreme Court,” she argued. Her first argument was that obedience to the TRO would reserve government stability “while disobedience precipitates a constitutional crisis.”
“If we have a choice between stability and crisis, the wise choice is always national stability,” she said. The second ground was that judicial power belongs to the Supreme Court as provided for in the Constitution.
She said judicial power covers two areas, “justiciable questions” which the court defines as “actual controversies involving rights which are legally demandable and enforceable, and “political questions” which the Constitution says include grave discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction.
“Under this discarded doctrine, a court should refuse to decide an issue involving the exercise of discretionary power by the executive or legislative branch of government,” she said. “Assuming that the power to issue subpoena concerning foreign currency deposits is discretionary with the impeachment court, still the Supreme Court has power over this political question.”
Her third argument was that the impeachment court was not authorized to violate the law. She pointed to the law on secrecy of foreign currency deposits which described this secrecy.
The fourth argument was the “theory of checks and balances,” which prohibits the impeachment court from claiming an exception for itself. “When the impeachment court obeys the Supreme Court’s TRO, this does not mean that one is superior over the other. This simply means that the Constitution is supreme over all branches and agencies of government,” she said.
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