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Fearless stand on airport standoff

If there was one defining moment thus far in the impeachment trial, it was the Wednesday exchange between Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and a witness, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima. It demonstrates precisely why this impeachment trial is political to its core, and why it calls upon us, the people, to exercise our “sovereign prerogative of choice.”

De Lima had just explained why she blocked former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s exit at the airport, saying that the Supreme Court’s temporary restraining order was conditional and its conditions hadn’t yet been met. Enrile then asked De Lima a seemingly innocuous but loaded question: Had those conditions already been satisfied, would she have bowed before the high court’s TRO? De Lima’s response: “Maybe, or maybe not…”

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That was a truly bold statement. Leila de Lima spoke the truth as she felt it in her heart, but really she could have played it safe. She could have taken the path of least resistance and said: Why, of course, yes, your honor, I would have respected the TRO!

After all, the watch list order is now overtaken by actual arrest warrants issued by the courts. So even if indeed defiance was truly her state of mind during the drama at the airport, by Wednesday this week when she was testifying, she already had the luxury of invoking those arrest warrants.

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I could have more easily imagined her statement being said outside a court, in a press conference perhaps, or in a public rally. But not in an impeachment trial where she was testifying as a witness and was “open season” for rebuke from the senator-judges.

But Leila de Lima chose to be honest and candid. After all, everybody knew what Arroyo really had in mind when she attempted to exit the country for non-extradition states on the eve of being charged with nonbailable crimes. Everybody, that is, except apparently the Supreme Court justices who preferred to ignore the elephant in the room. Had our justice officials buckled down during that fateful evening at the airport, the government’s anticorruption campaign would have collapsed like a pack of cards.

It fell upon De Lima to make the tough call. It took a lot of guts to block Arroyo at the airport. But it took real daring to sit on the witness stand before the Senate and declare under oath that, yes, maybe she might have defied the Supreme Court TRO.

She just as soon offered a solid explanation: “[B]ecause my view is that the TRO was improper in the sense that a TRO … is [merely] supposed to preserve the status quo pending the disposition of the merits of the main petition.” In other words, a TRO should be merely temporary, but in this case, granting the TRO effectively rendered the trial on the merits inutile. What’s the point of trying the accused when the accused has fled beyond reach of the court?

The Wednesday hearing was telling in yet another way, and that is its stark contrast with the previous day’s hearing which saw Enrile’s famous Castilian temper bared in full against the prosecution. Contrast the kid-glove treatment of Secretary De Lima with the bare-knuckle handling of the prosecution counsel. Even after she declared that maybe she might have defied a valid TRO, Enrile, instead of painting her into a corner using the oft-cited mechanical notion of the “rule of law,” actually showed her a way out. The grizzled veteran of many a legal battle instead suggested that, Ah, that is why you have now filed a motion for reconsideration!

Can you beat that? What began as an act in contempt of the Supreme Court was suddenly a principled position now channeled through proper procedure. The clenched fist suddenly morphed into a hand salute!

The second contrast was Enrile’s strictness on Monday in striking out evidence on the special favors that Chief Justice Renato Corona received from Philippine Airlines, a party-litigant before the Supreme Court. Had he been minded to, Enrile could have allowed that evidence. After all, the platinum card with oodles of freebies compromised the “cold neutrality of an impartial judge” required of Corona. Instead, Enrile read the rules as literally as possible and asked if the PAL VIP card was ever mentioned in the slew of allegations in the impeachment complaint.

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Compare that to Enrile’s broad and liberal reading of the rules during De Lima’s testimony. On Thursday, he partially rejected former Justice Serafin Cuevas’ objection on hearsay evidence. Enrile ruled that impeachment proceedings are an exception, citing not any statute or case-law but an academic work by American author Raoul Berger.

But Enrile is right: The hearsay evidence rule is meant to insulate the so-called “jury of one’s peers” from improper testimony. The senators are judges who are empowered to decide what evidence to hear and what punishment to impose, not jurors who are supposed to decide only questions of fact. By their electoral mandate, they are supposed to be able to judge for themselves what to believe and what not to believe.

But all that aside, why be so strict one day, and liberal the next?

The watch list order that prevented GMA from escaping justice may have been listed as merely the seventh article of impeachment, but it was that showdown that actually triggered the entire impeachment saga. Corona’s first offense was in becoming a midnight Chief Justice, but the people gave him the benefit of the doubt. When he led the Supreme Court to allow GMA to leave, he resolved the doubt against himself.

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Comments to passionforreason@gmail.com

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TAGS: corona impeachment, featured column, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Juan Ponce Enrile, Leila de Lima, opinion
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