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Aquino steps up attack on Philippine Supreme Court

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MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino is discussing possible moves that could lead to the impeachment of the Supreme Court's chief justice, his spokesman said on Thursday, after Aquino accused the top judge of hindering his anti-corruption drive.

Aquino, who has made the fight against graft the cornerstone of his mandate, has twice in the past week accused the court and its chief justice of bias in favour of his predecessor, Gloria Mcapagal Arroyo.

But Chief Justice Renato Corona's term does not run out until 2018, two years after Aquino leaves office, and he has shown no indication he will step down.

And there appears little basis for Congress, dominated by Aquino's allies, to impeach him, such as a blatant violation of the constitution.

"The president recognises the fact that Chief Justice Corona is already the sitting chief justice, but that does not prevent us, or prevent the president, from raising these questions," Edwin Lacierda, presidential spokesman, told reporters when asked about whether there was any basis for impeaching Corona.

Aquino, son of venerated former president Corazon Aquino, remains popular 18 months after being elected and is counting on public opinion to pressure Corona to quit.

He has accused the court's justices, most of whom were appointed by Arroyo, of being partial in ruling on cases concerning her. He has been particularly scathing about Corona.

"If there's a public servant who is paying back the favour not to the people where our powers spring from but to a patron who inserted him to his position, can the people rely on him to protect their interest?" Aquino told a forum, where the chief justice was sitting two seats away from him.

Arroyo, under guard at a private hospital since her arrest last month on charges of rigging elections in 2007, also faces investigation on several allegations of corruption during her nine years in office.

PRESIDENT ACCUSES COURT OF OBSTRUCTION

Aquino said the court has blocked efforts to pursue Arroyo after it ruled against the creation of a truth commission on her activities in office and prevented him from removing officials he said his predecessor had appointed for political reasons.

The court also overturned a travel ban imposed last month by the government on the former president as she was about to fly out of Manila airport for medical treatment.

Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms, said Aquino would not think twice of supporting a move to impeach Corona.

"The political will is really there and he is willing to risk going into a tedious impeachment process," Casiple said.

But he warned a lengthy standoff between the president and the court could plunge the Philippines into deep uncertainty.

In April, the head of the anti-corruption agency, an Arroyo ally, was forced to quit after public protests.

Legal experts believe Aquino's attacks on Corona could erode the credibility of the judiciary and threaten the rule of law.

"If you have an executive branch that does not abide by court decisions, then, we have a big problem in our hands," said Rannie Aquino, Dean of San Beda College's law school in Manila.

"It is the judiciary that should be your first ally in the campaign against corruption," said Aquino, who is not related to the president.

Corona's spokesman, Jose Midas Marquez, said it was not criticism of the judiciary that concerned the court. "But, what is considered unusual is for the chief executive to look down on the members of the judiciary in public," he said.

Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Rosemarie Francisco and Ron Popeski




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