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Corona’s thorny crown redux


May 18, 2010

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ignited a firestorm right after the presidential elections when she appointed Justice Renato Corona to replace Chief Justice Reynato Puno who retired last May 17. On the day Puno retired, Corona took his oath of office before Arroyo. With that, the High Court is now composed of all justices appointed by Arroyo. The “Arroyo Court” is now fait accompli. Or should I say, “Coronarroyo Court”?

Corona’s appointment would have been uncontroversial and untainted had it not been made during the constitutional ban on “midnight appointments.” The controversy arose when the Supreme Court, in a 9-1 decision, ruled in favor of Arturo M. De Castro’s petition (De Castro vs. Judicial and Bar Council) to the Supreme Court to allow the President to appoint the successor of Chief Justice Puno upon his retirement, on the ground “that the prohibition against presidential appointments under Section 15, Article VII does not extend to appointments in the Judiciary.”

*Ban on “midnight appointments”

But that’s not what Section 15, Article VII says. What it says is: “Two months immediately before the next presidential elections and up to the end of his term, a President or Acting President shall not make appointments, except temporary appointments to executive positions when continued vacancies therein will prejudice public service or endanger public safety.”

It’s crystal clear that the ban on “midnight appointments” covers permanent appointments to the Supreme Court including the Chief Justice. Justice Lucas Bersamin, who penned the decision, argued that the constitutional provision did not apply to the position of chief justice. It’s analogous to saying, “The color of the white dog is black.”

Prior to accepting the appointment, Corona was warned by the Philippine Bar Association (PBA) that he can be “sanctioned for violating the Constitution if he accepts his appointment as Chief Justice.” PBA president and former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo said, “He should reject also because he’s tainted already. He follows what the incumbent President wants. There’s great doubt on his independence and [that he is] out to protect [the] President from suits.”

Corona was also challenged by Jaro Archbishop Angel Lagdameo to “defend the integrity of the judiciary instead of showing loyalty to President Arroyo.” He also said, “I hope the incoming chief justice will maintain the independence of the Supreme Court and not be influenced by ‘utang na loob’ to the President.”

Indeed, it is “utang na loob” (debt of gratitude) that seems to be the culprit in influencing the nine justices — seven of whom, including Bersamin, were appointed by Arroyo in 2009 and 2010 — to concur with Bersamin’s controversial ponencia.

It’s interesting to note that during the interview of the four nominees for Chief Justice by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), Justice Arturo Brion was asked: “How about utang na loob?” While not admitting to it, his answer was: “That is a cultural baggage.”

*Thorny crown

The militant labor group, Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), likened Corona to a “thorny crown” placed on the head of President-apparent Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. KMU Chairman Elmer Labog said, “By appointing the justice who is most loyal to her to head the Supreme Court, Arroyo is passing a thorny crown to Sen. Aquino. She is leaving yet another ugly legacy to the next administration and to the Filipino people.”

However, in my opinion, the “thorny crown” is not on Noynoy’s head but on Corona’s head. It’s an ignominious “crown” that he would wear for as long as he is the Chief Justice. He has to bear the pain of being mocked as Arroyo’s “midnight chief justice.” And each time that he takes a vote on a case before the High Court involving Arroyo, there would be a great deal of skepticism and suspicion on how he arrived at his decision, particularly if it would be favorable to Arroyo. If his past votes were taken into consideration as to how he is going to perform as Chief Justice, then there is the likelihood that he would continue to be perceived as biased for Arroyo.

When asked by the media after his oath-taking if he would inhibit himself from hearing cases involving Arroyo, his answer was: “You’re asking me to express my opinion on a case which has never even been filed yet. So I therefore decline to answer that question. We will deal with the issue head-on if and when there is a case pending before us.” Crafty, indeed.

With the anticipated high volume of plunder and other criminal cases that would be filed against Arroyo, the Supreme Court would be inundated with caseloads for the duration of Corona’s stewardship of the High Court for the next eight years. Many people are of the opinion that Arroyo appointed Corona to protect her from those cases.

When Arroyo announced Corona’s appointment ahead of Puno’s retirement on May 17, it provoked an early clash with Noynoy who said that he would not recognize Arroyo’s midnight appointments. And to make his point clear, Noynoy said that he would take his oath of office before a barangay chairman, the lowest elected government official.

*Midnight Chief Justice

Now that Corona has taken his oath of office, the question is: Would Noynoy pursue the removal of Corona? If so, it would certainly create a constitutional crisis — pitting the executive branch against the judiciary branch of government.

However, if Noynoy decides not to remove Corona, then Corona’s appointment would be tantamount to a constitutional “amendment” that would render Section 15, Article VII unenforceable and, therefore, inutile. And once that precedent is set, I wonder what the “Arroyo Court” would do to tweak or twist other provisions of the constitution? Has the rule of man supplanted the rule of law in our benighted country?

Former Chief Justice Artemio V. Panganiban, in his article, “Midnight chief justice,” published on March 27, 2010, said: “It has definitely eroded the high moral ascendancy of the highest court of the land. It is bad enough that the tribunal is now freely labeled as the ‘Arroyo Court.’ Worse, the appointee will be ingloriously branded the ‘midnight chief justice.’ ” Yes, indeed.

By Perry Diaz

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