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The nation’s on trial

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In the current hullabaloo over the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona, it is good to know that the man who presides over the court that will judge the chief justice understands the consequences of the entire democratic process to the nation and to the institutions that are involved.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, in his remarks at the start of the trial, cautioned his fellow senators sitting as judges that as jurors, they have the “obligation and responsibility to closely and diligently examine the evidence and the facts to be presented before [them], to determine whether such evidence and facts sufficiently and convincingly support the charges, and ultimately, to decide the fate of no less than the Chief Justice of the Highest Court of the land, and the head of a co-equal branch of our government.”

Enrile reminded the senators that although an impeachment trial is political in nature, it should not be taken as an excuse “to ignore and abandon our solemn and higher obligation and responsibility as a body of jurors to see to it that the Bill of Rights are observed and that justice is served, and to conduct the trial with impartiality and fairness, to hear the case with a clear and open mind, to weigh carefully in the scale the evidence against the respondent, and to render to him a just verdict based on no other consideration than our Constitution and laws, the facts presented to us, and our individual moral conviction.”

Enrile stressed the importance of the impeachment trial to the nation: “Although the ostensible respondent in the trial before us is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, we cannot escape the reality that, in a larger sense, the conduct of this trial and its outcome will necessarily have a serious impact on the entire nation. Its success or failure to achieve the purpose for which the Constitution has provided this mechanism as part of our system of checks and balances and of public accountability, may spell the success or failure of our democratic institutions, the strengthening or weakening of our sense of justice as a people, our stability or disintegration as a nation, and the triumph or demise of the rule of law in our land.”

Enrile couldn’t have said it better. For indeed, not only Corona is under trial here; the entire nation is under litigation – whether its institutions can stand the test of fairness, justice, and the Rule of Law, and whether the people themselves can distinguish between democracy and demagoguery.

The Senate will be watched. Can it rise beyond partisan politics and make its judgment based on evidence and the rule of law? Or will it stoop down to the level of its counterpart in the lower chamber where most of the 188 congressmen who endorsed the impeachment of Corona signed the endorsement without even reading, much less understanding the complaints? Can it make an impartial judgment, and not destroy a co-equal branch on the mere say-so of the President, as its “lower” counterpart admittedly did?

The House of Representatives has been tested and has been found wanting. These so-called representatives of the people have, for obvious reasons, decided they needed to follow the wishes of Malacanang and do what they deemed to be popular with the people, never mind if by so doing they destroy the people’s perception of justice, democracy and the Rule of Law.

The Presidency has been tested and found wanting. Obsessed with ousting Corona, President Aquino used all the resources available to him as Chief Executive to pressure the House to endorse the impeachment complaint. And now, he has been reported to be prodding and meeting with individual senators to influence their judgment.

President Aquino, who rode on the popularity of his deceased parents who were both icons of democracy, would rather pursue his personal vendetta against the head of a co-equal branch that he deemed was blocking his efforts to reform the government, brushing aside concerns that by so doing, he is weakening an important pillar of government and the people’s faith in the judiciary. He wages his battle on the presumption that it is the popular will, brushing aside concerns that what is popular may not necessarily be right.

Many members of Congress and media agree with him and are saying it is only right that Corona be impeached because it is the sentiment of the people, as expressed in recent surveys. But that is precisely what is wrong with their view of the impeachment trial. They are stretching the meaning of democracy to the extreme – that what the people want must supersede the Rule of Law, justice and fairness. This, they say, is democracy in action – returning power to the people.

Obviously, they favor mob rule over the Rule of Law. I don’t think that is the essence of democracy; rather, that would lead us to anarchy.

Democracy cannot survive without the rule of law. Without strict adherence to the Rule of Law, the tyranny of the majority will subvert democracy.

Fr. Ranhillo Aquino, in his Manila Standard column, reminded senators that any judgment that they would render on the impeachment case should be based solely on evidence and the law. He said: “I am therefore disturbed by suggestions that in deciding, the senators must be sensitive to popular sentiment. Stripped of the verbiage, the suggestion seems to be that senators should judge as popular sentiment would have them judge. If that is so, my question remains: Why go through the motions of a trial at all? Public sentiment is obviously against the Chief Justice. If the nation then is not to be treated to a long-running, expensive production of high drama with an already prepared script, then what must commence on January 16—or when the Senate so ordains —must be an honest-to-goodness trial.”

Fr. Aquino, a lawyer-priest, warns that it is the strict adherence to the Rule of Law that prevents abuses by the state or by any citizen. He said: “Under the Rule of Law, a State is answerable to the law, as is any citizen. The State has to be controlled through institutional techniques especially designed to render possible the exercise of power and render its abuse impossible. When agents of the State believe themselves empowered to act in any which way against any citizen, ex-President or ex-peace-loving, law-abiding Filipino, that is exactly when the problem of control becomes urgent.”

With all these in mind, it is my ardent hope that amid the din of the impeachment trial, the Rule of Law will not be lost, and justice and democracy, in their true essence and splendor, shall prevail.

By Val G. Abelgas




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