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Corona’s ‘day in court’


Finally, Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona had his day in court.  Accused of betrayal of public trust, and graft and corruption, and culpable violation of the Constitution, Corona was impeached by the House of Representatives and is now facing his accusers – eleven representatives of the people – before a Senate impeachment trial with the 23 senators sitting as judges. 

Corona and his wife Cristina attended the first day of the trial to prove -- as his chief defense counsel retired Supreme Court Justice Serafin Cuevas pronounced -- that he is not hiding anything.  But as it turned out, Corona’s defense attorneys demanded that the list of 45 properties allegedly owned by the Coronas not be accepted in the trial.  If he was not really hiding anything, why would he object to the introduction of public information as evidence? 

*Collective voice

The impeachment trial is all about Corona’s character.  It’s all laid out in the prosecution team’s opening statement, which was read by Congressman-prosecutor Niel C. Tupas Jr.

“As public servants,” Tupas began, “we took an oath to uphold the people’s will at all times. All who hold positions in the government of our Republic are accountable for their actions. For the power of the sovereign Filipino people is a power that is higher than the Executive, the Legislative or even the Judiciary. And therefore, no matter how high and mighty one's position may be, one can never, ever be beyond public accountability.  Today, we lay down before this impeachment tribunal the product of the collective voice of the people.”

Having said that, Tupas then crystallized the prosecution’s objective: “We are not here to indict the Supreme Court as an institution, or to do battle with the judicial branch of government. We are here to search for the truth so as to restore the strength and independence of the judiciary. We are here because one man -- Chief Justice Renato Corona -- has bartered away for a pot of porridge the effectiveness, the independence, and the honor of the Supreme Court. Mr. Senate President, your honors, one very important question before this honorable impeachment tribunal is, by what standards should Renato Corona be judged?”

After he briefly extolled two Supreme Court icons, Cayetano Arellano, the first Chief Justice and Jose Abad Santos, who preferred to die at the hands of the Japanese rather than betray his country, Tupas said: “The Code of Judicial Conduct demands that a judge must be like Caesar’s wife -- someone who must not only be pure but must be beyond suspicion at all times. Therefore, a Justice must be judged according to the highest standards. Against such standards, we then ask: Who is Chief Justice Corona? What kind of a man is he?”

Tupas described Corona as a “loyal servant” to former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from the time she became Vice-President in 1998 until she became President in 2001.  Then Arroyo appointed Corona’s wife Cristina to plum positions in the Camp John Hay Management Corporation and then appointed Corona himself as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and the “best reward” of all, Corona took a “midnight oath” as Chief Justice.  Tupas said that Corona’s appointment as Chief Justice also served an “immoral” purpose: to shield Arroyo from prosecution for her misdeeds during her presidency.

Tupas then outlined the eight articles of impeachment against Corona.  He mentioned Article 2 last, saying: “And finally, we come to Article 2 where the prosecution will prove that Chief Justice Renato Corona amassed ill-gotten wealth after he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2002. To give you an idea of this article, let me present to you some of the prized pieces of the Corona crown jewels,” and named several multi-million properties.  
And in a stinging indictment of Corona, Tupas said, “The governing principle of our laws is clear: unexplained discrepancy between an official’s income and his assets, declared or undeclared, is prima facie evidence of ill-gotten wealth, and therefore, is an impeachable crime of graft and corruption.”

“In closing,” he said, “the message of the House, as the representatives of the people, is the same as that given by Oliver Cromwell when he dismissed England's Long Parliament on April 20 of 1653. Before God and country, we say: ‘It is high time for us to put an end to your sitting in that place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice, you are an enemy to good government, as you have sold your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas Escariot betrayed your God for a few pieces of gold. Depart I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!’ ”

*Conspiracy theory

It was a lacerating rebuke to Corona who was at that time sitting at the VIP section with his wife.  Makes one wonder how he felt?  It must have taken him a lot of courage to make an appearance at the opening day of the impeachment trial, knowing that the prosecution team would certainly attack him.  Could it be that his appearance was calculated to evoke public sympathy and make him a martyr in the public eye?

But it must be remembered that for several days prior to his “day in court,” Corona staged press conferences and public rallies and attacked several people of conspiracy to bring him down.  First, he accused the Land Registration Authority (LRA) Administrator of producing a fake list of 45 properties that were allegedly owned by Corona, his wife and children, and in-laws.  He branded the list as a “hoax.” 

And just hours before the impeachment trial started, Corona told his supporters who gathered in front of the Supreme Court that three persons were conspiring to remove him from office.  He said that the first wanted to stop the distribution of Hacienda Luisita to farmer-beneficiaries, the second lost in his bid to become vice president, and the third “desperately” wants to become Chief Justice. 

*Midnight appointment

Corona shouldn’t blame anybody but himself for the problems he’s having now.  It must be remembered that when he was nominated for the soon-to-be-vacant Chief Justice position in the waning days of the Arroyo administration, several other justices were nominated including then-Associate Justice and now-Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales and Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.  Carpio-Morales and Carpio declined the nomination noting that there was a ban on “midnight appointments.” 

But Corona accepted the nomination saying that it was the dream of every lawyer to be appointed to the highest position in the Judiciary.  However, many warned him that accepting a “midnight appointment” could be problematic in the future.  It was a self-fulfilling prophecy and look where he is right now – fighting to keep the position that he dreamed about all his life.

It’s too early to see how the political weather vane would turn.  But if Corona were acquitted, would history give him a place to occupy next to Cayetano Arellano and Jose Abad Santos?  Or would an unforgiving people consign him to the dustbin of history when he steps down in 2018? 
He had his “day in court.”  Quo vadis, Corona?

By Perry Diaz

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