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The good that can come from Corona’s impeachment trial

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Never mind that the prosecution team appears sometimes like bumbling freshman Moot Court law students. Understandably, they are primarily not trial lawyers but congressmen instantly casted as prosecutors. Unlike the defense lawyers, trying cases is not their usual everyday fare. They cannot be faulted for not appearing like seasoned trial lawyers. They are not.

Nonetheless, they have laid out adequate allegations, which are somewhat poorly drafted and rough in some spots, but if proven by competent evidence to be true — theoretically should result in a final order of impeachment against Chief Justice Renato Corona.

However, the reality is that not all the Senator-Judges will vote according to compelling evidence and logic — but according to personal philosophies, party lines, individual political agendas, moral or immoral incentives and intuition. This is the nature of the process.

It’s somewhat similar to how jurors make decisions in US courts. There are other factors other than the available evidence that influence their decisions which more often than not result in true justice.

In the old west, when a horse thief was caught red-handed, the saying was: “Let’s give the bastard a fair hearing before we hang him.” Nothing wrong with that. It’s not as if the judge or jurors are clueless about the case. They already know the facts. The fair hearing process is necessary because it is mandated by constitutional due process requirements.

In like manner, even if Senators Joker Arroyo or Franklin Drilon may appear at times to be leaning on the side of the defense or prosecution when they give their opinions or question witnesses; that’s acceptable. The accused is not deprived of due process and the other Senator-Judges and the public get to know more facts and viewpoints about the case. The important thing is to air out the truth.

The defense team is led by 83 year old still sharp Serafin Cuevas and Eduardo de los Angeles. Cuevas, distinct in appearance with his truncated jet black doo — was appointed Associate Supreme Court Justice by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in June 1984 and resigned in April 1986 after Marcos fell. The staid scholarly De los Angeles was a former dean at Ateneo Law School. Technically, the defense team is composed of more experienced lawyers.

That does not necessarily mean victory. Ironically, Cuevas’ strong point which is his obvious

technical knowledge of the rules on evidence — may in fact be his greatest weakness in this impeachment proceedings.

In a Philippine regular court of law, Cuevas’ tactic of objecting to practically everything presented by the other side may sometimes be good strategy. It depends on the judge’s priorities. Is he (or she) more into legal technicalities or is he more interested in knowing the truth. Ideally, he should balance both but lean more towards the side of knowing the truth.

The proceedings in this impeachment trial are more in the nature of a jury trial. Here in the U.S. where I practice, under the jury system, I have observed many lawyers employing Cuevas’ tactic often lose their cases.

They try to keep every piece of evidence from being admitted — objecting to its relevance, its acquisition or some other technicality. They try to muzzle witnesses from speaking by not allowing them to finish their sentences or getting them to admit to half-truths with yes or no answers.

In their cleverness, unwittingly, they fail to sense that they are negatively impacting the jury in giving the impression that they want to suppress or distort the truth. As the case proceeds, the jury becomes increasingly irritated and angered by the repeated attempts to prevent them from seeing the evidence or listening to a witness.

At the end of the trial, when the jury decides against their clients, they often do not even understand as to why this happened. They think they did a good lawyering job. In the Estrada impeachment trial, when the majority obviously pro-Estrada Senators voted not to open an envelope which might show Estrada’s guilt (or innocence) — the prosecution team walked out, the people went ballistics and Estrada got yanked out of Malacanang.
The real jurors here are the Filipino people. They will not only be judging Corona but also the Senators, the prosecution and the defense. They want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about Corona. God help those in this trial who tries to hide the truth from them.

How the defense or the prosecution manage their cases is not my business. Instead, what I hope to see come out of this process is for the citizenry to see the big picture of a broken judicial system which needs drastic reforms to be instituted from top to bottom — in order to establish a judiciary that is responsive to the people’s constant need for justice and order.

A major part of the prosecution’s strategy is to demonstrate that Corona has unjustly enriched himself during his tenure as Associate Chief Justice and as Chief Justice.

For reference and comparisons, they will use Corona’s: Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) filed from the 1990s to the present, titles to real properties in his name and the names of his relatives, series of income tax returns and definitely, his bank records. They might even add information later on about the luxury automobiles in his and his relatives’ names.

Much emphasis and attention will be made to the SALN undervaluation of declared properties and the dramatic spike in his assets. Specific questions will be asked as to how he and his relatives could have acquired so much valuable property on his limited salary.

If the prosecutors are able to effectively establish and express: that Corona possesses enormous wealth; that it surely must be ill gotten since he cannot explain its source; and that he even tried to hide it because he placed much of these in the name of his relatives and maybe some cronies — then to many observers, these are enough conclusive proofs of corruption. Ergo, he should be impeached.

Many would then suspect that one source of this unexplained wealth is former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo which would explain Corona’s loyalty to her at the expense of the people’s interest. Other suspected sources would be a couple of Marcos cronies but let’s not go in there at this time.

Many of the Congressmen-Prosecutors, Senator-Judges and other government officials involved in these impeachment proceedings or watching it — may surely feel some unease in using Corona’s SALNs to pillory him. They know that when it comes to misdeclaring or even misrepresenting items in the SALN form, most everybody plays the game including perhaps themselves — even if maybe not on an unconscionable level.

But certainly, the SALN of certain Senators, Congressmen and other government officials known to be fabulously wealthy are a joke. They get away with declaring only a minuscule fraction of their true net worth because for all practical purposes, nobody really examines or audits these SALNs. The only requirement is that it be filed.

The very purpose why public officials are required by law to file their SALN annually — is to monitor possible dishonest money generating activities. If no independent entity regularly examines these, of what good are they? But government officials as a whole are deafeningly silent about insisting on accurate SALN reporting and auditing. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone…

In 1989, curiously but maybe not surprising, the Supreme Court issued an order prohibiting third parties from examining the SALN of its own members. This appears to be clearly unconstitutional as Article XI Section 17 of the 1987 Constitution clearly mandates it. But who can go against the mighty Supreme Court except if the people cry out loud and support the reversal of this self-serving 1989 order.

The people will also want to support the following drastic but needed Constitutional changes:

To avoid the repetition in the future of this distortion of a cabal of Justices whose primary concern is the interests of the President who appointed them — above that of the interests of the people — the appointment of Justices (and judges) should be taken away from the President. Instead, Justices should be selected from a list of highly qualified candidates with impeccable characters — through a blind lotto style drawing.

In this way, the chosen Justice does not feel beholden to any appointing power because of “utang na loob” (debt of gratitude). We need not follow the U.S. model which clearly does not work well for us because of cultural realities. Let’s do what works for us.

(Choosing Comelec officials should also be done in like manner.)

The SALN filed annually by Justices and judges should be examined regularly by independent auditors together with random lifestyle checks — as a deterrent to corruption. This is a good thing done in other more advanced countries that is worth emulating. Right now, there is no really effective policing and monitoring of dishonest judges and Justices.

The jury system should be adapted. The collective sense of justice of 12 people is preferable to that of one judge who may even possibly be corrupt.
President Aquino can further affirm that these impeachment proceedings against Corona are not a personal thing per se but a part of his overall plan to rid government of corruption. He must initiate and support these noble but effective reform proposals if he wants real lasting effective institutional changes. This will affirm his sincerity. Well-meaning men and women will support him.

Otherwise, without meaningful major reforms, his calls for change will die out when his term ends. Perceived generally as honest, he is in a unique position to make a real difference in creating a better life for our people.

People are willing to trust him. If he allows this sacred opportunity to pass — by just being another shallow politician who is into politics for the sake of power instead of using power for the sake of the people — the people would sooner wish to forget than remember him when he steps down.

An honest and efficient judiciary will go a long way in effectively prosecuting crooks in government. It will also bring justice and order in Philippine society creating a better life for all.

These radical but drastically needed judiciary reforms are what we should hope for to come out of this impeachment trial. Corona’s fate is incidental. What would certainly be more providential and important is that these proceedings open the eyes of our people to the rottenness and corruption in the country’s court system and pushes everyone to seek changes for the good of all.

If you support these critically needed reforms in the judiciary, please email or reprint and distribute as widely as possible and ask recipients to do the same. We can change the Philippines.

San Francisco area based Atty. Ted Laguatan is honored by the California State Bar as among one of only 29 lawyers officially certified continuously for more than 20 years as Expert-Specialists in U.S. Immigration Law. He also does human rights, accident injuries, wrongful death and complex litigation. Email laguatanlaw@gmail.com. Tel 650-991-1154

By Ted Laguatan





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