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The rule of law should always prevail

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By deciding to respect the temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court against disclosing the foreign currency deposits of Chief Justice Renato Corona, the Senate averted what could have been a constitutional crisis that can bring irreparable damage to the nation and its democratic institutions.

The Supreme Court was not expected to stand still if the Senate chose to ignore its position as a co-equal branch of government or its constitutionally mandated authority as the final arbiter of laws. The Senate made the right move, choosing “government stability over constitutional crisis,” as Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago puts it.

“Obedience to the TRO preserves governmental stability, while disobedience precipitates a constitutional crisis. If we have a choice between stability and crisis, the wiser choice is always national stability,” she said.

The senators, sitting as an impeachment court, on Monday voted 13-10 to respect and obey the TRO issued by the high tribunal last week.

Senate Preident Juan Ponce Enrile, however, made it clear that the impeachment court is still seeking to assert the efficacy of its subpoena powers over Corona’s dollar accounts and that it would pursue the matter before the Supreme Court. For his part, Sen. Francis Escudero said he voted to respect the TRO, even though he believes it was wrong. “I believe the TRO issued by the Supreme Court is wrong. However, the place to slug it out is not here, but in the Supreme Court,” he said.

Judging by the words of Enrile and Escudero, the issue over the Supreme Court’s authority to interfere in the impeachment trial is not over. I’m sure there will be more similar legal conflicts that would arise during the course of the trial because many senators remain adamant over their superiority over the high tribunal as an impeachment court.

The Supreme Court, on the other hand, would remain watching the proceedings closely, on guard for possible “abuse of discretion” that it feels it is mandated by the Constitution to guard against. We hope that civility, not arrogance as shown by the executive branch and the House of Representatives, shall continue to guide these two important branches of the government.

The matter of who is supreme between the Supreme Court and the Senate as an impeachment court remains a legal question that has divided the politicians and the legal community.

President Aquino, in effect arguing that the people’s interest is above the rule of law, was the first to express disgust over the issuance of the TRO, saying that it effectively shut the door to finding out the truth. But why even enact laws, such as R.A. 6426, or the Foreign Currency Deposit Act of the Philippines, which bars any inquiry or examination as to the details of such foreign currency accounts, if even the President cannot follow them?

Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda, echoing his boss, asked: “What would happen to the Senate impeachment court? Be a puppet of the Supreme Court so that all its actions can be questioned by the Supreme Court?”

Using Lacierda’s logic, what do they want the Supreme Court to be – a puppet of Malacanang? What are they saying? That every time it rules against these self-righteous officials, the court is acting against the interest of the people?

Lacierda also called the Supreme Court’s order “a brazen effort to derail the [impeachment] proceedings. “While the supporters of the chief justice clearly lacked the numbers to go even further and try to stop the proceedings, the TRO handed down by the Court is a brazen effort to derail the proceedings,” Lacierda said.

Lacierda conveniently forgot to mention that the Supreme Court, apparently in an effort to avert a constitutional crisis and out of respect to a co-equal branch of government, opted to act only on the petition of the Philippine Savings Bank to stop the Senate from summoning the foreign currency account of Corona, and has been circumspect on acting on a petition by Corona himself to stop the impeachment trial on constitutional grounds, infirmities of the process and abuse of his human rights.

Some senators, including Senators Francis Pangilinan and Gregorio Honasan, insisted that the Senate, acting as impeachment court, has the sole authority over impeachment cases and not even the high court can intervene.

“My position is that only the Senate has the sole power to try and decide on impeachment cases,” Pangilinan. He slammed the SC’s decision that, he said, binds the Senate’s hand and prevents senator-judges from doing their mandate as the impeachment court. He added he doesn’t believe the Supreme Court has the right to intervene in what the Senate impeachment court is doing.

“Ultimately, all government authority emanates from the people, and the correction of any errors of the impeachment court must not be from subjudicial review but ultimately, from the people themselves,” he added.

Indeed, all government authority emanates from the people, but who speaks for the people? Why even have a Constitution and a set of laws if those who cannot abide by them would just claim they speak for the people.

Some senator-judges and prosecutors expressed the view that since the impeachment court is sui generic, or a class by itself, it is superior to any other tribunal, including the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court never questioned the sole authority of the Senate, as an impeachment court, to try and decide whether the accused is guilty or not as alleged in the articles of impeachment. It only interfered to resolve a petition brought before it on the legality of disclosing Corona’s foreign currency deposits, whose absolute nature of confidentiality is protected by Republic Act 6426.

The Constitution has clear answers to the issues raised by Pangilinan and the others, as explained by two leading constitutional experts, who happen to be both priests and law deans.

Fr. Joaquin Bernas, dean of the Ateneo College of Law, stressed that “the Supreme Court can come in when needed to determine the meaning of the law. This does not mean superiority of the Court over the other departments. All it means is that the Constitution has placed in the Supreme Court the power to determine with finality the meaning of the law. It means the superiority of the Constitution.”

Citing Article VIII of the Constitution, Fr. Bernas said that the Supreme Court has the exclusive power “to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the government.”

This clearly means that the Supreme Court may declare any act by the legislature, including the Senate acting as an impeachment court, or executive branch as void if it is contrary to law, or if it is exercised in excess, or lack, of jurisdiction.

Fr. Bernas, in his Philippine Daily Inquirer column, added: “A fundamental principle of our constitutional system is separation of powers. The Legislature enacts the laws, the Executive implements them, the Judiciary resolves legal controversies by the application of law of whose final meaning the Supreme Court is judge. This is the law until our constitutional system is revised by the people and not by a few senators led by the President.”

Fr. Ranhilio Callangan Aquino, dean of the San Beda School of Law, on the other hand, slammed Sen. Teofisto Guingona III when the senator said when the Senate sits as an impeachment court, it has no equal and responds to none.

“What did Senator Guingona mean by questioning the pronouncement of Senate President Enrile that the Supreme Court was a co-equal branch of the Legislature, and therefore of the Senate? What delusion of grandeur might he have been laboring under? Guingona’s bizarre reading of the Constitution seems to convince him that when the Senate sits as an impeachment court, it has no equal and responds to none. Very odd, indeed, for does not our Constitution announce that ours is a government of laws, and not of men? And is it not equally a well-entrenched principle of constitutional theory, as old as Marbury v. Madison—and even before it—that it is the province of the Judiciary to determine the meaning of the law, and to say where rights lie?” said Fr. Aquino, who, by the sound of his wisdom, is obviously not related to the President.

Fr. Aquino, in his regular column at the Manila Standard Today, asked: “Was the court of impeachment asserting that the provisions of the Foreign Currency Deposit Act do not apply to it? Is it the impeachment court’s position—or at least that of some of its less astute members — that ‘absolute confidentiality’ is not really absolute?

“The law is the law, no matter what. The Supreme Court only interprets the law and has no intention to outsmart the Senate,” said SC spokesman Midas Marquez.

Rep. Rudy Farinas, the new head of the House prosecution team, was obviously just as pissed as President Aquino when he threatened to impeach all eight justices who voted to issue the TRO. He was immediately rebuked by Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago and the president of the Manila Judges Association.

Santiago said the threat of Fariñas to impeach the eight SC justices who voted for the TRO was absurd. She said the general rule is that any friction or conflict between the three branches of government should be avoided.

“The basic principle is the law would not approve of an absurd result. That will be absurd, it cannot be allowed,” she added.

“We’re very disappointed how such threat came from a lawyer of high caliber,” Judge Antonio Eugenio, former president of the Philippine Judges’ Association and the incumbent president of the Manila Judges’ Association. “The framers of the Constitution intended impeachment to be an instrument of justice, not of vengeance.”

Credit should go to the senators who voted in favor of respecting the Supreme Court’s TRO — Enrile, Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III and Senators Joker Arroyo, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Manny Villar, Ralph Recto, Francis Escudero, Aquilino Pimentel III, Loren Legarda, Gregorio Honasan, Ramon Revilla Jr., Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and Senate Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada.

If they had opted to remain arrogant and voted for a stand down with the high tribunal, the country could have been pushed closer to a constitutional crisis that could give military adventurists an opportunity to do their thing. It would have sent a wrong signal to foreign investors that the rule of law does not exist in the Philippines.

Worse, it would have sent the wrong signal to President Aquino that he could get away with anything just as long as he uses “people’s interest” as an excuse. While we fully support Aquino’s aim to curb corruption and reform the country’s political system, having supported him in the presidential election on the basis of his reform agenda, these efforts should not be done at the expense of the Constitution and the rule of law.

 

by Val G. Abelgas




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