Published in Manila Standard Today on 11 February 2012
By Elizabeth Angsioco
This is how I describe the state of affairs with the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona.
Undoubtedly, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, acting as the presiding officer of the Senate impeachment court, has been trying his best to make the process as credible as possible. Sadly, he is not helped by some of the senator-judges, who appear partisan against the chief justice, and, are perceived to be doing the work of the prosecution.
Last week I said that the impeachment court is the people’s biggest hope in this mess. I was banking on the first two weeks of the trial when efforts on the part of Enrile and some senator-judges, to be fair, were evident.
During the past week however, these efforts have been drowned by the likes of senator-judge Franklin Drilon who simply had to stand up almost every time the prosecution encountered difficulties. There is no doubt where his heart lies on the impeachment issue.
At some point, Drilon was “badgering” the PS Bank officer who was being very careful to not break any law, and trying to protect his bank, employees and clients. Drilon wanted information beyond what the impeachment court itself decided that time: to only subpoena year-end balances of the bank accounts in question. In effect, Drilon was breaking the impeachment court’s decision as pointed out by senator-judges Bongbong Marcos and Pia Cayetano.
Someone should remind Drilon that he should follow the impeachment court’s ruling, and that witnesses should be accorded some respect.
But perhaps Drilon couldn’t care less. After all, he said that the SIC is a class of its own. Simply put, untouchable. Did not senator-judge Teofisto Guingona III say this after Enrile asserted that the Supreme Court is a co-equal branch of the Legislature, and thus, the Senate?
My non-lawyer mind tells me that the impeachment court is still the Senate, albeit performing a role other than legislation. That is why it’s called the Senate impeachment court, and that’s why the senators are called senator-judges. Therefore, the Senate impeachment court is a co-equal branch of the Supreme Court and vice-versa.
I would have wanted for the SC to keep out of this mess because its head is the one on trial. Its issuance of a temporary restraining order on the release of Corona’s dollar accounts adds to the mess, but I believe, is done in its capacity as the final interpreter of the law.
Recall that even Enrile said that this is within the rights of the accused although the party that requested the order was PSBank.
Immediately after the SC decision, Prosecutor Rodolfo Fariñas threatened to file impeachment complaints against the eight Associate Justices of the SC who voted in favor of the TRO.
With this high court’s decision, we can also expect more fireworks from senator-judges who believe in the supremacy of the SIC. As of now, senator-judge Francis Pangilinan is in the same league as Drilon and Guingona.
In a series of tweets, Pangilinan said, “The SC should not interfere in the impeachment trial because the Constitution gives the Senate the sole power to try and decide impeachment cases. The process as a Constitutional mechanism to exact public accountability from the highest ranking officials of the land will be undermined by any interference from the SC. We do not wish to ignore the SC, and to avoid this we urge the SC to respect the powers and prerogatives of the impeachment court by not stepping into the fray.”
Further, Pangilinan asserts, “If the Senator-Judges err in the conduct of its proceedings, the correction of such error is not by way of judicial review but by the sovereign will of the people – who can and ought to reject us at the polls if they believe that we committed errors in our judgment as Senator-Judges.”
This Senate impeachment court-supremacist view by Pangilinan, Drilon, and Guingona (all belonging to the President’s Liberal Party), is opposed by Joaquin Bernas, S.J., a respected Constitutionalist, member of the Constitutional Convention that drafted the 1987 Constitution, and Dean Emeritus of Ateneo Law School.
Fr. Bernas said during the Philippine Constitutional Association meeting that the SC, as a co-equal body, may step in to stop any abuse of discretion during the impeachment trial. Bernas stressed that the Constitution gave SC the power to determine with finality, the meaning of the law.
With this mess, what is there to do?
Rightly or wrongly, all camps claim to represent the Filipino people’s interest in this. If even vaguely true, I still look up to the SIC to do some helpful things.
As said, I disagree with Pangilinan’s position that the ONLY way for people to check the SIC is through elections. It is one, but may be too late if we are after justice.
A better way is to ensure that people fully understand how Senate impeachment court works. Thus, the trial’s processes should be made more transparent in the spirit of fair play and accountability.
First, the fact that the impeachment court’s decisions to subpoena Corona’s bank records and not the SC justices were MAJORITY decisions was not lost to those following the proceedings.
To better guide the people on how each senator-judge positions himself/herself on issues, the impeachment court should make public the votes and the reasons for such of each of its members on decisions NOT unanimously reached. The public will see whether bias is there and will better judge the judges. Sabi nga, kung walang itinatago, dapat ilabas.
Second, the impeachment court should positively decide on senator-judge Ralph Recto’s motion to allow the defense to present its case on a per-article basis. Because this is a “public” trial, extra care should be exerted to protect the rights of the accused. Since the only side heard at this point is the prosecution, the tendency is for people to prematurely convict the CJ even without hearing the defense. Kung katotohanan ang hanap natin, ito ang marapat na proseso.
Last, senator-judges should only be allowed clarificatory questions and NOT act like prosecutors or defense lawyers. After all, they are senator-judges who are supposed to appear impartial.
If indeed the impeachment court members are willing to go beyond partisan political interests and truly represent the people, they must be able to clean this mess up.
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