In his keynote speech at the launch of the book “History of the Supreme Court” to mark the Court’s 111th anniversary on June 11, former Chief Justice Reynato Puno decried the “spiritual slump” and apparent disarray in the judiciary in the aftermath of its “collision with the political branches of government,” as well as the widespread confusion following the conviction of now ex-Chief Justice Renato Corona by the Senate impeachment tribunal. But because of Corona’s decision not to appeal his removal, we will never know for sure how a “severely wounded” Court would have dealt with certain questions the answers to which were left hanging in the course of his impeachment trial.
If these issues remain unresolved until the next impeachment case, they would be equally unsettling, especially to the 31 constitutional officials whose fame, fate and fortune could be held hostage to an uncertain and, worse, partisan political environment. Let’s go over the more important unsettled—and unsettling—issues.
1. The most crucial is the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review. Article VIII, Section 1 of the 1987 Constitution states clearly that it is the Court’s duty “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.” Note that the Constitution makes this a “duty” of the Court. Precisely, this is what it did in dismissing the impeachment case filed against then Chief Justice Hilario Davide in 2003. But Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, as presiding officer of Corona’s impeachment trial, sternly warned the Court not to entertain that notion on the premise that it is only the Senate that has “the sole power and authority to try and decide all cases of impeachment.” Recall that neither the 1935 nor 1973 Constitution mandated that “duty,” which would have made it both easy and expedient for the Court to dismiss any such appeal as a “political question” that fell outside its jurisdiction.
2. What offense, criminal or otherwise, has Corona been convicted of? Note that even as he voted to convict Corona, Enrile strongly insisted that “the Chief Justice does not stand accused of having amassed any ill-gotten wealth before this impeachment court.” He went so far as to state that “the Chief Justice had justifiable and legal grounds to rely on the Supreme Court’s procedural and policy guidelines governing such disclosures as embodied in a resolution promulgated way back in 1989 when the respondent was not yet a member of the Court.” Enrile even conceded that Corona believed in good faith that the timely and periodic filing of his sworn statements of assets, liabilities and net worth complied with the guidelines of the Court, the law, and the Constitution.
However, the fine distinction between Paragraphs 2.2 and 2.4 in the Articles of Impeachment obviously got “lost in translation.” It was not at all appreciated by a majority of the senator-judges—and certainly not by an already cynical and disbelieving nation that was bombarded for five months by a media blitz about Corona’s lack of character and probable culpability. It is important to emphasize that the impeachment court had earlier disallowed the introduction of evidence in support of Par. 2.4 which pertained to ill-gotten wealth. Par. 2.2, on the other hand, accused Corona of failing to file accurate and complete SALNs. And his belated revelations and admissions concerning his substantial dollar and peso bank deposits, as well as his self-serving interpretation of confidentiality laws, were what finally proved fatal to his defense.
3. Corona was convicted on the basis of the second Article of Impeachment for culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of the public trust for his failure to file accurate and complete SALNs. Most of the senator-judges considered the enormity of the amounts in pesos and dollars that Corona neglected to disclose as having established a prima facie case of ill-gotten wealth under the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (RA 3019) and the Code of Conduct for Government Officials and Employees (RA 6713). Actually, the term used in RA 3019 is “unexplained wealth,” which “refers to assets which a public official has acquired during incumbency, whether in his name or in the name of other persons, consisting of property or money, which are manifestly out of proportion to his salary and to his other lawful income.” On the other hand, the term “ill-gotten wealth” is specifically related to the crime of plunder, a nonbailable offense, under RA 7080. It is important to bear this in mind in the event that criminal charges are filed against Corona, a definite possibility intimated by no less than President Aquino.
4. If “unexplained wealth” can be explained away, as the term suggests, the failure to file a complete and accurate SALN may justify nonprosecution for the offense. This appears to be the reasoning behind the votes to acquit by Senators Joker Arroyo, Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. In simple terms, Arroyo’s argument was that there was no such crime as failure to file an accurate or complete SALN until the impeachment court made it so for the first time. Santiago, on the other hand, contended that such a crime, even if it did exist previously, was not an impeachable offense since it could not be equated in terms of scope, nature and gravity to “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of the public trust.” Marcos was of the same mind, and argued that Corona “must be presumed to have acted in good faith … and that not all omissions and misdeclarations in the SALN amount to dishonesty.” Arroyo and Santiago are held in high respect for their expertise in the law, and Marcos must have consulted his wife, no mean legal scholar herself. Their reasoning surely deserves a more in-depth examination before the next impeachment case comes along.
In the impeachment trial, legitimate questions were raised in relation to substantive and procedural due process, the quantum of proof required to establish or verify a fact and its admissibility in evidence, the degree of respect due impeachable officials and their right against self-incrimination, the scope and extent of the rules on sub judice and trial by publicity, principles of statutory construction, and reconciliation of seemingly inconsistent laws. These remain unsettled even as they are bunched in the layman’s eyes under the rubric of legalese and technicalities. To ensure that the rule of law and impartial administration of justice are not sacrificed in the future, a focused and sustained effort must be made to resolve these quandaries, particularly where they involve amendatory legislation or policy reformulation.
Ismael G. Khan Jr. was the Supreme Court’s first spokesperson, assistant administrator and chief of its Public Information Office from 1999 to 2007.