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The post-mortems are coming in right on the heels of Renato Corona’s return engagement Friday at his impeachment trial and the feedback isn’t good. His three-hour opening statement the Tuesday prior had already painted him as a witness unwilling to subject himself to cross-examination owing to his stature as Chief Justice, an image that wasn’t at all burnished by his rambling inability to stay on point.
When Miriam Defensor Santiago asked him a marshmallow question regarding the effect of the impeachment on the judiciary, the separation of powers and the sub judice rule, Corona could only mumble about a “chilling effect” before launching into a halting recitation of the alleged trauma inflicted on his grandson Franco, and when he was finished, there was not a wet eye in the house.
I understood what he was trying to do, something straight out of a manual on public relations: he was trying to humanize himself, a task which his lawyers were deplorably unable to do, to appear as an ordinary person, just like you and me, being set upon by forces he was no match for, except that no one was buying it, least of all Santiago. Apparently, hiding behind one’s grandchild doesn’t cut it with the senator, who interrupted the Chief Justice mid-dolor and tersely repeated her question for his benefit.
What surprised many, when Corona answered Santiago and the other senators who conga line’d with clarifications of their own, was how unconvincingly magisterial Corona came across. The best he could come up with regarding his impeachment’s affect on the Supreme Court was the blast-freeze phrase often heard in connection with freedom of speech cases, completely forgetting that the constitutional mechanism of impeachment is designed precisely to put the fear of God in the hearts of impeachable officials and theoretically impel them to discharge their offices with ability and integrity.
No one expects an impeachment or the trial that follows to be a holiday on a beach with sand as fine as powdered sugar, and the explanations regarding the branches of government and the sub judice rule weren’t any better.
Things got gnarlier for the Chief Justice when he was hammered with the question of the entire impeachment: Why, oh why, did he not disclose his peso and dollar deposits in his annual statement of assets and liabilities? He interposed the confidentiality provisions of applicable bank secrecy laws as the reason for his omission—reasons we’ve heard him say before but which sound hollow coming from the lips of the country’s highest-ranking magistrate. And then he was outed as a liar by his former colleague on the Court, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, who Corona accused of allegedly having an ax to grind against him when he nickel-and-dimed her retirement budget; I have no idea how Corona thought that he could get away with an accusation like that especially when documents can be unearthed showing its truth or falsity, and especially not after his testimony was interrupted by Carpio-Morales own hastily-assembled press conference to denounce him as a “certified liar.”
Imagine, a Chief Justice being called a “certified liar” in public!
To those who were expecting clashing egos and no small amount of chair-lifting by the personages in the impeachment, Friday's hearing failed to deliver, and not because of the sedated interrogation by the senators or the prosecution’s failure to pounce on Corona’s waiver pertaining to his bank accounts. Nope, the hearing failed because no facts were forthcoming, facts that would implode the prosecution’s case or blast the defense to smithereens. No facts emerged that would establish Corona’s guilt or create reasonable doubt, but since an impeachment is not a judicial process but a political one, I think that the quantum of proof necessary will not matter in the end. And so we wait.
But what happens to us when the impeachment trial is over? Nothing’s been resolved, has it?Francis Pangilinan tried to make a point when he engaged Corona in polemic about the latter’s excuse that bank secrecy laws entitle him to be less than candid with his SALN. The Charter, asked Pangilinan, as the highest law of the land, should it not reign supreme over a mere law? Which is why, Corona answered, the Charter provision on declaring one’s assets and liabilities has the appended phrase “in accordance with law.” You could sense that Pangilinan was stumped by Corona’s reply, which is disingenuous since the phrase refers to disclosure to the public and not the declaration itself, but I guess the megastars weren’t smiling on the senator that day.
While the impeachment’s specific goal is to prove Corona’s culpability, it has a more general objective: Should government officials be obliged to disclose all their peso and foreign currency deposits in their SALNs despite Republic Acts 1405 and 6426? That question hasn’t been answered and whatever ruling the Senate sitting as an impeachment court may have on the issue, it is not binding. Only the Supreme Court can so decide, or failing that, the legislature can amend the law to require the disclosures.
We all know the Court’s feelings regarding disclosures of their SALNs, and as for Congress, we’ll have to see, won’t we?