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Corona's Impeachment: The Way Forward for the Prosecution

JURIST Columnist Edsel Tupaz of Tupaz & Associates analyzes the Articles of Impeachment against Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona, laying out the path the House of Representatives prosecution panel should follow in order to obtain a conviction and to preserve the integrity of Philippine institutions...

In the previous installment of this column, Impeachment and Institutional Integrity in the Philippines, I hinted at the tension which the House prosecution panel may be confronted with in the impeachment proceedings against Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona. On the one hand, the prosecution panel in the House of Representatives must field their argument in a manner that preserves the institutional integrity of both the Congress and the Supreme Court, but on the other they must also ensure individual accountability.

The Philippine Constitution does not ascribe any formal role to the Chief Justice other than as an ex-officio Chairman of the Judicial and Bar Council and as the presiding officer in any impeachment trial of the President. The Chief Justice is also required to personally certify every decision that is rendered by the Court. He or she carries only one vote out of 15 in the Court, and is generally regarded as the primus inter pares (first among equals). In judicial practice, however, internal Supreme Court rules and circulars do provide that the Chief Justice may be regarded as the administrative superior of the other Justices of the Court. Moreover, the Chief Justice usually retains high public visibility, and is perceived to be of significant influence on the Court and in the general public. In the impeachment trial, one important question that the House prosecutors must address is: should the Chief Justice be accountable for decisions rendered collectively by the Supreme Court as a whole? In performing this balancing act, in what follows I discuss each Article of Impeachment.

I. Partiality and Subservience

Article I: Respondent betrayed the public trust through his track record marked by partiality and subservience in cases involving the Arroyo administration...

In Article I, the cases listed in the impeachment complaint were not singular or separate decisions of Chief Justice Corona in his capacity as Chief Justice. The decisions in the following cases were collegially rendered, and at times by a clear majority. The House prosecution cannot simply resort to the argument that it was Corona himself that led to decisions that unfairly favored the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo through mere facial analysis of the decisions and opinions. To successfully convict the accused, the prosecution needs sufficient extrinsic evidence that he had a clear bias for Arroyo's administration and exerted undue influence over the other Justices leading to their particular voting patterns.

  • G. R. No. 191002: Arturo De Castro v. Judicial and Bar Council and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, dated March 17, 2010 and consolidated with several other petitions
    • Wherein the Supreme Court allowed Arroyo to fill the vacant position of Chief Justice within the two months before she left office, on the ground that the prohibition against presidential appointments under Section 15, Article VII of the Constitution does not extend to appointments in the Judiciary
  • G.R. No. 192935: Louis C. Biraogo v. The Philippine Truth Commission of 2010, dated December 7, 2010 and consolidated with another case
    • Wherein the Supreme Court ruled that the Truth Commission as created by Executive Order No. 1 was unconstitutional, as it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution
  • G.R. No. 193519: Bai Omera D. Dianalan-Lucman v. Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, dated October 12, 2010 and consolidated with other petitions
    • Wherein the Supreme Court issued a Status Quo Ante Order against Executive Order No. 2, which was issued to revoke various "midnight appointments" made by the Arroyo administration
  • G.R. No. 189793: Benigno S. Aquino III v. Commission on Elections, dated April 7, 2010
    • Wherein the Supreme Court dismissed the petition, ruling that Republic Act No. 9716 entitled "An Act Reapportioning the Composition of the First (1st) and Second (2nd) Legislative Districts in the Province of Camarines Sur and Thereby Creating a New Legislative District From Such Reapportionment" is a valid law
The article also asserts that — as evidenced in a Newsbreak report — Corona's voting record shows that he has consistently sided with the Arroyo administration in politically significant cases (i.e. those concerning Arroyo's policies and administration), with 78 percent of these cases being decided in Arroyo's favor. Although Justices must display impartiality on their decisions, they often decide cases based on their legal beliefs and personal ideologies. Thus, the prosecution must be able to prove misconduct through judicial partiality (via extrinsic evidence) in favor of a litigant. Otherwise, the impeachment trial would run the risk of questioning the independence and credibility of the Supreme Court as an institution and the decisions it issues.

Article VII: Respondent betrayed the public trust through his partiality in granting a temporary restraining order (TRO) in favor of Arroyo and her husband Jose Miguel Arroyo...Focusing on this article may be a better bet for the House prosecution panel, since the facts surrounding the case point to a clearer bias in favor of the petitioners. The Supreme Court had immediately granted and issued a TRO, despite inconsistencies in Arroyo's petition and her failure to comply with an essential precondition for issuing the TRO. The issuance also violated internal Supreme Court rules that required five days of hearings as recommended by the ponente. The impeachment complaint asserts that the "hasty issuance of the TRO was a brazen accommodation to the Arroyos," pointing to a possible motive of "personal gain and commitment to his midnight benefactor." However, the prosecution would further need to prove that it was through Corona's undue influence that the Justices voted to issue the TRO in an eight to five majority.

II. Flip-flopping Decisions on Cases

Article III: Respondent committed culpable violations of the Constitution and betrayed the public trust by allowing the Supreme Court to act on mere letters filed by a counsel which caused the issuance of flip-flopping decisions in final executory cases, and in discussing with litigants regarding cases pending before the Supreme Court.

Article V: Respondent betrayed the public trust through wanton arbitrariness and partiality in consistently disregarding the principle of res judicata...

The impeachment complaint asserts that Corona failed to meet the Constitutional standards of "competence, integrity, probity, and independence" expected of Supreme Court Justices. Corona allegedly went against the principle of res judicata, or the immutability of final judgments, citing the following cases as examples:

In these articles, the question of personal versus institutional accountability comes to the fore once again. If the prosecution were to be successful in proving that the flip-flopping of cases happened to favor litigants at the expense of due process (i.e. by producing the letters submitted by Mendoza and other interested parties), the credibility and institutional legitimacy of the Supreme Court, viewed as an institution, may be said to have been compromised since these decisions were issued collegially. Furthermore, to what extent were these decisions made at Corona's behest, or is he culpable simply for allowing allegedly prohibited pleadings in his capacity as Chief Justice? Article V therefore will implicate both personal and collective/institutional legitimacy questions.

As was stated by Janice Nadler and Mary-Hunter Morris McDonnell of Northwestern University School of Law:

Judges profess to decide cases neutrally; some even profess that their role is like an umpire calling balls and strikes. Very few judges would acknowledge that they decide cases according to their own policy preferences. Yet there is a wealth of evidence from real cases demonstrating that judges decide cases according to their personal political ideology.
Akin to a corporation or other juridical entity, the head of an institution may be held responsible for the systemic wrongdoings of the institution which he represents. In his capacity as head of that institution, it is his duty to be aware of actions and decisions of his colleagues and in the rank and file. The House may argue that a higher normative conception of the "rule of law" may be upheld, and not compromised as opponents argue, when the Panel makes a case for individual partisan biases and personality-run political succor as opposed to attacking routine institutionalized and constitutionally entrenched voting process. If faced with a majority decision, whether in fact led by Corona or not, the House Panel may face an uphill struggle. In such cases, the House ought to submit as much extrinsic evidence as it can marshal aiming to show that some form of undue influence was exerted which then caused the majority to vote the way it did.

It also ought to be stressed that Philippine social perspectives associate the "rule of law" with the Judiciary and the Supreme Court. In other jurisdictions and states, the "rule of law" is rather strongly associated with the legislature (e.g., Queen in Parliament in Australia and the UK), or even the Executive (arguably, as in the US and Japan). The House can capitalize on this divergence of social perspective and argue that, as "wielders" of "popular sovereignty," a concept which Philippine constitutional policy seems to attribute as the very basic norm: the House can argue that it is in fact "enforcing" an even higher normative conception of the "rule of law," because, so far, Supreme Court dynamics seem to have failed to hit that mark. It thus becomes incumbent upon another coordinate and co-equal department of government to make that higher normative conception felt across all social sectors.

Drawing from constitutional formality, the "check-and-balances" approach might hold some weight in the argument. The rhetoric therefore ought to convince the Senate, sitting as the Impeachment Court (and the public at large) that the "rule of law," along with all derivative notions of that idea, such as accountability, even-handed justice, and so on, can no longer be associated with the Supreme Court as led by Corona, but with the House and the Congress. This would preempt any opposing argument that "an attack against the Supreme Court is an attack against the Constitution." This way, any ostensible irreverence towards the Court, or, even better, against certain members of that Court, ought not to compromise constitutional legitimacy nor implicate any constitutional crisis, as the opposition argues. The best strategy therefore would be for the House panel to sever the commonly perceived nexus that the "Constitution" is the 'Supreme Court," which is not the case.

Author's Note: A special thanks to Joan Martinez and Vanita Kalra for their research assistance.

Edsel Tupaz is the founder and managing partner of Tupaz & Associates, a public-interest law firm. His expertise lies in comparative constitutional law, trade and development law and court systems design. Tupaz is also a professor of international and comparative law, teaching at law schools in the US and the Philippines. He was senior counsel and senior executive assistant of the Philippine Truth Commission created by President Benigno Aquino III, which was later declared unconstitutional by a Court majority led by Chief Justice Corona.

Suggested citation: Edsel Tupaz, Corona's Impeachment: The Way Forward for the Prosecution, JURIST - Sidebar, Dec. 22, 2011, http://jurist.org/sidebar/2011/12/edsel-tupaz-impeachment-ii.php.

This article was prepared for publication by JURIST's professional commentary editorial staff. Please direct any questions or comments to them at professionalcommentary@jurist.org

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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