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Corona's Impeachment: The Failure to Disclose Assets

JURIST Columnist Edsel Tupaz of Tupaz & Associates argues that despite statements to the contrary from some officials, the article of impeachment against Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona based on his failure to fully disclose his assets is not without precedent...

Is a misdeclaration, in good or bad faith, of a sitting chief justice's statement of assets and liabilities an impeachable offense? This is the subject of Article 2 of the impeachment complaint against Renato Corona, Chief Justice of the Republic of the Philippines. Article 2 of the complaint, in sum, accuses Corona of having committed a "culpable violation of the Constitution" or "betrayed the public trust," both listed by the Philippine Constitution as impeachable offenses, when he failed to disclose to the public his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth as required under Section 17, Article XI of the Constitution. It is the position of the House prosecution panel that the filer of such statement of assets and liabilities (SALN) can be liable for perjury since his statement is made under oath and certifies that his statements are true and correct. The argument is that Corona misdeclared, or at least underdeclared, his assets and liabilities by listing only five parcels of real property, more or less, when Corona in fact owns 45.

The Philippine impeachment provisions were drawn in large part from the text of the US Constitution and constitutional practice. Noteworthy is the fact that the Philippine Constitution under Section 2 of Article XI provides that thePresident, the Vice President, the Members of the Supreme Court, the Members of the Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman may be removed from office, on impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.On the other hand, Sections 2 and 3 of Article I of the US Constitution provide that "the President, Vice President, and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

As the impeachment trial against Corona unfolds, it is increasingly apparent that the Philippine Senate, sitting as the impeachment court, has been searching for adequate standards for a conviction or acquittal. Can an impeachable offense be proven under substantial evidence, preponderance of evidence, clear or convincing evidence, or proof beyond reasonable doubt? Moreover, does a misdeclaration of one's SALN — a mandatory requirement under Section 7 of the Philippine Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act and general civil service laws — reach the level of an impeachable offense and qualify as a "betrayal of public trust" or a "culpable violation of the Constitution?" On the eleventh day of the impeachment trial a number of Senators expressed their various opinions in open court that the answer seems to be a "No." Worse, upon the presiding officer's questioning of one of the House prosecutors, the latter admitted that an inaccurate SALN, though such could amount to a crime of perjury, still does not rise to the level of a "high crime" within the meaning of impeachable offenses under the Philippine Constitution.

As Philippine constitutional practice, especially impeachment practice, echoes its American progenitor, one may find it useful to turn to cases of impeachment involving federal and state judges and justices. The case of Judge Harry Claiborne of the US District Court for the District of Nevada may be relevant, if not persuasive, of conviction under Article 2 of the articles of impeachment against Corona. Claiborne was convicted of falsifying his income tax returns. Four articles of impeachment were passed unanimously by the US House of Representatives on July 22, 1986, and the Senate received those articles on August 6, 1986. Claiborne was tried by the Senate and was successfully convicted on two counts of tax evasion and one count of betrayal of the public trust and bringing disrepute to the judiciary through the falsification of tax returns.

The Senate voted as follows:

GuiltyNot guilty
Article 16710
Article 2907
Article 34617
Article 4898

It is important to note that the vote on Article 3 held particular significance for the history of US impeachment trials, including, arguably, federal constitutional practice itself. The article essentially stated that Claiborne's conviction by a jury trial in federal court proved that he was guilty of "misbehavior" and "high crimes." With a vote of 46 to 17 (35 voted "present"), Article 3 did not receive the required two-thirds majority for conviction. In voting down this article, senators expressed concern that a prior jury conviction against Claiborne in 1984 might set a troublesome precedent: by declaring that a court conviction could be construed as an automatic ground for conviction in an impeachment trial, the reverse situation — an acquittal in a court trial — might require an automatic acquittal in an impeachment trial. But in light of Philippine constitutional practice, case law is consistent in that an impeachable official must first be removed by virtue of a conviction handed down by the Senate before that official can be subject to criminal process. Thus while the procedural antecedents of the Claiborne case may not be directly transposable, substantively the Claiborne case can be persuasive authority to show that a marked discrepancy in one's statement of assets and liabilities can be ground for conviction under "betrayal of public trust."

It can be argued that the Claiborne case was clear cut from the outset of the impeachment trial, since he had already been previously convicted of falsifying tax information in a criminal court. In the impeachment trial against Corona, the House prosecutors are currently seeking to prove disproportionate discrepancies in Corona's financial statements, arguing that Corona may have misstated facts in his SALN and income tax returns. By proving the existence of certain assets, such as expensive condominium units, the House argues that Corona failed to declare the necessary auxiliary sources of income that would have been needed to acquire those assets. If it can be proven that the accused had misstated facts in his financial statements and tax returns, the language of Article 2 in the Corona case provides grounds for conviction in light of the Claiborne case. Although Article 2 may have preempted objections by otherwise explicitly stating that Corona be charged for "graft and corruption" (in addition to culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of the public trust), Article 4 of the impeachment against Claiborne would show that falsifying tax information, Claiborne betrayed the trust of the people — perhaps a clear parallel to the present situation of Corona.

Edsel Tupaz is the founder and managing partner of Tupaz & Associates. Tupaz & Associates is a public interest law firm whose specialties lie in comparative constitutional law and policy. Tupaz is also a professor of international and comparative law, teaching at law schools in the US and the Philippines. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Ateneo Law School. Tupaz is currently assisting the House prosecution in the impeachment trial of Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Suggested citation: Edsel Tupaz, Corona's Impeachment: The Failure to Disclose Assets, JURIST - Sidebar, Feb. 6, 2012, http://jurist.org/sidebar/2012/02/edsel-tupaz-impeachment-iii.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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