Decrowned: The fall of Renato Corona

MANILA, Philippines - Renato Corona is chief justice no more.

Corona, 63, was convicted of culpable violation of the 1987 Constitution and betrayal of public trust on Tuesday, May 29. The Senate, sitting as an impeachment court, found him guilty of failing to disclose US$2.4 million and P80 million in bank deposits in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth.

Corona spent two years as chief justice -- he was appointed in May 2010 and was also removed from his position in the same month in 2012. His short term was wracked with lingering doubts over his independence, the legitimacy of his appointment, and at the latter part of his term, his moral fitness to remain as leader of the highest court of the land.

On the one hand, his supporters saw him as a well-meaning leader, gentle, soft-spoken and a good family man. 

Corona has always maintained that he was impeached because President Benigno 'Noynoy' Aquino III was out to get him for consistently voting for the distribution of Hacienda Luisita, a 6,000-hectate sugar plantation. Aquino's family owned Hacienda Luisita, but the President divested his shares in the company in 2010.

On the other hand, what did Corona in was his inconsistency, or what his critics called outright lying.

Loopholes

Corona, taking the witness stand, said on May 25 that he does not understand what "asset and debit" are, something that seems unlikely because he himself worked in a bank. He was senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Commercial Bank in Manila, and was senior officer in SGV, a top accounting firm from 1988-1991.

He also taught commercial law, taxation and conflict in laws at the Ateneo Law School from 1982-1992, and took up his Masters in Business Administration in the same school. He focused on regulation of corporate and financial institutions and foreign investment policies when he took up his Master of Laws in Harvard University. 

The same qualifications also showed that Corona knew how discrepancies in the income tax return could show ill-gotten wealth. In January, tax commissioner Kim Henares presented the income tax returns of Corona from 1992-2002 and also that of his wife Cristina and daughter Carla, who works as a physical therapist.The ITR will show their wealth and sources of income -- and if these reflect what Corona declared in his SALN.

The defense tried to block the release of Corona's ITR because they said the prosecution cannot compare Corona's ITR with his SALN, saying the ITR does not show 'borrowed money.' 

Journalist and blogger Raissa Robles pointed out, however, that Corona himself penned a landmark ruling affirming that the comparison of the ITR and the SALN is an effective step in determining ill-gotten wealth. Corona penned Republic of the Philippines v. Honorable Sandiganbayan, saying the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his family accumulated ill-gotten wealth because their salaries do not match what were declared in their ITR.

Questions were also raised about Corona's explanation for his dollar deposits. Corona said he started buying dollars in the 1960s. But he was not only a student then, he also could only buy dollars from the black market during that time. Deputy lead prosecutor Rudy Fariñas also said in his oral arguments on May 28 that if Corona really started buying dollars when the exchange rate was $1-P2, then he could have done it in the 1950s, when he was only in grade 4.

Changing fates

Ironically, the last time Corona was involved in any way in an impeachment trial, he was at the other side of the fence -- he was part of the emerging power bloc.

In 2001, Corona's boss at the time, then Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was declared president after then chief executive Joseph Estrada was ousted through massive street protests.

Corona's ascent started then -- from being her chief of staff, spokesman and legal counsel, Arroyo appointed Corona as SC justice. But Corona was accused of displaying bias toward Arroyo, as he cast votes in her favor in cases that would change her political fate. 

This criticism stuck with Corona especially after he accepted his appointment to the post of chief justice in May 2010. His selection was seen as a "midnight appointment" as it was done within the appointment ban. The President is barred from making any appointments two months before the elections and until his or her term ends on June 30. The High Court, however, eventually ruled that the judiciary is exempt from this ban, overturning a decade-old decision and paving the way for Corona's appointment as chief justice.

Corona tried to change his image that he was an Arroyo lackey by challenging his critics to judge him in a year. 

But Corona cast votes that, court observers said, favored his former superior and her allies. Corona voted with 9 other magistrates that declared Executive Order 1, which formed the Truth Commission, unconstitutional in December 2010. The commission was tasked to probe Arroyo, who has been linked to alleged anomalous deals such as the botched $329-M NBN-ZTE deal.

Prior to that, in September 2010, the SC issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) enjoining the House committee on justice from proceeding with hearing the impeachment complaints against then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, an Arroyo appointee. In February 2011, however, the SC dismissed Gutierrez's petition; Corona dissented along with 4 other justices.

He also convened a special session and voted in favor of issuing a TRO in November 2011 enjoining the Department of Justice from enforcing its travel ban against Arroyo and her husband, lawyer Jose Miguel.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima barred the Arroyo couple from leaving the country because they were under preliminary investigation for their alleged involvement in the reported cheating in the 2007 senatorial polls.

Mobocracy

Corona held on to his position with zeal, however.

He fought and defended himself inside and outside the court. He granted interviews left and right after he was appointed in 2010, and did the same as controversies regarding him and his family were revealed in the impeachment trial.

Corona said in 2011 that he welcomed public opinion and scrutiny. But even as the Chief Justice used the media to clear himself before the court of public opinion, he warned that public opinion itself "can be just as dangerous as despotic rule" as it could influence the judiciary.

"While it is true that an active and involved citizenry is essential in nurturing a healthy and vibrant constitutional democracy, we must also remember that mob-like intervention, clamor, and pressure, when taken to the extreme, can be just as dangerous as despotic rule, at least insofar as its capacity to obstruct the free, independent, and impartial exercise of judgment is concerned," he told judges at the Society for Judicial Excellence Awarding Ceremonies in September 2011. 

"If there is a tyranny of a despot, so can there be a tyranny of the mob, the former having the advantage of a veil of legitimacy that the latter so obviously lacks," he said.  

Moral fitness 

At the height of the impeachment trial, however, Corona appealed to the people and sought their sympathy.

Corona continuously showed that he was a victim, crying twice before the impeachment court on May 22 and 25. He said he and his family suffered so much in the almost 5 months of the impeachment proceedings. Those who were expecting legal fireworks from the Chief Justice instead saw a man bewail how his public image was tainted. They also heard him castigate a former colleague in the SC, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales.

Corona, however, regained his footing when he signed a waiver on his dollar accounts, but with a condition -- that the 188 congressment who signed the impeachment complaint and Aquino's ally, Sen Franklin Drilon, also sign waivers.

But the tide turned against him when he walked out of the trial. He said he was not feeling well and suffered from hypoglycemia, but the people only saw them as excuses.

Inside the SC in Padre Faura, however, he is still loved by employees. Jojo Guerrero, president of the Supreme Court Employees Association, has staged protests and rosary vigils in support of Corona. Interestingly, Guerrero led the employees in seeking the impeachment of then Chief Justice Hilario Davide in 2003.

Guerrero accused Davide of technical malversation and misuse of the Judiciary Development Funds, saying Davide did not observe the 80-20 formula (80% of the funds should go to the employees, while 20% should be for the improvement of the courts). 

Guerrero said the case was different with Corona. He believed Corona was a victim of politics. 

"Ngayon, 'yung issue sa impeachment, we knew for a fact that when these things sprung out, it's because of the Hacienda Luisita and nothing else," he told Rappler.

To those who voted to convict Corona, however, the facts said it all: he did not declare P183 million in assets and tried to hide behind the Foreign Currency Deposit Act, claiming that it accorded him "absolute confidentiality."

They said he was not morally fit to stay in the post anymore.

Corona actually held a similar belief, that moral values should be above everything else. Speaking before his fellow graduates from the UST Graduate School in April 2011, he said: "But education will mean nothing if it is directed at the mind alone. The heart has to be involved as well. How many brilliant people, with fancy degrees and titles after their names, have we met with no heart, no conscience, and no moral values?"

For those who saw Corona falter, they could only ask him the same. - Rappler.com