Who will blink first? PNoy or Corona?

Glenda M. Gloria
Critics say President Benigno Aquino III should just tell his political lieutenants to impeach the Chief Justice rather than shame him in public. All indications show he's already done that.

Glenda M. GloriaCritics say President Benigno Aquino III should just tell his political lieutenants to impeach the Chief Justice rather than shame him in public. All indications show he’s already done that.

The two biting speeches that the President devoted to Chief Justice Renato Corona — one before the elite Makati Business Club, another before a group of lawyers and justices — do not appear to have been the product of mere presidential pique. He seems to be shaping the media and public environment for what he is prepared to do: force Corona out of office, critics and legal issues be damned.

Just do the math: the President’s term ends in 2016; Corona’s ends two years later yet, in 2018. Aquino’s core political base is the anti-corruption bloc that helped propel him to office in the last presidential election. At least 56% approve of his anti-corruption program, per the latest Pulse Asia survey; of all government efforts, this one gets the biggest support.

One is tied to the other. The Supreme Court, by allowing (in a Nov. 15 ruling) former President Arroyo to leave the country to seek medical treatment, got in the way of what Aquino thinks is his electoral mandate: to punish her for corruption. But several lawyers, even those who voted for him in 2010, are taking him to task for the original sin, which is failing to exert best efforts to file a case against her before she got ill.

Now, they say, Aquino is spending political capital and dampening the Christmas cheer on something that is the sole product of his administration’s lack of focus on the Arroyo cases.

Worse, they add, he is seen stretching the same presidential power that Mrs. Arroyo was accused of abusing.

Wrote the respected constitutionalist and former Ateneo law dean Fr. Joaquin Bernas in a recent Inquirer column on  the government’s defiance of the SC’s TRO: “In an effort to balance things and to do away with criminal impunity, the temptation to appeal to a thousand past wrongs as justification for looking at present wrongs as remedially right can be blinding. Can an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth save the nation?”

The view from the Palace is something else, based on interviews we’ve had with the President’s key advisers and lawyers in the last 3 weeks. It is significant to note that some lawyers do support the President’s defiance of the Supreme Court.

Defy Again!

In one recent meeting at Bahay Pangarap in Malacanang that lasted till the wee hours of the morning, the President listened to two lawyers argue over how best to approach the problem with the Supreme Court. The meeting was called based on the sense of the administration that the High Tribunal would eventually quash the arrest warrant issued by Pasay City Judge Jesus Mupas against Mrs. Arroyo.

If this happened, what should the President do?

In that Nov. 26 meeting, one lawyer cautioned the President against further defying the Court. The entire legal community would be up in arms against you if you did that, the lawyer said. Another lawyer disagreed, arguing that the SC broke decency and rules when it issued the TRO without hearing the government’s side first. Some of the reasons cited were:

1.) Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno’s dissent, which pointed out the SC’s rigid rules in issuing a TRO and the inconsistencies in the Arroyo petitions submitted to the Court. Because of these inconsistencies, the SC at the very least should have given government its day in court. The five dissenters in the SC proposed a total of 5 working days before deciding. Why did the majority have to rush it that day?

2.) The Arroyos themselves filed separate petitions for a TRO. Yet, the SC consolidated them so that its single order benefited not just the ex-president but her husband Mike as well.

3.) It was the SC, not the executive, that created the “crisis.” The High Tribunal’s real power emanates from its moral authority, that it must be perceived and seen to be a neutral arbiter. The SC, the President was told, started to lose its credibility in the dying years of the Arroyo administration, when it flip-flopped on various cases and when the majority consistently voted in favor of Mrs. Arroyo. Presidential decisions are not made in a vacuum.

4.) Mrs. Arroyo had been banking on two constitutional bodies to shield her from arrest: the Office of the Ombudsman and the SC, thus her early decision to appoint heads loyal to her. But then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez was forced to resign early this year. Corona is the last hold-out, the same lawyer told the President. The High Tribunal was intended to be partial to her.

That meeting yielded just one consensus among the President’s men: that under no circumstances should Mrs. Arroyo be allowed to leave the country. That meeting failed to get a consensus on one issue: whether government should again defy the SC in case it decides to nullify the arrest warrant against Mrs. Arroyo.

But the two anti-Corona speeches that the President has made in the last week already indicate two things: One, that he is bent on using his political muscle to impeach the Chief Justice. Second,  Aquino also seems to be scaring the justices so they won’t quash the arrest warrant.

What could happen during the rest of the Christmas season?

1. The last en banc of the SC before the justices go on a Christmas break is on Dec. 13, next Tuesday. The Court may or may not rule on the legality of the warrant of arrest issued by Pasay City Judge Jesus Mupas. They have the option to just say that since a lower court had assumed jurisdiction over the case, Mupas could then just address all issues related to it, according to lawyer Susan Villanueva.

2. This scenario augurs well for the government. Better to deal with one judge than to negotiate with 15 justices, one government official joked. But this could work either way. Mupas is vulnerable: he faces administrative cases before the Supreme Court. He also hails from Cavite and is associated with a known Arroyo ally in the SC: Justice Presbitero Velasco.

3. The SC may do the unexpected and side with the government in its final ruling. The President’s speeches seem to have been partly aimed at that direction: to make the justices blink.

4. The SC may quash the warrant on Dec. 13. This allows Mrs. Arroyo to leave, especially in the absence of any other case filed against her. The government can stop her; but she can also find ways to leave and still not be declared a fugitive from justice. Does this explain the government’s no-fly zone policy at the Veterans Medical Center, where Mrs. Arroyo is scheduled to be brought to on Friday?

5. If this scenario happens — some say even before this scenario happens — an impeachment complaint will be filed against Corona. The Liberal Party will try to do a teaser on this today at the House of Representative, when it is scheduled to vote on the impeachment of another Arroyo appointee to the SC, Justice Mariano del Castillo

6. If the SC really wants to decide on the legality of the justice department-panel and validity of the warrant this year, Corona can still call for a special en banc not later than Dec. 20.

7. The SC may choose to wait it out this December and wait for January to make the decision. This buys both sides time.

Asked about where she is on this legal and political debate, lawyer Villanueva, who is with the supporter-turned-Arroyo critic law firm Cruz Villaraza Angangco, says: ‘Lawyers can’t pretend that this is an ordinary legal case because it’s a political war between the current president and his mandate to ensure accountability, and a Supreme Court whose majority are regrettably identified with the former president.”

Former UP Law Dean Raul Pangalangan described this in a past Inquirer column as a debate between legal extremism and common sense. “All that’s needed,” he wrote, “is the audacity to vindicate justice.”

The rest of the legal and political community may disagree, but certainly not this President.

Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria is the managing editor of Rappler and one of its co-founders. A journalist for three decades now, Glenda has been a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and wire agencies, and has run print, online, and TV newsrooms. She is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Class 2018 .