It’s all over: Anatomy of a checkmate

Dean Tony La Viña

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All roads are blocked and there is no exit except to leave with as much dignity as possible

Dean Tony La ViñaYesteday afternoon, the Senate acting as the impeachment court decisively handed down a guilty verdict in the impeachment case of Renato Corona. With a vote of 20 senator-judges in favor and 3 senator-judges against, the impeachment court judged Mr Corona guilty of Article II of the Articles of Impeachment filed by the House of Representatives and voted to remove him from his position as Chief Justice.

The decision was arrived at after 5 months of trial which saw evidence presented, documents produced, and testimony offered, including Corona’s. The decision was arrived at after due deliberation by the senator-judges, to whom the solemn decision was entrusted by the people – through the Constitution.

This is my first attempt to analyze yesterday’s May 29 decisions and what led to them. In my Eagle Eyes column Tuesday in the Manila Standard entitled, “Not yet over,” I actually thought that this might go to the Supreme Court. But Monday’s closing arguments and yesterday’s proceedings practically ensured the end. The individual and collective reasoning of the senator-judges, how they arrived at their decisions, and the acceptance by Mr Corona of the verdict indicated a finale.

Later this week, I will write a longer, more reflective piece sharing what I think are lessons learned from the impeachment of Mr Corona. I will call on the anti-Corona camp, including the prosecution, not to gloat and to learn also from their mistakes in the trial.

Very biting are the words of Sen Juan Ponce Enrile, the presiding officer of the impeachment court when he “cautioned against unethical and unprofessional conduct, the penchant to engage in trial by publicity, to use the media to disseminate and advance so-called “information” or “evidence,” to provoke and disrespect this Court and its members, and to irresponsibly hurl disparaging insinuations and accusations.”

Socratic dialogue

In this first analysis, however, I will focus in particular on the closing arguments and how effectively the defense panel of former Chief Justice Corona was checkmated by a combination of prosecution arguments and the brilliant interpellation by Senator Enrile of Justice Serafin Cuevas. The latter colloquy will be remembered forever as a classic Socratic dialogue (which rarely happens in courts or law classrooms these days), where two masters lock horns intellectually, and from which encounter, truth emerges and shines.

For many years from now on, in my classes in constitutional law and public officers, I will show that exchange to my students to show them an example of the best of legal thinking and lawyering.

It should be recalled that on Monday, the prosecution and the defense gave their closing oral arguments and summation of their respective cases. The prosecution argued in essence that the ex-Chief Justice willfully failed to disclose his assets and liabilities in his SALN; and that his non-disclosure is tantamount to an impeachable offense. The defense, for their part, argued that Corona’s failure to disclose his P183-M dollar and peso deposits was not an impeachable offense; that his omissions were done in good faith.

Justice Cuevas, Dean Eduardo De Los Angeles, and Atty Dennis Manalo argued for the defense, while Speaker Sonny Belmonte, Congressmen Rodolfo Fariñas and Niel Tupas made the case for conviction.

My initial impression was that the defense had a stronger and disciplined argument based on a consistent legal theory that Mr Corona was not guilty due to his interpretation of the SALN law and the law on bank secrecy and confidentiality of foreign currency accounts.

But a closer look also showed that the prosecution, particularly the “palusot” litany of Congressman Fariñas and the straight forward and dignified summary of the case against Corona by Speaker Belmonte, was actually effective. Even Congressman Tupas’ rhetorical speech was valuable in laying down the grounds for conviction.

More remarkable, however, than the impassioned argumentation by the opposing parties was the exchange that transpired between Enrile and Cuevas. This is where the rubber hits the road and enlightens all of us.

Master stroke

In fine, Enrile declared that no law punishes a public official for disclosing dollar deposits in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN). What is prohibited, according to him, is third-party disclosure, but the depositor is not prohibited from disclosing those accounts.

He then asked Justice Cuevas if a public official who declares his dollar accounts in his SALN may incur any penalty under the foreign currency deposits law. Cuevas replied he was unsure. Further, Enrile stated, “We are forgetting that the law allows exposure of foreign currency deposits if the depositor himself would do it.”

In a single stroke, the presiding officer dismantled the argument that the defense had been using all along – that Mr Corona was protected by the absolute confidentiality afforded by RA 6426. What the presiding officer was, in effect, saying was that Corona could have opened his accounts to the public. The law merely prohibits third parties – not the account owner himself or herself – from disclosing the subject accounts to the public.

Notice that this issue goes to the very heart of the defense’s argument that nondisclosure was not intentional, deliberate, and was, in fact, made in good faith.

This brings us to the second question: Is the constitutional provision compelling public officials and employees to disclose all their assets deemed a “sovereign command?” If so, will disobedience of that command constitute a culpable of violation of the Constitution? Do you consider that as a command or something that can be disregarded?”

Enrile then proceeded to quiz Cuevas about the Latin word culpa, in reference to Corona’s alleged culpable violation of the Constitution. Bad luck, the defense could not give an intelligible answer, according to Enrile.

In my view, Cuevas knew what culpa is but because the answer would not favor his case, he tried to evade it. Congressman Fariñas intervened and gave an answer helpful to the defense which Enrile ignored.

Demolishing ‘good faith’

What happened in this colloquy? In essence, this was a case of the wise lawyer Enrile declaring the emperor had no clothes. He was not the boy of the fable, but clearly with a childlike and youthful mind, he was able to see the truth this way and frame it properly. His line of questioning was a well-laid syllogism worthy of a Greek philosopher. 

The first proposition is – no law prohibits the Chief Justice from disclosing his foreign accounts; second proposition – he failed to do so despite the constitutional provision mandated by a sovereign command. And he clinched the syllogism by concluding that even if the act was not intentional – made in good faith as the defense would put it – if the same is tainted by culpa, then such act is punishable; thus, the phrase “culpable violation of the Constitution.”

After that exchange, I immediately recalled what was taught to me as a 1st year law student in 1985 by my UP Law criminal law professor, the brilliant Professor Fred Tadiar. I got reminded as well of how I taught the same subject in UP Law in 1991. Indeed, lawyers and law students know these concepts.

The Revised Penal Code punishes felonies accompanied by dolo, or willful intent. However, it likewise punishes felonies that are committed by means of fault (culpa) which, according to Article 3 of the code, is a wrongful act resulting from imprudence, negligence, lack of foresight, or lack of skill.

In effect, even if the non-disclosure was not intentional or attended by malice, it can still be made punishable when accompanied by culpa or fault resulting from imprudence, negligence, etc. This negates the defense’s theory of good faith. 

This dismantling of the defense became the rationale for the impeachment court’s decision. Indeed, it is interesting to note that the conviction of Mr Corona was arrived at, not principally because of the evidence of the prosecution, but because of evidence that ironically the Corona defense presented. These included the testimonies of Ombudsman Carpio-Morales which led to the production of the AMLA document and Corona’s admissions of why he did not disclose his dollar and peso deposits.

The prosecution however should be credited for presenting enough evidence to compel the defense to take the risks they did in presenting the Ombudsman and Mr Corona. Congressman Walden Bello, former senatorial candidate Risa Hontiveros, Emanuel Tiu Santos, and Harvey Keh should also be credited for filing complaints with the Ombudsman that led to the defense decision.

Enrile’s cue

While the questions of Enrile were addressed to Cuevas, were they, in fact, an attempt by the presiding officer – albeit subliminally made – to cue the senator-judges on what line of reasoning to take when arriving at their respective decisions? Or was it a deliberate attempt by the good senator to hint to the public what vote he was taking? 

Let me hazard a guess – Enrile was actually assuring all and sundry that the Supreme Court cannot intervene because the decision would be based, not an on interpretation of law, but on a finding of fact – that is, that the Chief Justice culpably violated the Constitution which commands all public officials to disclose all assets.

Listening to the speeches of the senator-judges that voted with Enrile, it is clear they got the hint. Movie actors and senators Lito Lapid and Bong Revilla, like the other non-lawyer senators, gave common-sense explanations why they were voting guilty and basing their decisions on the belief that Mr Corona’s explanation was not believable. 

The senator-lawyers like Edgardo Angara, the Cayetano siblings Alan and Pia, Koko Pimentel, TG Guingona, and Kiko Pangilinan were also very careful in rejecting the legal defense and making a factual finding of guilt. And of course the coup de grace was dealt by Enrile himself.

In explaining his vote, as Rappler has reported, Enrile concluded that Corona “was deemed duty-bound under the law, they being under his name by his own decalration,” to declare his peso and dollar accounts in his SALN. “I regret that no less than the chief magistrate of the land would think otherwise,” Enrile declared.

And so we end with a clear vote of conviction arrived at in such a way that makes it impossible for the Supreme Court to review it. That is why Mr Corona has accepted the verdict. All roads are blocked and there is no exit except to leave with as much dignity as possible. The country should be grateful that he has done so this way and not run to the Supreme Court which surely would have rejected an appeal.

To end this first analysis in the right spirit, I would like to quote and make mine a Facebook post of my esteemed colleague Prof Diane Desierto: “It is finished. It is time to let the former Chief Justice and his family take up their legal defenses as private individuals before regular courts. It is left for everyone else to act with dignity and respect for the verdict, move on and discharge our duties of citizenship, and continue building our country towards the vision of the framers of the twenty-five year old 1987 Constitution. Today, our Constitution visibly reigns.” –

Click on the links below for more opinion pieces in Thought Leaders.


More key Rappler stories related to the impeachment case against Chief Justice Renato Corona:

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