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8 lessons from the Corona impeachment trial

Dean Tony La Viña

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Having secured the verdict of the impeachment court, we must now look beyond the ends of the court, or its purpose of rendering a verdict

Dean Tony La ViñaThe conviction of Renato Corona under Article II of the impeachment complaint against him should count as a victory in Philippine governance – first, by the successful completion of the impeachment process, and second, by setting the standard of accountability that should be met by our public officials.

When the impeachment trial began, I wrote and Rappler posted an article wherein I shared what I thought were 8 markers of a good impeachment trial. In this article, I close my series on impeachment by reflecting on 8 lessons from the impeachment of Mr Corona.

Lesson 1:  The Constitution is supreme.

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. While this statement is easy to make, the Corona case shows how dangerously easy it is to reach conflicting conclusions, even without malicious intent. There have been cases cited during the impeachment where failures of SALN (Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth) disclosure have led to removal of rank-and-file personnel.

Yet society alarmingly overlooked the lessons then. Because until the issue recently involved a “big fish,” it never seized the public’s attention or agenda the way it did now. As with the Parable of Talents, it behooves us to be faithful in the small matters – the small cases – as we feel we should be in large matters, or the more sensational cases. It determines the consistency of the Constitution’s interpretation – and sets a signpost for all public officials to follow.

In addition, we can say that the successful conclusion of the impeachment trial has demonstrated the strength of our constitutional institutions (or at least of impeachment processes), and the faith of the Filipino people in the same. While it is not a perfect faith, it is a start – and a marked improvement in the mood of the country compared to 11 years ago, when our faith was so shattered that some refused to see the process through.

Lesson 2: Preparation is essential.

An impeachment trial may be sui generis and the rules may be different from those of a criminal trial. Yet like any trial, one’s case must be made carefully and thoroughly. Early on in the proceedings, this lack of preparation became the prosecution’s weakness, fencing against an able defense team led by former Justice Serafin Cuevas.

In the end, it came down to facts. But the convoluted path to those facts – as the impeachment complaint was trimmed down, and accusations of “fishing for evidence” were hurled – threatened to discredit the prosecution’s argument in the eyes of the senator-judges.

Throughout the trial, I criticized the prosecution for its lack of preparation. But it is also important to give credit to where it is deserved; as sloppy as they were, the prosecution was able to prove a prima facie case at least on Article 2. This, in turn, forced the defense to present witnesses (Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and Mr Corona himself), a move that backfired.

Lesson 3: Professionalism should be the norm.

At times this impeachment trial had felt vindictive, certainly emotional, with passions running over on both sides (including the Senate). Although some of history’s best lawyers are also the best thespians (the Roman statesman and republican Cicero is notable for exhaustive rhetorical preparations), in the end, the true credibility of any argument partly rests on its professional delivery.

Himself a lawyer, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile certainly gave a command performance, especially in the proceedings’ most critical moments (e.g., Corona’s sudden departure from the stand; the closing arguments and his interpellation of Justice Cuevas). But the greatest mark of that performance was his professionalism, marked by his attitudes of mutual respect, stern fairness, and learned reference to jurisprudence. This gave the trial a defined structure that all could reasonably follow, and the gravitas that earned it respect and credibility.

Lawyer Mario Bautista’s rebuttal to Corona’s accusations of evidence-manufacture last May 22 should also be remembered in this light: “We are lawyers here,” he said – a sharp reminder of the lawyer’s obligation under the law. Win or lose, lawyers can be likened to poker players: you play with the hand you have (whether the law or facts), and let the game (the jury) decide the results.

Both the prosecution and the defense played their hands to the hilt. If the trial had ended on a clear and concise note, to them both is given due credit for their professionalism. It should also serve as an inspiration to the rest of government – elected, appointed, and employed – to fulfill one’s duty, even in the face of all odds.

Lesson 4: Respect among government institutions should be maintained.

Pundits – including myself – had previously warned that, if this trial had gone badly, it could have resulted in a constitutional crisis, particularly between the Supreme Court and the Senate. Thankfully, the process managed to avert such a crisis, out of mutual respect between said parties. That is one of the trial’s great triumphs: the respect accorded to other agencies of government, through the respect of due process, jurisdiction, and reasoned argument.

Some (with reason) also described the impeachment as an executive-judiciary conflict, given President Aquino’s own beliefs. I argue that he is entitled to those beliefs, as we are to our own. Substantively, there is no dangerous conflict here; the Senate’s professionalism and respect had seen to that.

My worry, however, was about the vitriol in his criticisms against Corona. Especially coming from the President of the Republic, his passion might have provoked (or more likely failed to appease) the dark, vindictive mood among a number of Filipinos. As I have written also in Rappler, the trial should be a moment of truth and love, of country and of all the parties concerned. As leader, President Aquino can best set the example to highlight the need for governance reform, and to heal the wounds inflicted by the process.

Lesson 5: The role of citizens can be crucial.

Government respecting its citizens should be elemental and fundamental. There were times the Senate had dropped the ball on this one. Harvey Keh comes to mind. For example, while the questions posed to him were fair, as were the criticisms, the manner by which Senators Santiago and Estrada posed their comments was not. The best example was still Senator Enrile who, while certainly and rightfully angered, maintained his respect for the witness throughout his critique.

The government also deserves due respect, even given its flaws and inadequacies. This is not that demanded by a despot, but that freely given by a civic-minded freeman. It is the mark of a citizen’s readiness to engage in civic dialogue, policy deliberation, and its execution.

Private prosecutor Vitaliano Aguirre’s famous reaction to Senator Santiago, amusing as it was, even earning the sympathy of others, is unhealthy for democracy in the long run. So is the vindictiveness of some of our netizens who may have invested too much passion into the impeachment proceedings. Civil discourse is at its richest and most productive if we listen to each other, despite our differences.

Lesson 6: Full Disclosure by public servants must be absolute.

While the defense had argued that Corona’s exclusion of his dollar accounts from his SALN was done in “good faith,” we should recognize that this is a very dangerous interpretation of “good faith.” As I’ve argued before, as a precedent it opens the wrong door for other public servants to enter. Moreover, a lawyer and justice with Corona’s length of service should be aware of that danger, even if he gave more importance to privacy.

That is water under the bridge now. The real consequence of note is how the rest of government will follow through. Even if one criticizes Corona’s challenge for a mutual waiver on bank confidentiality as a publicity stunt, it is certainly in an honest public official’s best interest to actively disclose his SALN. It is better to be voluntarily transparent, rather than be tied to the “autopilot of procedure and legal minimums.”

It is the best show of good faith that the Constitution’s framers would have applauded. Some public officials have declared they’ll meet Corona’s challenge. Publicity stunt or not, perhaps that’s a start.

Lesson 7: The Freedom of Information Act must be enacted.

Of all the lessons from the impeachment and conviction of Renato Corona, this is one of the most critical. The Philippines needs the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, Bill, or Law. The fruits of the impeachment process will be best preserved if the Filipino people can help create a culture of accountability and trust between the leader and the led.  FOI is a powerful tool to achieve that, to preempt corruption by improving deterrence and enhancing citizen participation in governance.

Government is not the only one who can learn lessons here. FOI is also an equally critical component of the social accountability approach, which puts the details of policy execution-monitoring and feedback in the hands of trained private citizens.

The approach also cultivates the healthy leader-led relationship so essential to public support and trust in government. With the impeachment of Renato Corona, we have shown the viability of accountability from above. We, the Filipino people, must now complete the picture, and provide accountability from below. From penalizing officials, we must now help them make Philippine governance and accountability work.

Lesson 8: Impeachment is only the beginning of reform.

With the end of the impeachment trial, we are tempted to over-celebrate and think that the work of governance and judicial reform is done. Far from it; in fact, business as usual is likely unless we cement the gains.

The Supreme Court, under the leadership of its acting chief Antonio Carpio, has started the ball rolling by releasing all their SALNS (including that of judges). For Congress, as discussed earlier, the passage of the FOI act is critical. And for the President, no other decision is as important as making the right choice for chief justice.

As I have written elsewhere, choosing the right chief justice will cement the straight road of good governance and ensure that Aquino’s legacy will last. How sad it would be if all the political will and capital spent is thrown away if the choice of chief justice becomes an accommodation of political interests when it should be a recognition of competence.

Summary: Living the lessons of the Corona impeachment

Monumental as the conviction is, let it not blind us to other fruits of the impeachment, those that do not center on Corona’s conviction alone, but which carry long-term effects on Philippine governance.

A term called “counting coup,” means to win prestige in battle without having to injure one’s opponent. Having secured the verdict of the impeachment court, we must now look beyond the ends of the court, or its purpose of rendering a verdict. –

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