Corona Impeachment: 8 Markers of a Good Trial

Dean Tony La Viña

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As the philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote, “Where the danger lies, therein also lies the saving power.”
Dean Tony La Viña

In a repeat of events a little over a decade ago, the nation is once again gripped with the drama surrounding the impeachment trial of a high official; this time, Chief Justice Renato C. Corona.

Whether one agrees or not, the impression from the street as well as from learned opinion is that this is a monumental event in politics, either because it can improve accountability, or because it carries a strong potential to disrupt Philippine democracy.

I don’t disagree with the significance of the impeachment, yet precisely for that reason, I choose to approach this highly sensitive, critical subject with sobriety, caution, and the perspective of the independent observer. I choose not to take sides even if I have strong personal feelings for or against some of the protagonists. My public position on the appointment of Corona as Chief Justice has always been that it is unconstitutional and I continue to believe this is the case while recognizing that the Supreme Court had affirmed its validity.

There are eight grounds that the House of Representatives alleges in its Articles of Impeachment. In this article, I propose 8 markers for a good trial – for a process the country could benefit from and we would be proud of.

First, and to me most important, I would like the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Corona to be conducted with dignity and respect. Impeachment is a serious matter. Section 2, Article XI of the Constitution provides a very selective list of impeachable officials – the President and Vice-President, Supreme Court Justices, Constitutional Commission members, and the Ombudsman. The responsibilities of these officials are intimately tied to the Constitution. In the case of the President and his second, they had sworn an oath to uphold and defend it; in the case of the Justices, this is precisely because of their power of judicial review, a grave responsibility to interpret the laws of the land against the Constitution.

Second, related to the need for dignified proceedings, I strongly encourage the Senate and particularly Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile, who will preside, to ensure discipline in the conduct of the impeachment trial. The Senate should not tolerate misbehavior by the prosecution and/or the defense. If necessary, strong sanctions should be imposed where rules are transgressed including contempt, disqualifying evidence, and other substantial measures. There should be zero tolerance particularly for trial by publicity.

Third, the impeachment trial must not be unduly disruptive of the nation’s business. The survivors of Sendong for example should not be made to wait for much needed help while this process is going on. Of course, there will be an impact on the legislative work of both the Senate and the House. And the executive branch, despite denials, will be following the trial closely, and will also be affected. Nevertheless, impeachment is an important business of government and we should take the time and do everything necessary to do things well and right.

Fourth, I hope we will see the presentation of relevant and well-researched evidence during the trial. The allegations against Chief Justice Corona are: “partiality and subservience in cases involving” Congresswoman Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo; failure to disclose Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth; and failure to meet Constitutional standards of proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence through his conduct as a Supreme Court Justice. Do these allegations hold enough water to merit conviction and removal from office? Will the evidence support the allegations?

Fifth, while the impeachment process by definition is political, it should not be overly partisan. While we cannot separate politics from the trial, there is hope that politics is either moderated or restrained by due process of the Rules of Impeachment. In the trial, we have an opportunity for all parties concerned—the prosecution, defense, and the senator-judges—to conduct themselves, in full public view, with the utmost professionalism marked by sagacity. Instead of this debate being conducted unchecked in the court of public opinion, executed with vehemence and hostility, the impeachment trial provides the prosecution the arena to prove their allegations against Corona, and the latter the opportunity to defend himself, within a structured and reasoned setting, based on the merits of the case.

Sixth, related to the preceding marker, the impeachment trial should be conducted in a fair and just manner. While I have stressed the importance of accountability in our nation’s political maturity and recovery, I have also always emphasized that accountability must be executed with level-headedness, a respect for due process and the rights of all, and a recognition of the merits of the case at hand, based on the arguments made and evidence presented. Nobody will benefit from a proceeding that is perceived to be unjust and arbitrary.

Seventh, the senator-judges, who will decide on conviction or acquittal, should weigh the evidence presented, listen to the arguments of both sides, but must ultimately decide solely on the basis of national interest. The evidence is important because if there is no factual basis for conviction, it certainly is not in the national interest for the senators to vote for conviction as that would prove that the impeachment case is nothing but an attack on the judiciary (aside from being a grave injustice against a person and his family). On the other hand, if the evidence supports conviction, then Chief Justice Corona must be removed from office as it is imperative for the national interest. In any case, the senator-judges should not decide on the basis of what is popular or more politically beneficial to them.

Eighth, and finally, I hope that the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Corona will be a giant lesson in civics and politics for the country. This can be achieved with the help of a responsible media that will be fair, accurate, informative and educational in its reporting. I am a vocal advocate of social accountability: to find positive, constructive means of ensuring good policy outcomes and the proper use of public resources. This way, we don’t have to readily resort to extraordinary measures like a People Power revolution or, for that matter, impeachment. Impeachment is not and should not be an everyday affair for Philippine democracy. But accountability should. In this spirit, we, the Filipino people, should ourselves also be guided by the same high standards, to observe and monitor the proceedings, to judge according to the merits, and to hold all parties accountable based on the outcome.

Impeachment is a dangerous path to take for a body politic. Yet as the philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote, “Where the danger lies, therein also lies the saving power.” Despite all emotion and conflict, the trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona may yet be Philippine democracy’s shining opportunity to demonstrate maturity, wisdom, and the desire to heal old wounds with the light of the truth. It is time to let justice be done properly, and for the business of Philippine democracy to be done well. –

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