Public opinion on the Corona impeachment

The first of the much-awaited public opinion surveys on the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato C. Corona has just been released. Pulse Asia’s nationwide survey was conducted between Feb. 26, or two days before the prosecution rested its case, and March 9, before the defense panel began presenting its own witnesses and evidence. The findings are quite startling, though not entirely unexpected.

The Inquirer headlined its story on the survey results thus: “47% in poll say CJ guilty.” The Star used almost exactly the same headline:  “Poll: 47% of Pinoys believe CJ is guilty.” I don’t think the choice of which finding to report reflects the bias of the nation’s two leading newspapers. It is just the way the news works. In this case, it is the public’s judgment of whether the Chief Justice is guilty or not that was deemed newsworthy, rather than, for instance, the number of people who could claim any knowledge of what is going on in the trial.

It is every thinking citizen’s responsibility to understand what a survey is saying and what it is not saying. The unexamined survey is not worth believing. It is important to bear this in mind because an opinion survey becomes itself an element in the shaping of public opinion.

What startles me most about the Pulse Asia survey is that only one out of three interviewees (33 percent) could claim enough knowledge of the issue on which to base their opinions, while two out of three (67 percent) said they had little or no knowledge at all of the issues. The majority’s general lack of confidence in their own opinions is evident in the high percentage of informants (43 percent) who were “undecided” on the question of the Chief Justice’s innocence or guilt. The way it looks to me, this is not so much an expression of ambivalence as it is a confession of ignorance.

Results like these make one wonder if it makes any sense at all to solicit opinions about issues on which a large majority of the informants themselves admit they have only the slightest knowledge. The “don’t-know” or “undecided” category is a nightmare for pollsters.  The bigger the number of respondents falling under this category, the more the findings invite doubt. Consider this: If 47 percent believe the accused Chief Justice is “definitely/probably” guilty, while 5 percent think he is “definitely/probably” innocent, then we have a total of 52 percent forming an opinion on a matter in which only 33 percent had claimed sufficient knowledge of the issues. Where did the 19 percent (52 minus 33) base their opinion?

Indeed, it is not the business of opinion surveys to assess the quality of their interviewees’ opinions. But a survey like this, that also thoughtfully asks how much knowledge the informants have of the issue at hand, tells us why, in the first instance, public opinion is not used in court as a basis for judging the guilt or innocence of an accused. Public opinion is one thing, law is another. While both are based on perceptions, the standards they use are different.

Here lies the complexity of the process we are trying to understand. If the impeachment of Chief Justice Corona were a strictly judicial process, the conduct of an opinion survey about his guilt or innocence would be out of place. Judges are not supposed to be guided by public opinion. A survey that tracks public opinion on a case while the trial is going on would be contemptuous of the legal system.

But because impeachment is fundamentally a political function involving a question of public policy, the expression and reporting of public opinion are integral to the whole process. Indeed the “senator-judges” are not only unable to ignore public opinion, they find themselves actively and consciously appealing to it and shaping it. They are not only aware that the public is watching and listening, they also take pains to perform for the gallery inside and outside the Senate hall. To say this is not to criticize them. It is merely to state a reality—that impeachment veers closely to the realm of politics more than it does to law.

This by no means suggests that politics is inferior to law, or vice-versa. They are just different spheres; they differ first of all in the codes they use. Politics is oriented to public opinion, and sees the world in terms of majorities and minorities. Law, on the other hand, is oriented to established notions of what is legal and illegal, and sees the world in terms of evidence and rules.

When a senator asks whether omitting one or two assets in a public official’s statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) constitutes an impeachable offense, he thereby seeks to apply the strict criterion of law. This would make sense if there were precise definitions of what an impeachable offense is. There are none. One can only suppose that filing an erroneous SALN becomes impeachable when it manifests a pattern of wilful concealment of a public official’s wealth. But that is a matter of opinion. When the public views things like these, it matters little whether the undeclared property in question was only “deemed accepted” but technically not yet “owned” by the accused. This hair-splitting, which might be crucial in a judicial process, is mainly seen by the public as a form of evasion.

Reacting to the trial and death of Socrates, the philosopher Plato nurtured such an intense distrust for public opinion that he envisioned a city-state ruled by a philosopher-king. But Socrates, who sought to purify public reason by helping every individual find his own way to truth, would have disagreed with him. I believe the proper function of opinion surveys is to encourage people to examine their own opinions.