Accommodating the Chief Justice

Justice wears a blindfold because it is supposed to only hear the voices of the individuals that come before it, and not see and be affected by the statuses they carry with them. The tenacity of justice is especially put to a test in an impeachment process, an institution that has been devised precisely to try highly placed public officials who may not be charged before the ordinary courts. This is not at all easy in a hierarchical society like ours, where class, politics, kinship, and religion insinuate themselves at every point in the administration of law.

As expected, the Senate impeachment court bent over backward in its treatment of Chief Justice Renato Corona to the point of virtually allowing him to dictate the terms of his appearance as a witness at his own trial. This is obvious to anyone who has been closely following the trial. On the first day of his appearance, the star witness asked to read a prepared statement. What was purported to be a brief opening statement metamorphosed into a three-hour monologue that permitted no room for objection or clarification or qualification.

The testimony that was supposed to be given under the exacting rules of direct examination and cross-examination took the form instead of a self-serving narration that made more sense in a press conference or a political forum than in a courtroom. When the Chief Justice was done with his statement, he stood up, invoking his lofty position in the constitutional system, and promptly excused himself. Realizing that the witness had, in effect, challenged the impeachment court’s authority over him, the court’s presiding officer ordered the sergeant-at-arms to block his departure and bring him back for cross-examination.

After about an hour, the Senate did manage to reassert its control over the accused Chief Justice. But by the time he was brought back into the courtroom, the impudent witness was already in a wheelchair, mentally shut off. It was left to his lawyers to offer excuses and apologies on his behalf. To me, it seemed like a powerful way to say: You can take possession of my body, but not of my person.

If the intention was to put in question the Senate’s right to sit in judgment of the country’s highest magistrate, Corona could not have wished for a better performance. It would, of course, have instantly secured for him a sure conviction in the hands of the Senate. But that defiant stance, and the angry decision it was likely to provoke, would have prepared the ground for seeking recourse elsewhere—at the Supreme Court or at the polls. But something happened to the Chief Justice’s script between his first and second appearances at the Senate tribunal.

Possibly sensing that the chances of an acquittal were more than good if Corona would explain, and apologize for, his abrupt exit from the witness stand, the defense lawyers might have prevailed on their client to return to the Senate to face questions. That much-talked about “hypoglycemic episode,” whether real or feigned, offered the perfect event around which to weave an excuse for the bizarre turn of events last Tuesday. More importantly, the humanitarian considerations it raises implicitly command the entire court to tread softly around the fragile witness.

Medical emergency has become the favorite refuge of those who would escape accountability. Medicine trumps the law so easily in our society because of the culture of “awa” (pity).  The Chief Justice used it to full effect in his testimony. After speaking for three hours, he claimed that he began to feel the signs of a lowering of his blood sugar: confusion and nausea. He said that was why he hurriedly left the courtroom before he could be properly discharged. It would have been easy to verify these claims by simply reviewing the video tapes. But, at that point, the senators were no longer in any mood to pursue the matter. Instead of reproaching him for the utter disrespect he showed for the court during his first appearance, the senator-judges accepted his apology without further question.

Compare this with the manner in which other witnesses, without exception, were bluntly interrupted when they kept on talking beyond the questions or could not give straight answers. They were subjected to withering lectures, and sharply reprimanded. Recall how the witness Harvey Keh cowered like a little boy and was almost reduced to tears when the imperious Miriam Defensor-Santiago took the floor to scold and insult him as if he had committed a heinous crime. Keh’s testimony was not even material to the case at hand. He had been summoned by the defense and qualified as hostile witness.

One is hard-pressed to understand what was going on in the minds of the senator-judges when, apart from one or two senators, they basically permitted Corona’s testimony to go unchallenged, graciously discharging him when he said he was no longer feeling well.

Let me hazard a guess. The senators felt the case had dragged on too long, and they just wanted to see it properly concluded. They also wanted to make sure that, in the event of an unfavorable verdict, the accused would have no reason to claim a mistrial and run to the Supreme Court. Given the present composition of the high court, such an eventuality would have meant a protracted battle for supremacy between two branches of government in a terrain that was both political and legal. It would have meant Corona staying indefinitely at his post.

The price the senators have had to pay for ensuring this doesn’t happen is restraint, the refusal to be affected by the Chief Justice’s arrogance—by sitting in silence while they break wind.

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