The star witness

On the 40th day of his trial, Chief Justice Renato Corona himself took the witness stand. The head of the impeachment court, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, graciously welcomed him, assuring him that he would be treated with utmost respect befitting his position and the institution he represents.  Barely acknowledging these gestures of courtesy, the star witness took the oath and proceeded to deliver not what was supposed to be a brief opening statement, but a well-rehearsed soliloquy.

After speaking for nearly three hours, almost without interruption, the man of the hour closed his notebook and said, with an air of majesty: “And now the Chief Justice of the Republic of the Philippines wishes to be excused.”  He then stepped down from the podium, briskly walked out of the session hall followed by his family, and headed straight for the elevator.  He had said his piece, and his body language left no doubt about the message: it was beneath him to entertain any questions.

Stunned by this turn of events, Senator Enrile asked defense counsel Serafin Cuevas if the Chief Justice was coming back. The venerable lawyer mumbled excuses, pleading that his client had been under tremendous stress, and asked permission to run after him. Sensing a betrayal of the goodwill the court had generously extended to the witness in recognition of his lofty position, the Senate president sternly ordered a lockdown of the Senate building to prevent the unauthorized departure of the Chief Justice.

Blocked from leaving, the Chief Justice was brought back on a wheel chair half an hour later—a picture of sullen incommunicability, the flipside of the voluble rhetorical warrior who, just moments earlier, growled with righteous indignation against his detractors and perceived enemies. His tie loosened, his gray coat taken off, he wore a faraway gaze and seemed lost in stupor. His son-in-law, a medical doctor, said the Chief Justice, who suffers from diabetes, had left the session hall because he began to feel the onset of a “hypoglycemic episode” and was about to faint. He had skipped lunch, he said, and the sudden drop of glucose in the blood had put him in a state of confusion.

Clearly, at that point, the Chief Justice was no longer in a position to be cross-examined on his testimony. Still bristling with anger, Senator Enrile adjourned the session and ordered the defense to produce their witness the next day under pain of having his entire testimony stricken off the record if he fails to return to answer questions. Corona was rushed to the Medical City (hospital) after being finally allowed to leave the Senate premises, and the latest news is that he is still under observation in the intensive care unit.

I personally doubt the Chief Justice will go back. His lawyers will say his medical condition prevents him from completing his testimony.  Whether they knew beforehand what their client was going to do is anybody’s guess.  If they did, they could be cited for contempt of court. If they did not, then they will have failed in their duty to protect the interest of their client. The court will proceed to issue its verdict against the background of their client’s unprovoked disrespect for the court.

Let us be clear about what happened here. The Chief Justice took advantage of the court’s forbearance by speaking freely and denouncing his accusers. Instead of testifying under direct examination, he was allowed to deliver an oration filled with innuendoes, hearsay and irrelevant asides, despite the objections of the prosecution. If he were not a lawyer, he might be forgiven for this serious breach of judicial norms. But he is the highest magistrate of the land.  As such, his first duty was to abide by court room procedures.

In the guise of answering point by point the charges hurled against him, and providing context to the stories that had been written about him and his wife’s family, he delivered a long and emotional narrative testimony.  He addressed himself not just to the court sitting in judgment but also to the public out there.  The result was a politically masterful conversion of a courtroom trial into a press conference.

This brazen display of supreme discourtesy in the course of what was supposed to be a straightforward defense left everyone wondering what this performance was all about. If Corona meant to prove his innocence, why did he not allow himself to be cross-examined? Why did he risk antagonizing the court?  If this was all part of a script, where is it headed?

I am convinced that his presumed medical condition paves the way for his withdrawal from the trial as a witness, thus sparing him the tribulations of a prolonged cross-examination that would have exposed the hollowness of his testimony. This does not mean he is about to give his accusers the satisfaction of an easy resignation.  Corona may have hoped that his testimony has given the public enough ground on which to rationalize a vote of acquittal.  If the Senate convicts him, he may claim a mistrial and appeal to the Supreme Court. What is clear is that, having gone this far, Corona is not above plunging the country into a constitutional crisis if he cannot keep his position.

Let us for a moment set aside the issue of the four dollar accounts he has virtually admitted to owning, and assume the law indeed allows him to treat these as non-assets in view of their confidential nature.  Let us likewise grant his claim of lifelong frugality that supposedly enabled him to accumulate millions of dollars in savings. Let the impeachment court answer only one question: Is it right to continue entrusting the leadership of the justice system to this man?