Corona’s crusade

RIGHT AFTER being removed from his position as Chief Justice, Renato Corona announced that he would go on a lecture tour to launch a crusade for transparency and judicial independence. No doubt, this is an important and timely crusade. But one can’t help asking if the former Chief Justice is the right person to spearhead it. The record shows that he didn’t care much for transparency or judicial independence.

It would be useful to revisit the highlights of Corona’s moral career, from the time of his appointment to his removal from the position, if only to understand how ordinary people expect a chief justice to behave. Such understanding may help those in charge of choosing the next chief justice make the right decision.

It is impossible to completely insulate the appointment of a chief justice from politics given that the appointing power is the nation’s highest political leader. Surely, an appointment as crucial as this will reflect a strong policy preference. But beyond the pre-screening performed by the Judicial and Bar Council, there are safeguards against the arbitrary exercise of this power. The public will quickly smell a narrowly partisan appointment if the appointee has little to distinguish himself/herself by except a history of loyal service to the appointing authority.

Corona’s moral career as a magistrate got its first big blot when he accepted his “midnight” appointment as chief justice from a highly discredited outgoing President who no longer had the right to issue it. It does not speak well of Corona that by the time he took his oath of office, the newly elected President was already known. Prudence, a deep regard for the integrity of public institutions, would have commanded a worthy jurist to uphold the Constitution rather than find ways of maneuvering around it.

His moral star would have sparkled had he refused the nomination, in the first place. Such a selfless act would have shown the public what it means for a public servant to have strength of character and a firm grasp of fairness. True, this would not have made him President Aquino’s choice for chief justice. But had he declined the appointment from the outgoing President, he would still have remained a senior member of the Supreme Court. More than that, he would have earned for himself a place of honor in the justice system, a solid platform from which to launch a credible crusade for judicial independence.

Having accepted the office under disputed circumstances, Chief Justice Corona found himself in the unenviable position of having to relate to a newly elected President who, unlike his political patron, had received one of the most decisive electoral mandates in the nation’s history. He was aware that the new President didn’t like him. But instead of animosity, he exuded humility and courtesy during formal occasions when he could not avoid being in the same room as the President. This earned him a lot of public sympathy in the beginning. His decision to do media rounds to introduce himself to a skeptical public was unprecedented for a chief justice, and this also softened the criticisms against him. But this veneer of civility could only go so far; it could not suppress the real motivations behind his appointment.

The tide changed when Corona started to sound more political than judicial, as when he began to champion the prerogatives of a regime that had just been overwhelmingly rejected at the polls. In the process, he emerged as the public face of an Arroyo rear guard army that had been injected into the upper echelons of government service precisely to protect the past regime. What this situation bred was a reflex antagonism that put the high court on a collision course with the President on almost every policy issue.

The impeachment of Corona was bound to come sooner or later. Still, the speed with which the case was filed and approved by the House of Representatives stunned everyone. The cause was valid, yet the hasty and careless manner in which the articles of impeachment were formulated and processed put the case in real danger of being lost. Needless to say, if the case had been litigated before a judicial body with a penchant for finding legal excuses to thwart the spirit of the law, the accused would have been acquitted. Sadly for Corona, impeachment is primarily a political exercise, even as it mimics courtroom procedure to create a semblance of fairness. It cannot ignore public opinion. And public opinion was against Corona from the start.

But there were many things he could have done during the trial to gain public favor. He could have volunteered to open his statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) when the impeachment court moved to subpoena them from the Supreme Court. He could have, again on his own initiative, issued a waiver on his bank deposits after the high court issued a temporary restraining order upholding their confidentiality. Timing is everything, and good will wins public opinion. As we have seen, the defense waged a strictly legal battle. Of course, it had no choice if its client, in the first instance, had something to hide.

We will note that Corona’s transparency went through five stages: First, he won’t reveal his bank deposits because he believes it is against the law to do so. Second, he won’t bare them because he insists it is his right to keep them confidential. Third, he will reveal them but only if his accusers do the same. Fourth, he will reveal them because it is what the people demand. And finally, he will reveal his bank assets because he wants to lead by example.

Seriously, how much value can we assign to any crusade waged under the banner of this kind of transparency?

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