Trial superstars super old, sharp, amazingBy Christian V. Esguerra
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Older and definitely wiser. This best describes the leading lights in the current trial to impeach Chief Justice Renato Corona.
At day’s end, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, soon-to-be 88, holes up in his study at his Makati residence to contemplate the trial proceedings.
On days when key issues are raised at the trial—such as whether to admit evidence on the CJ’s alleged illegally acquired wealth—Enrile says he stays up till the wee hours, weighing the options according to the law.
In a law office somewhere in Salcedo Village, his contemporary, retired Justice Serafin Cuevas, 83, puts off going home to reread the law, review the documents and plan legal strategy, all in preparation for the next day’s trial.
“Every night I never fail to check on things because I haven’t been teaching in a long time,” he told the Inquirer in an interview Saturday night. “It’s not every day that there’s an impeachment case. I have to dig deeper into the wisdom of the ages.”
Such is the strict discipline Enrile and Cuevas still impose upon themselves, more than half a century after graduating from the University of the Philippines College of Law.
They may look frail and slower now, but their participation in the trial, not to mention their exchanges, have kept the other judges and lawyers on their toes, and have proved riveting to the onsite audience and those following the proceedings on media.
“People tell me that we both study, that we’re always correct when it comes to the law,” said Cuevas. “His thinking and my thinking probably jive on many occasions because we are both litigators.”
Diligence and stamina
Sen. Gregorio Honasan, to whom Enrile has been a father figure, attested to the old man’s diligence in the Corona trial. There had been times, he said, when Enrile would sleep at 2 a.m. then wake up three hours later.
“You can tell what the man is made of,” Honasan said. “He agonizes over issues in the impeachment trial. He studies and prays a lot to understand the issues.”
Sen. Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, the Senate President Pro Tempore, said many of his colleagues were concerned about Enrile’s health given the rigors of the proceedings.
Trial days are from Monday to Thursday, beginning at 2 p.m. and with no fixed time of adjournment. Unlike other senators who could take a break anytime, Enrile has to stay at the rostrum and traffic the proceedings.
“That’s our concern. We don’t want him to tire. We need him to be 100 percent throughout the trial,” said Estrada, who helps “preserve” Enrile for the afternoon’s trial by presiding over the legislative session in the morning.
“No one can handle the job better than he does,” added Estrada.
Save for a little hearing difficulty and an eye problem, Enrile, who is turning 88 on Valentine’s Day, is ready for the long haul, agreed both Honasan and Estrada.
Cuevas, on the other hand, is on maintenance drugs for his diabetes. But other than that, he is a tough one.
He stands at the podium for at least a couple of hours during trial, trying to keep the prosecution at bay. Most of the time, he has been successful, based on the number of times Enrile has sustained his objections and prosecutors have had to “reform” their questions to witnesses.
Such exchanges have served as “free lectures” for the young lawyers involved in the trial and those who have been following the proceedings.
“I get paid P10,000 per lecture. You guys should be thankful because I’m giving it for free (at the trial),” Cuevas said during the interview. He might have said it in jest, but it’s a point well made.
Lawyer Florin Hilbay, Constitution and philosophy professor at the UP Law Center, described Enrile and Cuevas as “amazing” when asked to assess the performance of the impeachment trial participants. Hilbay was attending the forum “Reflections after Week 1 of the Latest Political Novela: Impeaching the Chief Justice,” which was sponsored by the National College of Public Administration and Government.
“They are senior citizens yet they are the shining stars of the show,” Hilbay said. “Enrile is extremely sharp as presiding chair, while Cuevas sets the pace and tone of the trial.”
He also said lawyers watching the trial could not help but be astounded by Enrile’s knowledge of tax provisions, citing them as if it is something he does all the time. He gave Cuevas extra points for witticism.
Despite positive reviews of his performance so far in the trial, Cuevas claimed no mastery of the impeachment proceedings, this despite having defended former President Joseph Estrada in the famous and rigorous impeachment trial in 2000 that has gone on record as having spawned Edsa II.
Cuevas said he was determined to finish the job even if he admitted getting tired at different stretches during the trial.
To keep fit, he sets aside at least 30 minutes each morning to jog around his sprawling property in Quezon City. After breakfast of two soft-boiled eggs and a glass of milk, he is ready to go.
Specialized in taxation
Though younger, Cuevas finished law ahead of Enrile, but the latter passed the bar at No. 11 the following year with a 91.72 percent general average and a “perfect score in Commercial Law.”
Despite being contemporaries, the two hardly met in the courtroom, owing to the type of cases they sought to handle.
Enrile specialized in taxation, having earned his master’s degree in international taxation at the Harvard Law School in 1955.
Cuevas got his feet wet right away in litigation and won his first big case as a fresh grad in 1953.
Substituting for his mentor Pepe Africa, the young Cuevas found himself defending a construction worker accused of homicide.
Rookie Cuevas scares
The late Judge Bienvenido Tan, who was known as a “terror” among the magistrates in Manila, heard the case and denied the motion to postpone even before Cuevas could finish his sentence.
Rookie Cuevas later asked the clerk of court to schedule the case for the last-time slot “so when the judge gives me a dressing down, no one else would see it.”
As it turned out, he had no reason to worry. The young lawyer shone during the trial and succeeded in having the case dismissed. His happy boss promptly gave him a P100 raise, quite a whopper considering his monthly salary had only been P150.
“I’ve been trained for antagonistic conditions,” said Cuevas, who went on to become a fiscal prosecutor for nearly 20 years, a judge, and later an associate justice of the Supreme Court.
Frowns on Santiago’s tirade
In the current Corona impeachment trial, the man has been generally polite with his counterparts from the prosecution, whose years of law practice are easily dwarfed by his own.
Cuevas said he sympathized with prosecutors whenever they got scolded during the televised trial. He said he particularly felt bad when Tupas and private counsel Arthur Lim were castigated by a fuming Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago on separate occasions last week.
“I could not affix my stamp of approval on that kind of an actuation,” he said. “Para bang hiniya mo ’yung mga tao eh naghahanap-buhay yan. Masasabi mo naman nang maayos. (That amounted to embarrassing a man who was only trying to make a living. What was said could have been said nicely.)”
Compared to Estrada’s impeachment trial, he said public opinion was not as heavily against Corona.
“It’s good that the Chief Justice is a very religious man,” he said, adding that Corona has no reputation for being a womanizer or a drunk.
And unlike in his previous impeachment experience, Cuevas seems to have gained a few fans of his own this time, judging by people from all walks of life who express their admiration for him outside the trial venue.
But the retired justice said he wasn’t losing focus on the job ahead, which is to prove Corona’s innocence.
“We might be lulled into a false sense of security that we are winning but lose when the voting comes. That’s what we are trying to avoid,” he said. With a report from Nancy C. Carvajal
First posted 11:53 pm | Saturday, January 28th, 2012