‘It’s all about moral fitness’
Is impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona morally fit to stay at the helm of the judiciary?
The House of Representatives prosecution team said the 23 senator-judges must answer this question in the course of Corona’s impeachment trial.
But the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the country’s biggest association of lawyers, said the senators should determine Corona’s guilt or innocence based on the evidence to be presented before them—and not on political ties or public opinion.
Senate Majority Leader Tito Sotto acknowledged that certain senators had already shown their inclination, either to vote for a conviction or acquittal, even before the impeachment trial had begun.
“A senator’s political inclination is always a given. That’s why he belongs to a certain party or espouses certain issues. Let’s not name names but there are senator-judges whose moves and words give them away,” Sotto said.
He said senators must “observe political neutrality” as pointed out in the new rules that the Senate had issued to govern impeachment trials.
Item No. 14 of the Senate primer on impeachment trials defines political neutrality as the exercise of a public official’s duty “without unfair discrimination and regardless of party affiliation.”
Corona is facing charges of betrayal of public trust, graft and corruption, and culpable violation of the Constitution.
Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara said the senator-judges would have to answer the question about Corona’s moral fitness once the matter was presented for their decision.
“Considering the evidence that has been presented before them in the course of the impeachment trial, does CJ Corona still have the moral fitness and standing to return to the Supreme Court and continue leading the most sacred branch of government?” said Angara, a spokesperson of the 11-member House prosecution team.
In the run-up to the start of the trial on Monday, the prosecution team presented to the media Corona’s supposed transgressions—from his misuse of a $21-million loan from the World Bank to his accumulation of as many as 45 properties worth more than P200 million since he became a member of the Supreme Court.
In an unsolicited advice, the IBP reminded the senators to “observe political neutrality” during the historic impeachment proceedings.
“As sentinel of law and democracy, the IBP assures our people that it will keep vigil in this critical moment in our democracy,” the group said in a statement read by its president, Roan Libarios, at a news briefing in Pasig City.
“We call on the public to join in prayer with the IBP in its vigil for a fair and credible impeachment proceedings consistent with the Rule of Law,” it added.
Libarios said the IBP formed the “Impeachment Watch” to closely monitor Corona’s trial and help educate the public about the legal issues which would be discussed at the hearings.
“(A)n impartial justice can only be based on facts and evidence and not on personal sentiments or swings of public opinion,” he said.
“This is just a gentle, friendly reminder to our good senators of their duty to base their decision solely on evidence as fully expressed in their oath as well as in their own rules,” he added.
Libarios said the IBP board of governors would put to task the senators based on the oath they had taken in accepting their duty to hear and decide the case.
“Political partisanship and considerations have no place in the impeachment trial. The Senate’s own Rules on Impeachment clearly spell this out,” he said.
He said the senators should observe political neutrality, without regard to any party affiliation or preference.
Libarios said the senators must remain committed to their “solemn oath … to do impartial justice according to the Constitution and the law of the Philippines.”
The IBP noted that Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV had told the media that he would gauge public opinion in coming up with a decision on Corona’s fate.
The group also expressed concern over reports that President Aquino, believed to be the main character behind moves to unseat Corona, had been meeting with some senators.
Trixie Angeles, a member of the IBP “Impeachment Watch,” said many IBP members were anxious about some senators who regarded Corona’s impeachment as a mere political process.
Angeles said that while the impeachment process was political in nature since it would be led by a political branch of the government, it should also be constitutional because the basis of the senators’ decision must be based on evidence.
“It’s not a numbers game as what many perceive it to be,” she said.
Dangers of partiality
Sotto warned of the dangers of partiality by senator-judges as shown in the impeachment trial of then President Joseph Estrada a decade ago.
The senator recalled that the senator-judges, who were not friendly to Estrada, were among those who voted for the opening of the second envelope that allegedly contained information linking him to “jueteng,” an illegal numbers racket.
Prosecutors walked out of the impeachment trial after the Senate rejected the motion to open the second envelope. The decision not to open the envelope sparked public outrage and mass action, known as Edsa II, that led to Estrada’s ouster and his replacement by Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Sotto said he and other senator-judges who voted against the opening of the second envelope had to endure the public’s wrath. It was widely believed that these senators were protecting Estrada, hence they refused to accept the newly presented evidence.
“Eventually, those senator-judges who supported the prosecutors’ walkout, they also got angry with the person they put in power. So, who was right after all? History will judge you especially if your decisions are not proper,” Sotto said.
His warning followed public pronouncements by some senators that they would consider public opinion as a factor in determining Corona’s guilt.
Sotto said those who openly supported moves to oust Estrada regretted helping put Arroyo into power.
“Do they even mention their participation in the events that happened then? As it turns out, they were ashamed of what they did. They spent the next nine years cursing themselves for what they did,” he said.
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