Battle of spokespersons: Corona not the only one on trial
It would seem that Chief Justice Renato Corona is not the only one on trial at the Senate.
Lawyers Juan Edgardo Angara Jr., Karen Jimeno and Valentina Cruz realize that their participation in a politically charged exercise like an impeachment trial could make or unmake their legal careers.
But the three have plunged head-on into the process, taking on the role of spokespersons for this historic clash among the three separate but equal branches of government.
Angara, the Aurora representative whose father is a senator-judge, is a spokesperson for the prosecution, Jimeno speaks for the defense and Cruz is the official mouthpiece of the impeachment court.
Although they are seen as having antagonistic roles, the three have many similarities insofar as their legal background is concerned. For one, all three are alumni of the University of the Philippines College of Law.
Angara and Jimeno both obtained their master’s degrees from the prestigious Harvard Law School in the United States, and both are currently teaching at the Centro Escolar University School of Law and Jurisprudence. Angara teaches legal technique, while the much younger Jimeno teaches transportation law.
Cruz is the Senate legal counsel and is part of the Senate Secretariat headed by Secretary Emma Reyes.
Stuff of lawyers’ dreams
“I think all lawyers want to be involved in the big issues of the day. That’s the stuff that lawyers’ dreams are made of. As a lawyer you want to be involved in questions of policy, of law, and what bigger question is there than the impeachment of a Chief Justice?” said Angara, who turns 40 this year.
Angara believes that the intersection of law, politics and justice is displayed in full array in a political exercise like an impeachment trial.
He thinks that the impeachment can make or unmake the careers of protagonists in this historic battle between Corona and President Aquino and his allies.
“No. 1 is the career of Chief Justice Corona. Obviously it will not make his career if he’s impeached,” said Angara.
As to whether his role as a prosecution spokesperson would help him in his political career, he said: “Perhaps.”
Angara said he opted to be a spokesperson instead of joining the prosecution panel to spare his father, Sen. Edgardo Angara, from criticisms arising from the latter’s role as a senator-judge.
He said he relished the thought of being personally involved in a political exercise in which he could make a constitutionally sanctioned process like impeachment relevant and understandable to the man on the street.
“More than anything I want to successfully communicate the message of the impeachment team to the public, which is that all public officials are accountable no matter how high we are,” he said.
“Justices, especially the Chief Justice, must be held to a higher standard of integrity and probity,” he said.
Jimeno said she accepted the invitation from Corona’s lawyers to join the defense team because after reading the verified complaint and grounds for impeachment, “it didn’t seem to me that there was basis for the impeachment complaint.”
She has taken on the job pro bono and has even postponed her honeymoon for it. Jimeno was wed to an American investment banker early this month.
She considers it a “privilege” to have been given an opportunity “to take a stand for my principles and to stand behind the judicial department.”
According to Jimeno, the biggest consideration for her “was the negative effect that the impeachment may have on a judicial department as a whole. I’m not just concerned about the current Chief Justice, but the future chief justices and other justices of the Supreme Court who may be subjected to an abuse of the impeachment process.”
Asked if she thought Corona was innocent of the charges, she said: “I don’t think I’m competent to decide on that. We’re still at the beginning of the trial, we have yet to see what evidence the prosecution has, but I do believe that every person has a right to prove their innocence and be protected from a trial by publicity,” she said.
Every accused has a right to due process, which involves notice of charges and right to be heard in court, the young lawyer said.
“Definitely, the law is neutral and should be impartial, so regardless of where you stand, you should always apply the law,” she said.
Jimeno appears ready for a public backlash from being seen as defending the unpopular Corona.
“That was a concern that was raised to me by people who are close to me, but as far as I’m concerned I’m not fighting for a specific person. I’m fighting for my belief that the rule of law should be upheld and the independence and integrity of the judiciary should be preserved,” she said.
That was the reason she postponed her honeymoon.
“It was tempting to go on a honeymoon right after my wedding and just go find a high-paying job. But I realized that it would have been a selfish decision,” she said.
But any sacrifice for the country is worth her time and effort, Jimeno said.
“The laws and the institutions we have right now are the bases for the democratic form of government that we Filipinos continue to be proud of,” she said.
“I think it’s worth it. It’s our responsibility as lawmakers. Impeachment is a responsibility given to lawmakers, and they’re acting on behalf of the people. It’s a big responsibility. We must take it on,” said Angara.
Does it help that he and Jimeno went to top schools here and abroad?
“It helps us in our knowledge of the law. Education, I think, helps everybody in whatever respect, whatever career that you pursue,” he said.
Jimeno obtained her law degree in 2005, when Angara had already left UP and Harvard, and completed her master’s degree last year.
She agreed with Angara that the kind of training that a lawyer gets from prestigious universities gives him or her an advantage as it equips them to take on difficult challenges while applying the skills that they have learned.
The participation of lawyers like themselves in the impeachment could elevate the level of discussion, she said.
“I think the bigger challenge really is to be able to bring the discussion to a level that the public will understand. Being learned in the law allows us to understand the technicalities of the impeachment proceedings, but we have to complement that with our ability to communicate to the public what is going on in the impeachment proceedings in a manner that they will understand,” she said.
In Jimeno’s view, the role of the public is to understand what an impeachment proceeding is all about, including its impact on the country and the judiciary as an institution.
“An impeachment will have a negative effect on our country if it’s used as a means to trample on the rights of other people or to destroy the independence of a branch of government like the judiciary,” she said.
But she was careful not to brand the Aquino administration-initiated campaign to oust Corona as unnecessary, saying that impeachable officials like the justices of the high court were not beyond the reach of impeachment.
“It’s constitutional to take out any government official if they commit a grave offense like culpable violation of the Constitution. But it’s a whole different story if it becomes a tool to influence a branch of government,” Jimeno said.
“If an impeachable official is removed on baseless grounds then it becomes an abused tool to further political interest,” she said.
Although pursuing antagonistic roles, Jimeno and Angara are comfortable with each other.
They view the trial as separate from their personal lives, said Jimeno who adds that she and Angara have maintained a very “pleasant” relationship ever since their paths crossed following the transmittal of the articles of impeachment to the Senate last December.
“There’s really no personal animosity. We really don’t feel the rivalry or competition. But I think it speaks well of the schools where we both came from. It shows how good our training is for us to be both involved in a case like this,” she said.
From the way the trial is proceeding, Angara expects that it will drag on for a “few months.”
He said he was ready for the long haul, while noting that he already had a hoarse voice just a week into the trial, and was losing sleep.
“Everyone calls me up at five in the morning,” he said, referring to the daily radio talk show hosts pestering him on a daily basis since the run-up to the trial.
Jimeno, who also starts receiving phone calls at 5 a.m., said she does not expect the trial to proceed smoothly.
“We don’t know how much evidence the prosecution will present and if their evidence or their manner of presentation is in compliance with the law because failure to comply with the rules of impeachment and of evidence would necessarily give rise to delays,” she said.
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