The Next Chief Justice

By Romel Regalado Bagares

Forty four days after it commenced the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Coronado Corona, the Senate handed down a guilty verdict on a 20-3 vote, marking for the very first time in the history of our Republic that its highest magistrate was removed from office through an impeachment.

Under the leadership of Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, the Upper House stayed the course through the many distractions occasioned by the trial and showed to Filipinos that the constitutional design for its institutions can indeed work – and how.

An overwhelming majority of senators, crossing party lines, agreed that Attorney Corona had indeed violated the public trust when he failed to declare in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Networth (SALN) some US$ 2.4 million in four dollar accounts and another P80 million in five peso accounts.

As the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) – the constitutional body tasked to nominate to the President candidates to judicial vacancies – begins its deliberations to look for a Mr. Corona’s replacement, many informed sectors of society are asking whether President Benigno Aquino III will be appointing as the next Chief Justice someone affiliated with The Firm.

Just as quickly, media were awash with items defending the record of The Firm –and its former partner, Attorney Corona’s arch enemy at the High Court, Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, perhaps one of the more intellectual occupants of the High Court in recent years, and now its  most senior magistrate.

In fact, one of the arguments put forward by supporters of Attorney Corona to the general public was that his conviction would mean the return of the Firm into the high places, by way of Carpio’s ascension in the former’s stead to the post of Chief Magistrate.

Attorney Corona’s supporters wished to remind people that until recently, the Firm was up there in the corridors of power, until it had a falling out with the Arroyo administration in the last few years of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s reign of political terror.

There too was the yarn on Hacienda Luisita – stated for the record by Attorney Corona himself on the witness stand at his impeachment trial – that President Aquino wanted him removed from his office in retaliation for the Supreme Court’s ruling awarding much of the Cojuangco-controlled Hacienda Luisita to farmers.

Another tact was to link the outcome of Transportation and Communication Secretary Mar Roxas’s election protest against Vice President Jejomar Binay now pending before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal – which happens to be chaired by the Chief Justice – to a guilty verdict in the impeachment trial.

If Corona lost, so the argument went, Mr. Roxas, who is represented by The Firm in the protest proceedings, is sure to win his protest against the Vice President, because that would mean President Aquino, who supports his party mate’s electoral protest, will now be able to appoint as Chief Justice Mr. Carpio. Presumably, Carpio will take it from there and maneuver the proceedings in the PET to Mr. Roxas’s satisfaction, or that at least, is how the argument went.

But Vice President Binay’s allies in the Senate were unconvinced, as all of them voted to convict Attorney Corona. If some pundits were to be believed, they weren’t looking farther than 2013, when the midterm elections takes place. In other words, they were paying more attention to what the public was saying about the disgraced Chief Justice here and now than to an event that is still far into the horizon.

For its part, Malacanang has repeatedly stated that President Aquino is open to appointing a court outsider to the Office of the Chief Justice.

President Aquino now has an opportune chance to prove all his critics wrong and he would do well not to waste it. Already, his two most recent appointments to the High Court were seen as uninspired by many observers who wanted heavy weights, or at least, appointees of the intellectual and moral caliber of his very first appointee, Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

By tradition, Associate Justice Carpio has the edge over other potential candidates. And he is not without his supporters outside of his former Firm, who say that the President will do better to follow this time the rule of tradition in the High Court.

But “tradition” this time around carries with it a darker meaning, given the current political configurations. It would mean putting into the post of Chief Justice someone who carries a lot of political baggage with him that it could wear down President Aquino himself.

But the day he appoints a Chief Justice who has no ties to any of the political parties is the day we will have moved farther towards a polity where what counts most of all is not political or familial ties but the public interest. With one stroke, he will have silenced his critics on all three issues: Hacienda Luisita, Mar Roxas, and the Firm.

Of course, judicial independence should not solely be defined by the lack of any political leanings or connections on the part of a magistrate. Instead, our notion of judicial independence must be founded on the conviction that judges owe fidelity to no one else but the norms of justice.

In the words of the late Dutch jurist and philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, our courts’ proper functioning must be measured according to how they’re able to meet the demands of “public justice. ”

It is of the kind not dictated by private interests or political affiliation or political patronage but by genuine regard for what properly and rightfully belongs to the different spheres in society.

Where we are right now, this all sounds like utopia.

But come to think of it, we’ve already done the unimaginable: impeach, try and hold guilty of violating the public trust a sitting Chief Justice. From there, our next bold step into the future should be a little easier.*

_______________

This essay first appeared in my weekly column for the Iloilo City-based The News Day.

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Filed under Impeachment, Supreme Court

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