Tag Archives: Chief Justice

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.*

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

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What we’ve learned thus far from the Corona trial

By Romel Regalado Bagares

Thirty seven days into the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Coronado Corona and we witness a bombshell of a testimony whose reverberations are sure to be heard in the corridors of power in this country for years to come.

Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, taking the witness stand Monday at the impeachment trial as a “hostile witness,” revealed that the Chief Justice, who only has a declared net worth of f P22.9 million in his 2010 statement of assets, liabilities and network (SALN), owned 82 bank accounts containing at least USD 12 million in deposits.

As I write, the Ombudsman is again on the witness stand, laying down the shocking details of more than 700 dollar transactions involved in the Chief Justice’s bank accounts with five banks, namely the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI), Philippine Savings Bank (PSBank), Allied Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank.

Her testimony is nothing less than monumental in the history of efforts to enforce accountability to the public of public officers in the Philippines and occasions the following reflections:

An activist Ombudsman. Of course, an individual is not the institution. But it takes a leader with a clear vision and firm resolve to revitalize a moribund institution. In our experience, governmental institutions have often become giant bureaucracies of lethargy, bereft of energy to carry out their constitutional and legal duty to dispense public justice.  For far too long, the Ombudsman has failed to perform its constitutional and legal duty to safeguard the interests of the public against official corruption and malfeasance under the cornerstone principle that “a public office is a public trust.”

The Ombudsman was at its lowest during the long dark reign of the Arroyo administration, where Merceditas Gutierrez transformed the Tanodbayan into a preserve for the protection of her benefactor and all her political allies from public accountability. But the appointment of Conchita Carpio-Morales as Chief Ombudsman has shown that the right person at the helm, an institution can and will work.

The singular importance of an independent Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC). The Chief Ombudsman’s revelations at the Senate impeachment trial of Chief Justice Corona has also placed on the spotlight the AMLC,  one of whose purposes was precisely to serve as an anti-corruption arm of the government. Under the law which created it, the AMLC is composed of the Governor of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) as Chairman and the Commissioner of the Insurance Commission (IC) and the Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as members.

In her testimony, the Ombudsman said that a 17-page document she obtained from the AMLC showed that  Chief Justice Corona kept more than USD $12 million in “fresh deposits” in five banks where he owned 82 dollar account over an eight year-period, from April 2003 to early this year.

All this time, we heard nothing from the AMLC about these accounts purportedly owned by the Chief Justice when under the law, it was its duty to investigate suspicious bank transactions and prosecute those behind it if needed.   Apparently, all it did was make a file of these transactions and put it away – that is, until Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was booted out of power.

The only explanation I can think of for the inexcusable inaction of the AMLC in the case of the bank accounts of the Chief Justice, assuming the Ombudsman’s report is true, is that its members, who were all appointees of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, were simply beholden to their benefactor that they could not lift a finger to touch one of her closest allies, Chief Justice Corona.

The right heads should roll over this long inaction by the people at the AMLC.

The Senate convened as an impeachment trial as democratic discipline.  What we’re witnessing is People Power expressed in the institutional, yes, constitutional way.  There is a time for citizens taking to the streets to demand reforms in government. There is also a time for citizens entrusting to democratic institutions the task of making government work the way it should.

This is the kind of state-building that requires on the part of citizens patient engagement with “slow politics.” This is democratic discipline that cannot be developed overnight. The history of democratic states around the world is one marked by a long struggle for the development of a governmental sphere where the idea of the public interest is supreme.  What we need as a nation is a legislature, an executive and a judiciary no longer captive to private or familial or clan interests. We need to engage our own institutions to develop patient and mature statecraft.

The Supreme Court and the SALN. Our High Court has carved out for itself an exemption to the requirement on public officers to disclose their statement of assets, liabilities and network to the public, making as its primary justification the danger of criminal minds using the disclosure as an occasion to foist on them some imagined blackmail. The impeachment trial of the Chief Justice only underscores the necessity of making all public officers – including the honorable Justices of the Supreme Court – accountable to the public through disclosure of their SALN.  The High Court cannot anymore hide beyond that sorry excuse.

We’re still a long way off, but the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Corona has shown us which way to go.

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This piece first appeared in my weekly column for The News Today.

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A man named Renato C. Corona

Today, I make a debut of sorts as I begin an adventure as a column writer for the Iloilo City-based The News Today (TNT). In case you’re wondering what’s the connection, the newspaper’s publisher, Rommel Ynion, and the editor-in-chief and general manager, Junep Ocampo, were my former colleagues back in the day at The Philippine Star.  My thanks go to them for giving me this opportunity.  I write Mondays and my column runs under the name  scīre licet, which is latin for “it is permitted to know.”  Here’s my first piece as a columnist:

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By Romel Regalado Bagares

I BARELY KNEW  who he was then, but I saw him arrive at the Edsa Shrine a few hours before his principal – Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo – did; it was one or two days away from Erap’s departure from Malacanang as a result of People Power II and I was then a junior law student in the evening program of the UP College of Law who also worked as a reporter for The Philippine Star.

A colleague of mine, who covered the Malacañang beat, instantly recognized him and approached him for an interview. It was from her that I learned that the guy in the suit who arrived with a business-like mien was the lawyer Renato C. Corona, chief of staff for Mrs.  Macapagal-Arroyo, then Vice President and ostensibly, Erap’s constitutional successor.

I joined the huddle to hear what he had to say.

In the interview, Corona told of an alleged plot by two leading politicians to set up a civilian-military junta in case Erap stepped down from power. These two politicians, he claimed, were fronting as Erap’s supporters.  Obviously, the lawyer wasn’t for the plan either, because it would mean his principal would be upstaged in the resulting scheme of things.

But among my activist-friends gathered at the Serviam Hall above the Shrine, there had been a buzz of excitement. They were calling for a march of one million people to Malacañang (it wasn’t obvious then that they were exaggerating their power to rally citizens behind them).

More importantly, they talked of the declaration of a revolutionary government, a new beginning with a clean political slate.  Even the law student in me – who had his fair share of law school readings of Supreme Court decisions on constitutional controversies occasioned by People Power I – was for it.

As I now look back to that historical moment nearly 11 years ago I tell myself I should have perhaps realized right away that Corona’s presence at the shrine signaled that the politicians were taking over.

True enough, before long the motley collection of civil society groups who led the call for Estrada’s ouster called a press conference, joined by politicians.  At the head of the presser was the late senator Raul Roco, a man I greatly admired and whose botched candidacy for the presidency in 2004 I supported.

His announcement was met with disbelief by not a few faces at the Serviam Hall: no, we weren’t going to declare a revolutionary government; instead, we’re following the constitutional rule on succession.

That of course, meant that Erap would be replaced by Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

How I could tell you that many civil society groups my reportage followed as they pressed for Erap’s resignation had no love lost for his constitutional successor either.

To them, her brand of politics was suspect (as one of them would say:  someone who associated with Norberto Gonzales early on in her political career will always be suspect).

They weren’t sure she was any better than Erap.

And how they resented the idea that with Erap’s removal from power and the politicians’ successful maneuver towards constitutional succession, it’s as if they themselves were responsible for handing over to her the reins of political power!

No, it certainly wasn’t their intention. All that time, they took pains to distinguish between removing Erap from power and installing Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo in his stead.

Of course, Roco was eventually rewarded the education portfolio under the Arroyo administration. While he did well as education secretary, I’d like to think the announcement he made on the penultimate day of People Power II was something he regretted later on because four years after EDSA Dos, he would join calls for Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo’s resignation.  That historic press conference certainly wasn’t his proudest moment.

But I didn’t see Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo or her favored chief of staff at Roco’s press conference.

But the next day, January 21, 2001, Mrs.  Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo –a former President’s daughter –  was sworn into office as the 14th President of the Republic of the Philippines.

I was standing only a few meters away when Chief Justice Hilario Davide administered her oath of office at the historic shrine.

Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo promised a mouthful that day while the late Jaime Cardinal Sin and former Presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Corazon Aquino looked on:  a successful fight against poverty within the decade,  the return of high moral standards in government and society, a shift from personality-driven to program-based politics, and a leadership by example.

In other words, exactly the kind of exalted things her nine-year hold on power went against.

“I feel God put me in this point of our history and there is hard work.. There is much to be done and the President’s job is one where one must work hard,” Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo said at one point in her inaugural speech.

The next  day I shared by-lines with a colleague in our paper’s banner story: “A time to heal, a time to build.”

It certainly didn’t feel that way to me.

But I’m now pretty sure it did that day 11 years ago for a man named Renato C. Corona.

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Here’s a link to the column as it appeared on TNT’s website.
(Disclosure:  A former journalist and now a lawyer by profession, Mr. Bagares is part of a team of private lawyers tapped by the House of Representatives to assist its members tasked as prosecutors in the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona.)

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