A tale of two chief justices

How can we forget our last two chief justices—Renato Corona and Maria Lourdes Sereno, the 23rd and 24th chief magistrates of the Supreme Court?

There are common lessons to learn from their stories of their respective ousters as chief magistrates of the Supreme Court. This column, the penultimate of my series on the quo warranto decision that remover Chief Justice Sereno from her post, reflects on those lessons.

The two had the misfortune of antagonizing a president early on in their terms. Corona had a falling out with President Benigno Aquino III who objected to his supposed midnight appointment by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo allegedly to protect the interests of the latter. Arroyo, after her term, was charged with various crimes by the Aquino administration but has since then been exonerated of all charges.

On the other hand, Sereno earned the ire of President Rodrigo Duterte when she questioned the prosecution of his war on drugs which killed thousands to date (and counting). She became a staunch critic of the President’s policies, reason enough for Duterte to declare her an enemy and to egg on Congress to fast-track her impeachment.

And so it came to pass that impeachment complaints were filed against the two chief justices on various grounds foremost of which involved their Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth or SALNs; in the case of Corona, his non-declaration and mis-declaration or nondisclosure of assets, and for Sereno, her alleged failure to file her SALNs as professor of the University of the Philippines College of law.

Corona was eventually tried and convicted by the Senate sitting as an impeachment court while Sereno was ousted via a quo warranto petition before she could be tried by the Senate sitting as an impeachment court.

The difference is that during the impeachment trial of Corona, certain questionable transactions were uncovered or at least were left unanswered raising question of hidden wealth. No such allegation has been made with Sereno, where the impeachment complaint was aborted since the House failed to forward the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate.

In both cases, the SALN became, wrongly in my view, the holy grail of integrity where any kind of SALN-related irregularity becomes a reason for ousting an impeachable official from his or her position. This deification of the SALN will have undesirable consequences on governance in the country, among others deterring good and qualified people from joining government, making government employees vulnerable to harassment, and inducing conflicts among public officials who could use such allegations of irregularities to settle a score or to position oneself to promotion at the expense of a colleague.

Corona should not have been convicted and removed from office just because of his omission of assets in the SALN. Hidden wealth coming from corruption should have been proven. Sereno should not have been ousted by her colleagues because of her failure to produce a few of her SALNs as that proves only that both she and the University of the Philippines were bad custodians of documents.

Corona was of course given the chance to defend himself in a full-blown impeachment trial, defended as he was by the brightest legal minds. But his conviction was tainted by bribery allegations where the use of funds from the Disbursement Acceleration Program were allegedly use to persuade reluctant senators to convict Corona.

Sereno was not given the same luxury when the Supreme Court jumped the gun on the impeachment process and killed it dead on the water before it could take off and by the mere expedient of a shortened judicial process secured her removal. Whether she will be convicted or not in an impeachment trial, we will never know since the Senate was not given the chance to evaluate the evidence for or against her. Instead, it was a Supreme Court, her very own colleagues, who passed judgment on her even as some were suspiciously partial after witnessing and accusing her of wrongdoing before a House Committee investigation or uttered accusatory statements against her in media interviews, and then participating as judges in the proceedings to oust her.

The ouster of both chief justices was tainted with controversy and in my view, even if they are very different, both outcomes are wrong and the country will bear the consequences of these bad governance decisions in decades to come.

One can no longer reverse the impeachment and conviction of Chief Justice Corona but I suspect history will be kind to him. The Sereno precedent can still be reversed by a later Supreme Court, but such a reversal would not benefit her if she decides to run for the Senate.

Corona’s impeachment was hounded by allegations of pay off by President Aquino using his discretionary funds to persuade some senator-judges to secure his conviction. It would be good to get to the bottom of this if it is still possible. If proven true, we must condemn those responsible as strongly as we criticize the Supreme Court Justices who voted to grant the quo warranto petition against Sereno.

Sereno’s removal from office is just as controversial, with her very own colleagues, some of whom were asked to inhibit because of perceived partiality, ruling as the majority did that she, an impeachable officer, can be removed not only through impeachment, but also by other means. In doing so, the Court rewrote basic principles of constitutional law including fair play, due process, and jeopardized the time honored constitutional dogmas of checks and balances and judicial independence which are bedrocks of constitutional democracy.

The question is: Had Corona and Sereno not earned the ire of Presidents Aquino and Duterte, would they have been ousted? Without the instigation by the highest official of the land would Congress and other state institutions like the Office of the Solicitor General, National Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Internal Revenue, and other relevant agencies dare mobilize on their own and bring their resources and authority to bear upon the two chief justices?

Crossing the highest official of the land can prove fatal to one’s career and security of tenure even in the highest and most independent of offices. In our country, short of a people power revolution like Edsa 2 or, God forbid, a military take over, nobody can win against the President. No constitutional safeguards are sufficient to counter his or her power.

President-led impeachment or similar efforts to oust independent officials like the Chief Justice and Ombudsman is always wrong and must be stopped. But the only way to get that to happen is to weaken the powers of the presidency.

Our presidency is one of the worst in the world. Contrary to conventional wisdom, our president is patterned after the Spanish and American colonial masters. He or she has absolute power, from martial law to full control of the budget.

One of the most disappointing decisions of the constitutional law committee that is drafting a new constitution is their retention of the office of the presidency. That guarantees more of the same, a repetition of the tragedy of the last two chief justices.

Finally, despite the passage of time and the adoption of a number of constitutions, our government institutions remain weak, are corruptible and only as good as the men and women who occupy them. Unfortunately, constitutional change such as redesigning our judicial system will likely not be able to address this. Only solid legal and moral education can address this gap.

That is why I teach in as many law schools as would have me. I see the task of forming lawyers and judges as urgent and essential. Otherwise, the sad tale of Corona and Sereno will repeat themselves ad nauseam. That would be such a tragedy for the country.

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Topics: Renato Corona , Maria Lourdes Sereno , Supreme Court , Benigno Aquino III , Rodrigo Duterte , Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
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