Philippine Chief Justice Ousted: Implications on Governance and Economic Recovery

Vol. 41 No. 4

By

Albert Vincent Y. Yu Chang (ayuchang@wnj.com) is senior counsel at Warner, Norcross, & Judd in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

After a historical trial that lasted five months and ended in May 2012, the Philippine Senate, sitting as an impeachment court, ousted Renato C. Corona from his post as chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court. Corona was the first public official in the Philippines to be removed from office through impeachment.

President Benigno C. Aquino III touted the Senate’s verdict as a major step in his effort to address the massive corruption problem and to promote a culture of accountability and transparency in the country.

 

Grounds

In the articles of impeachment, Corona was accused of, among other things, failure to disclose certain assets. Philippine law requires government officials to disclose assets, liabilities, and net worth. Const. (1987), art. XI, § 17 (Phil.); Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, Rep. Act. No. 6713. Based on that allegation, Corona was convicted of betrayal of public trust and culpable violation of the Constitution.


Defense

Amid the clamor for his testimony, Corona took the witness stand and admitted before the Senate the existence of undeclared cash deposits in his name, including US$2.4 million and the equivalent of US$1.8 million in Philippine currency. In justifying the nondisclosure, Corona claimed that the Foreign Currency Deposits Act protects the confidentiality of foreign currency deposits and that the local currency deposits, although in his name, included money belonging to his daughter and other relatives and therefore did not have to be disclosed.

The defense also argued that inaccuracies in the disclosure of assets do not constitute an impeachable offense. Under the Philippine Constitution, a member of the Supreme Court, among other public officials, may be removed on impeachment for “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.” Const. (1987), art. XI, § 2 (Phil.). According to the defense, to be impeachable, an offense must be of the same severity as treason, bribery, and the like. 

 

Verdict

Twenty of 23 senators voted to convict Corona. Each senator delivered an explanatory speech on the floor.

On the confidentiality of the dollar deposits, senators characterized Corona’s insistence on a different standard of confidentiality for dollar accounts as “self-serving” or a “ploy” to avoid the disclosure requirements. One senator pointed out that the relevant confidentiality provision is addressed to the bank and not the account holder. The presiding judge, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, noted that “[t]here is nothing in [the law] which prohibits the depositor from making a declaration on his own of such foreign currency funds, especially in this case where the Constitution mandates [it].”

On comingling funds belonging to third parties, one senator called it “against normal human experience.” Senator Enrile declared that “[i]f, indeed, any of the respondent’s cash deposits were comingled . . . the respondent was still duty bound to declare these deposits in his [statement of assets, liabilities and net worth], they being admittedly under his name.”

On the impeachability of the offense, it was ultimately deemed an issue of fitness to remain in office. In a play on words, a senator quipped, “If you are not fit, you cannot sit.” Noting Corona’s academic background, professional experience, and stature, senators set a higher standard for public officials, which Corona was found to have failed to meet. Moreover, several senators raised objections against giving Corona a preferential treatment, citing the case of a court interpreter who was removed from her position for failure to disclose a stall she owned in the local market. Rabe v. Flores, 272 S.C.R.A. 415 (May 14, 1997) (Phil.).

 

Controversies

While the conviction was based on technical disclosure rules, President Aquino had openly pushed for the conviction on the view that Corona is protecting former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who has been accused of plunder, corruption, and electoral fraud. Months before the impeachment, the Corona-led Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order against a government travel ban on Arroyo and her husband, who were undergoing preliminary investigation in several criminal cases. Temporary Restraining Order, Arroyo v. De Lima, G.R. Nos. 199034 & 199046 (Nov. 15, 2011) (Phil.).

Aquino opposed Arroyo’s appointment of Corona as chief justice a month before the end of her term in 2010. The Philippine Constitution prohibits appointments by the president “two months immediately before the next presidential elections and up to the end of the President’s term.” Const. (1987), art. VII, § 15 (Phil.). However, the Supreme Court upheld the appointment, holding that filling up vacancies in the Supreme Court, pursuant to the constitutional provision that vacancies shall be filled within 90 days from its occurrence, is not covered by the constitutional ban on midnight appointments. De Castro v. Judicial and Bar Council, 615 S.C.R.A. 666 (Mar. 17, 2010) (Phil.).

 

Implications

The completion of the impeachment process is perceived as an indication of the maturity of Philippine democratic institutions. The first impeachment trial in Philippine history was aborted by street protests, which led to politicians withdrawing support for, and the eventual ouster of, former President Joseph Estrada in 2001.

Despite his warning against the compromised independence of the judiciary, Corona himself has noted a heightened demand for transparency following the impeachment trial. Less than a month after the conviction, the Supreme Court issued guidelines on the disclosure of assets, liabilities, and net worth of members of the judiciary. The process for selecting Corona’s successor was given media coverage. Upon her appointment, newly installed Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno authorized the release of her disclosure statement to the public, waiving applicable restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court.

President Aquino’s anticorruption initiatives have been viewed as boosting investor confidence and the Philippine economy. Moody’s upgrade of the Philippine outlook from stable to positive came, coincidentally, on the day of Corona’s conviction. Foreign direct investments jumped by 154 percent in the first two months of 2012, and the Philippine economy has been among the best-performing in Asia in 2012, growing 6.4 percent and 5.9 percent in the first and second quarters, respectively.

On August 30, 2012, the Philippine tax bureau filed tax evasion charges against Corona, his daughter, and his son-in-law.

While President Aquino inspires hope and optimism, the long-term effect of his antigraft initiatives may take years to realize. For now, the Aquino administration bears the challenge of instituting societal reforms amid critics’ skepticism of Aquino’s vision for the country and its people.

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