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3.10.2012

Thrilla’ in Manila: The Impeachment of a Chief Justice

On January 16th, shortly after returning from the Christmas recess, the Philippines Senate opened a hearing on the impeachment of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Renato Corona, on eight different charges. He is, for instance, accused of betraying the public trust through “partiality and subservience” in cases involving the previous president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo—who appointed him. The impeachment process is at the crux of an increasingly tense political drama unfolding in Manila. In instigating this, the current president, Benigno Aquino III, has taken on not only the former president but also what has been traditionally one of the most respected institutions in the country – the Supreme Court. Boxing fans remember the iconic Thrilla’ in Manila that pitted Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier in 1975. The current battle pits whole political groups against each other, and—rather than one man earning a world championship belt— the outcome may affect governance and lives in the Philippines for years to come.

While political drama is hardly new to the Philippines, few would have predicted such an intense confrontation when President Aquino was elected by a landslide in May 2010 after campaigning on a platform of good governance and anti-corruption. Recognizing the growing public dissatisfaction over public abuse under the previous administration, and promising a new “social contract” with the Filipino people, the president at once issued an executive order establishing a “truth commission” to investigate claims of corruption. But in December 2010, in the first of several setbacks for the new administration, the Supreme Court ruled the order unconstitutional; in 2011, it reversed a watch-list order barring former president Arroyo from leaving the country pending criminal investigation for electoral sabotage, and in an agrarian reform case ruled against property of President Aquino’s family. In an increasingly tense relationship, the impeachment trial thus has major political significance for an administration eager to follow through on its campaign promises.

Critics of President Aquino see the impeachment as part of a witch-hunt against former president Macapagal Arroyo and her allies. On the other hand, Arroyo’s critics consider the impeachment well founded. They point out that Justice Corona is a close ally of the former president, having served as her acting executive and legal counsel when she took office in 2001. More blatantly, Arroyo controversially promoted him to the post of Chief Justice two days after the 2010 election in which Aquino triumphed. In protest against this ‘midnight appointment’, which is constitutionally prohibited, Aquino refused to have Justice Corona administer the oath of office at his inauguration. But the Supreme Court—all its members having been appointed by Ms. Arroyo—ruled that Justice Corona’s appointment should stand.

Although Mr. Aquino and his supporters are eager to see impeachment remove Justice Corona, securing a conviction will not be easy. To begin with, there are several institutional hurdles to overcome. Under the 1987 constitution, impeachment requires 1/3 of all members of the lower House to endorse an impeachment complaint for trial by the Senate, and at least 2/3 of the Senators must vote to impeach. Mustering the numbers in the lower House may be easy, but the president’s support in the Senate is less certain—only 4 of its 23 members belong to his Liberal Party. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, procedural rulings by the Senate so far have been in Chief Justice Corona’s favor. Although his petition for the case to be thrown out was rejected, the Senate ruled that the subpoenas for Chief Justice Corona and his to testify violated their constitutional right against self-incrimination and the rules on spousal privilege. It also decided that the defense could not be compelled to release documents that could be used against Corona. Meanwhile, although the Supreme Court did reject a temporary restraining order against the trial, it gave the two houses of Congress 10 days to submit their comments on five separate petitions for a stay. A Supreme Court ruling to halt the trial would clearly provoke a major conflict between the legislature and the judiciary.

Then there are the actual impeachment allegations themselves. Some of the eight charges may be hard to sustain. For instance, there is the charge that Corona has betrayed the public trust through his “partiality and subservience” in cases involving the previous president. There are also accusations of corruption and constitutional violations. Quickly cobbled together, some of these accusations will be hard to prove, particularly considering that the Senate has so far shown little sympathy to prosecution arguments.

There is thus much at stake for both the president and the Court. The trial has polarized political and legal opinion; deep fault lines are emerging within the academic and legal communities. But the trial is exposing much more: Among the issues being debated is the political nature of the impeachment process itself. For some, the impeachment is in essence a matter of the president’s willingness to be accountable to the public and his intent to deliver on campaign promises of reform and anticorruption. They see the process as ‘politics by other means’ to promote the public will in an otherwise highly resistant environment. Others, such as the Integrated Bar, have criticized it as a “breakneck impeachment,” trumpeting concerns about mob rule, pandering to public sentiments, denial of due process, and an attack on judicial institutions.

Yet, as these differences illustrate, current developments also highlight a related point that has yet to be fully accounted for: the growing judicialization of politics in the Philippines—or perhaps rather the growing politicization of the Supreme Court by political actors on either side. Ultimately, the process may have far-reaching consequences, not only for the professionalism of the judiciary (which has already been challenged in some recent plagiarism cases) but also for governance in the country as a whole. As such, it might even revive debates over constitutional reform (also known as ‘Charter Change’) once more.

A final verdict is expected before Congress retires for the Easter recess on March 24th. The outcome is unpredictable. What is clear, however, is that no matter the outcome of the trial, damage will have been done to major institutions in the Philippines. As in the iconic match between Ali and Frazier in 1975, someone will be counted out; the real question is who will be left standing, in the court of Congress, and perhaps more important, in the public view.

--Cristina Bonoan, Alejandro Ciencia, Björn Dressel

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