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Of Saints and Hypocrites in the Philippines

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Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona is the first high court justice to have been impeached by the Philippine House of Representatives on allegations of breach of the public trust, and is currently being tried by the Senate. Corona is the third person in high office to have been impeached by the House since 2000, and the second in 2011. Now effectively sitting as the 'Impeachment Court,' the Senate's 'trust ratings' are at an all-time high, and it is poised to accumulate political and constitutional capital at the expense of Corona's Supreme Court. A series of surveys last month show that a majority of the Filipino public will abide by the Senate's verdict.

The pursuit of Corona's impeachment by the Aquino administration is seen by former President Arroyo's supporters as a witch hunt against the President's political opponents. Aquino supporters view the trial as consistent with the clean government espoused by President Aquino. The average person on the street sees a palpable change in how the government is running the country, and the progress being made is not lost on the ratings agencies, which have given the Philippines five consecutive sovereign upgrades since Aquino came to power less than two years ago. International traders, investors and lenders seem to concur, with the country anticipating an investment grade rating in the near term - something that would have been inconceivable just two years ago.

As we argued in our December 2011 article -- Of Circuses and Sanity in the Philippines -- Aquino might actually be getting things right. Even though his Liberal Party cohorts in the House have been accused of mismanaging the prosecution's case (of the eight Articles of Impeachment, only three now stand; the rest have been withdrawn apparently to speed up the case), Corona's impeachment is a sign of tangible change. The impeachment of a sitting chief justice -- whether by saints or hypocrites -- should prove to be a game changer not just for constitutional politics, but for the entire justice system.

Consider the charges against Mr. Corona:

  • Partiality and subservience in cases involving the Arroyo administration from the time he was appointed as associate justice to the time of his 'midnight appointment' as chief justice.

  • Failure to disclose to the public his statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth as required under the constitution.

  • Failure to meet and observe the stringent standards under the constitution that provides that "[a] member of the judiciary must be a person of proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence" in allowing the Supreme Court to act on mere letters filed by a counsel which caused the issuance of flip-flopping decisions in final and executory cases; in creating excessive entanglement with former president Arroyo through her appointment of his wife to office; and in discussing with litigants regarding cases pending before the supreme court.

  • Blatantly disregarded the principle of separation of powers by issuing a status quo ante order against the House of Representatives in the case concerning the impeachment of then Ombudsman Merceditas Navarro-Gutierrez.

  • Wanton arbitrariness and partiality in consistently disregarding the principle of res judicata in the cases involving the 16 newly-created cities, and the promotion of Dinagat Island (sic) into a province.

  • Arrogating unto himself, and to a committee he created, the authority and jurisdiction to improperly investigate a justice of the Supreme Court for the purpose of exculpating him. Such authority and jurisdiction is properly reposed by the constitution in the House of Representatives via impeachment.

  • Partiality in granting a temporary restraining order (TRO) in favor of former president Arroyo and her husband in order to give them an opportunity to escape prosecution and to frustrate the ends of justice, and in distorting the supreme court decision on the effectiveness of the TRO in view of a clear failure to comply with the conditions of the Supreme Court's own TRO.

These are not trivial accusations; any one of them would be judged a serious crime in and of themselves. The fact that so many such allegations occur together is evidence of the gravity of the situation. That the Philippine government is pursuing the charges with vigor says a great deal about how far the judicial system has come in a very short time.

Senator "Joker" Arroyo (unrelated to former President Arroyo and now under detention on charges of electoral sabotage) raised concerns during the impeachment trial that no fewer than three investigations are being simultaneously conducted against Corona. Beyond the Senate halls, the Bureau of Internal Revenue initiated an investigation for tax fraud against the Corona family, citing undeclared property and income, including US property as well as undeclared sizable dollar deposits. According to the House prosecution, of the handful of concealed dollar deposits, one deposit in particular amounts to $700,000, which, under Philippine purchasing power indices, is considered extraordinary wealth.

As if in concert, the Anti-Money Laundering Council commenced its own investigation. While the Philippines still has among the strictest bank secrecy laws in the world, it has been argued -- perhaps rightly so -- that impeachment proceedings, tax fraud investigations, and the ongoing anti-money laundering inquiry qualify as exceptions to non-disclosure rules on depositor information and could thus be admissible in court -- including an impeachment court.

In conjunction with the impeachment trial of former Ombudsman Navarro-Gutierrez last year, Corona's impeachment trial is a clear sign of movement in the right direction for the Philippine justice system. There are of course many more public officials in all levels of office who could become the subject of future impeachment trials, and who breach the public trust on a daily basis, but the fact that two such high profile and significant officials have been taken to task for their blatant breaches of the public trust is a hopeful sign that the current government means to change the rules of the game -- permanently.

Edsel Tupaz is a private prosecutor of the House prosecution panel in the impeachment trial of Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Ateneo Law School, founder and managing partner of Tupaz and Associates, and a professor of international and comparative law, based in Manila. Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management consultancy based in Connecticut (USA), Director of Global Strategy with the PRS Group, and author of the new book Managing Country Risk (www.managingcountryrisk.com)

Follow Edsel Tupaz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/edseltupaz.

Follow Daniel Wagner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/countryriskmgmt.

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