Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona was impeached in the House of Representatives in December after 188 legislators signed an impeachment petition. Under the law, only 96 signatures are required to immediately send the case to the Senate.
According to the impeachment petition, drafted by allies of President Benigno Aquino III, Corona betrayed the public’s trust, violated the Constitution, and is guilty of graft and corruption. The eight articles of impeachment contained allegations that Corona illegally amassed his personal wealth during his incumbency in the Supreme Court, and that he used his position to undermine and block the criminal cases filed by the government and concerned private citizens against his patron, former President Gloria Arroyo.
In other words, Corona’s impeachment was presented to the public as a key component of the government’s anti-corruption drive on the one hand, and a necessary reform for effectively prosecuting abusive public officials in the previous administration on the other.
In the past three months, the Senate has been transformed into an impeachment court. The prosecution panel has already finished its presentation of evidence and witnesses on the three articles of impeachment that highlighted Corona’s questionable wealth and bias toward former Arroyo.
Meanwhile, the defense has already begun presenting its witnesses. (It was cut short when Congress adjourned last week for the summer and Lenten break). The trial will resume next month, although it’s still uncertain whether the impeachment case could be finalized before the end of the second regular session of Congress in June.
Many are disappointed with the performance of the prosecution team, and some legal experts criticized the weak evidence and arguments presented during the trial. But in fairness to the prosecution, they were able to prove the disparity between Corona’s income as a public official and his numerous bank accounts and high-priced properties in different parts of metro Manila. They also succeeded in pointing out Corona’s failure to publicly disclose all his assets, something that’s required for every employee and officer of the government.
But it isn’t just the less than solid performance of the prosecution that could jeopardize the case. Actually, the president’s unusual combative stance against the chief justice in the past six months gave credence to accusations that Aquino is less concerned about ending Corona’s corrupt lifestyle and canine loyalty to the former president than pursuing a personal vendetta against the chief justice, who led other members of the Supreme Court in issuing a landmark decision to distribute the president’s family-owned sugar and rice plantation to thousands of small farmers.
Then there are valid concerns that the president is hyping the impeachment to distract a public worried about price hikes, low wages and abysmal social welfare programs. The opposition has in fact advised the president that his extraordinary enthusiasm and determination to impeach Corona should be applied to solving the country’s other problems, like poverty, unemployment, and environment disasters.
The Corona impeachment was initially an accountability and anti-corruption measure that received overwhelming public support. But the president’s questionable motives in spearheading the impeachment, and his apparent vindictive attitude towards a single individual, have transformed the issue into something else. Unfortunately, the sins of the previous administration that the impeachment was supposed to reveal haven’t been given much attention.
The trial is no longer about the chief justice and the crimes he allegedly committed against the Filipino people. It’s Philippine democracy that is now on trial today.