By Kirstin Jello Bernabe and Alexandra Gabrielle Francisco
In a country where laws, rights and righteousness have been undermined in many instances, people heave a sigh of justice and continuously hope to get their due, while equally hoping for others to get theirs. In a democratic country like ours, justice is key.
Panning a High Court entirely appointed by outgoing President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, critics have slammed the new Chief Justice for his supposedly “unconstitutional” appointment.
With an apparently pro-Arroyo voting record favoring government secrecy and his wife an official of a controversial state-owned company, Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato C. Corona’s eight-year term gets off to a rocky start.
But he claims he shall prove all his critics wrong.
The 64-year-old Batangueño is husband to the former Maria Cristina Roco and father to three children. Corona graduated from Ateneo Law School in 1974 and ranked 25th out of 1,965 candidates in the same year’s bar examination. Further, after taking up Master of Business Administration in Ateneo Professional Schools in 1981, he went to Harvard Law School to pursue Master of Laws. He specialized in foreign investment policies and regulation of corporate and financial institutions.
When Arroyo appointed Corona to be Associate Justice on April 9, 2002, he already had a hefty political background tailing him.
Even before he graduated from Ateneo Law School, he had been working full time in the Office of the Executive Secretary. Then, throughout the Pres. Fidel V. Ramos’s administration, he held three positions consecutively: assistant executive secretary for legal affairs, deputy executive secretary and presidential legal counsel.
In 2001, as Arroyo assumed presidency, Corona became the presidential chief of staff, spokesperson and later became acting executive secretary.
Public interest in Corona grew when a March 17 decision of the Supreme Court (SC) allowed Arroyo to appoint a chief justice despite the constitutional ban on midnight appointments
Nine justices voted that the ban does not cover the judiciary, with Chief Justice Puno abstaining from the vote. Only one justice, Conchita Carpio-Morales gave a vote of dissent. At the time, only Puno was the sole non-Arroyo appointee.
Article VIII Sec. 15 of the 1987 Constitution states that; “Two months immediately before the next presidential elections and up to the end of his term, a President or Acting President shall not make appointments, except temporary appointments to executive positions when continued vacancies therein will prejudice public service or endanger public safety.
In defense of their decision, the nine associate justices cited Article 8, Section 4, which says: “The Supreme Court shall be composed of a Chief Justice and fourteen Associate Justices. It may sit en banc or in its discretion, in division of three, five, or seven Members. Any vacancy shall be filled within ninety days from the occurrence thereof.”
The decision has been branded as a manipulation of the Constitution to serve political ends. Critics argue that Arroyo has constantly been shaping up the High Tribunal to spare her from the slew of charges just waiting to be filed against her when her term expires in June 30.
Corona not necessary in oath taking
Despite the controversial ruling, criticisms, open letters and hearsays, Corona took his oath in Malacanang Palace before President Arroyo on May 17, replacing retired Chief Justice Reynato Puno. The media was not allowed to cover the event.
However, president-apparent Sen. Benigno Aquino III, currently the frontrunner in the presidential count, refused to recognize him as the highest judicial officer in the land, initially planning to be sworn in by a barangay captain in Tarlac.
Though presidents have traditionally taken their oath of office in the presence of the Chief Justice, the Constitution does not require it.
Aquino’s advisers said barangay officials had no power to swear in a president, so Aquino settled for an oath taking with a magistrate. Carpio-Morales, the lone dissenter of the recent midnight appointments decision, is a possible candidate. The SC has expressed its acceptance of the decision, although not wholeheartedly.
Experts say that Aquino’s decision might just bring about another constitutional crisis and might lead the country to a greater political divide.
Marvic Leonen, dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law, wrote on Facebook, “There is a difference between criticism of a decision of the Supreme Court as a private citizen and the acts that you do as the potential incumbent of the Office of the President of the Republic. As a citizen, you are accountable only to yourself, your community and your culture and its people. As the President, you represent more than yourself or your immediate communities. You take on a formal persona. In many constitutional doctrines, you even shed some of your rights as a citizen.”
Constitutional expert Fr. Joaquin Bernas, S.J. said there are only two ways to take out Corona at this point: to file a case in the High Court questioning the vacancy of the CJ position when Corona was appointed or to call for his impeachment.
When Corona was named Chief Justice, Puno had not yet retired and there was no vacancy in the SC, said government critics. Arroyo should have not “anticipated” vacancy in the position, said Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. on May 12.
Pro-Arroyo voting record
While many question the legitimacy of his office, Newsbreak reported that 78 percent of votes Corona cast in the SC were in favor of Arroyo.
Corona dissented in a SC decision to strike down the people’s initiative to shift from a presidential to a parliamentary government. The signature drive to amend the Constitution was allegedly fueled by bribes in cash and in kind by Arroyo allies.
The former executive official also sided with the majority when the SC ruled that appointive officials did not need to resign upon filing their Certificates of Candidacy (COCs).
The decision benefited many executive officials of the Arroyo government, including then-Solicitor General Agnes Devanadera, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap and Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya. All of them ran for House seats last month, alongside Arroyo, who is now Pampanga’s 2nd district representative-elect .
Corona was one with the majority in the decision to uphold executive privilege. In 2007, then Socio-economic Planning secretary Romulo Neri invoked executive privilege when the Senate was grilling him at the height of the $329-million NBN-ZTE broadband deal.
Corona’s wife, Maria Cristina signed a manifesto in support of the president while Neri was in the hot seat. Corona was asked to inhibit himself from the vote. The future Chief Justice did not.
‘I get emotional’
Even Corona’s family was not spared from the controversy, surrounding not only his appointment, but also its consequences.
Corona urged Maria Cristina to resign as president of John Hay Management Corp. (JHMC), a state-owned company with a backlog of pending labor cases in the SC.
“Ako po ay emosyonal kapag pamilya na ang pinag-uusapan. Naalala ko yung sakit na pinagdadaanan ng pamilya ko dahil lamang ako ay na-nominate sa pagka-Chief Justice. Apparently may mga taong ayaw sa akin (I get emotional when my family is involved. I remember the pain they had to go through just because I was nominated as Chief Justice. Apparently, some people do not like me),” he said.
Cristina’s resignation is effective on June 30. Some critics take it as Corona trying to prove his independence, although others insist it be taken with a grain of salt.
‘Don’t judge me now’
Amid the perception that the media would seem vigilant in spotting mistakes Corona might make in the future, Corona swore to the public that he would not be an Arroyo puppet.
“My heart is in the right place and its loyalty is to the Constitution alone,” Corona said. “Only by the standard of this forthright sworn fidelity am I willing to be judged in the times to come.”
In defense of his allegedly pro-Arroyo voting record, Corona said the media was selective in citing cases.
“They simply picked 18 cases I wrote in ponencia that were in favor of the administration. They were taken from the 900 cases that were mostly against the government,” Corona said in Filipino.
Indeed, faith in and respect for the High Court and its decisions are essential in stabilizing the country’s democracy. To trust the Supreme Court is to believe that there still remains a sacred and reserved space for justice in this nation. How justice will prevail over unwritten contracts of loyalty and conflicts of interest shall truly be a challenge for the next administration.
The call for Corona to quit his post for the sake of delicadeza continues. For now, all Corona can do to appease the call for his resignation is to ask the public to give him a chance.
“Anything I say now would just be words. You’ll have to wait. You have to watch me (do) what I do. Don’t judge me now.”