Legal Notes – Supreme Court Chief Justice Corona Betrayed the Trust Reposed in him by the Filipino People

Legal Notes of Representative Kaka J. Bag-ao, AKBAYAN Partylist

 

Supreme Court Chief Justice Corona Betrayed the Trust Reposed in him by the Filipino People

Did Respondent Corona commit culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust?

 

The Constitution expressly provides that Public office is a public trust. Public officers and employees must at all times be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency, act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives.”[1] Any act of a public officer which defies the said constitutional mandate and renders the public officer unfit for his or her office is a “betrayal of the public trust”.

The Constitution requires the same accountability to the highest public officials of the land, to wit, the President, Vice-President, Members of the Supreme Court, Members of the Constitutional Commissions and the Ombudsman, and any act of the said public officers which relinquishes the trust of the citizenry is in itself an impeachable offense. Such accountability to the public is required “at all times” and no public officer, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, is immune from such Constitutional mandate.[2] The six (6) exclusive grounds for removal by impeachment are listed and particularly defined below:

1. Culpable Violation of the Constitution – willful and intentional violation of the Constitution and not violation committed unintentionally or involuntarily or in good faith or thru an honest mistake of judgment;[3]

2. Treason – as understood under Article 114 of the Revised Penal Code, is an act committed by any person who, owing allegiance to the Government of the Philippines, levies war against it or adheres to its enemies, giving them aid and comfort;

3. Bribery – as understood under Article 210-211 of the Revised Penal Code, is an act committed by any public officer who shall agree to perform an act, whether or not constituting a crime, or refrain from doing an act which he is officially required to do in connection with the performance of his official duties, in consideration of any offer, promise, gift or present received by him personally or though mediation of another, or who shall accept gifts offered to him by reason of his office;

4. Graft and Corruption – as understood under the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (RA 3019), is an act which includes receiving any gift in connection with any transaction wherein the public officer in his official capacity has to intervene under the law, or giving any private party any unwarranted benefits through manifest partiality, evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence;

5. Other High Crimes – offenses which like treason and bribery, are of so serious and enormous a nature as to strike at the very life or the orderly workings of the government;[4] and

6. Betrayal of Public Trust – catch-all to cover all manner of offenses unbecoming a public functionary but not punishable by the criminal statutes, like inexcusable negligence of duty, tyrannical abuse of authority, breach of official duty by malfeasance or, misfeasance, cronyism, favoritism, obstruction of justice.[5]

Unlike criminal offenses or administrative wrongdoings, there is no exclusive enumeration of acts which would constitute impeachable offenses because some of the impeachable offenses do not have strict definitions. The impeachable offenses of “bribery,” “graft and corruption” and “treason” are clearly defined in criminal law books while the meanings of the terms “high crimes,” “betrayal of public trust”, and “culpable violation of the Constitution,” are not exact and “by their nature, cannot be decided simply by reliance on parsing criminal law books”.[6] Although these three grounds for impeachment may be considered “nebulous”, all are considered to pertain to “fitness for public office”, the determination of which allows the exercise of discretion.[7]

The Constitution gives the exclusive power to determine whether or not a public officer’s acts are impeachable offenses to Congress, with the authority to impeach belonging to the House of Representatives and the authority to convict, if warranted, belonging to the Senate.

It is said that the impeachment proceedings involves a political question. This is so because Congress is not only meant to scrutinize the legality of the assailed acts or conduct of the public officer but to examine the wisdom of these as well, in particular, whether or not these acts render the public officer unfit for office and would cause harm to the social structure.[8] Indeed, the impeachment proceedings involves a question of policy, i.e., those issues which, under the Constitution, are to be decided by the people in their sovereign capacity in regard to which full discretionary authority has been which, under the Constitution, are to be decided by the people in their sovereign capacity in regard to which full discretionary authority has been delegated to either the Legislature or Executive branch of the government. It is concerned with the wisdom, not with the legality, of a particular act or measure.[9]

According to Alexander Hamilton, impeachable offenses must proceed from abuse or violation of some public trust and must “relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to society itself.”[10] These political offenses should be of a nature, which, with peculiar propriety, would cause harm to the social structure.[11] In the end, the test may be whether the public officer’s acts or misconduct necessarily interfere with the performance of his or her official duties or constitute an unacceptable risk to the public so as to constitute an impeachable offense.[12] As such, it can be said that the impeachment proceedings determines the social acceptability of a public officer’s acts and its purpose is to remove seriously unfit public officials to avoid injury to the nation[13] and ,thus, it has been called a “method of national inquest into the conduct of public men.”[14]

Having discussed the basics of Impeachment, the particular eight (8) Articles of Impeachment in the complaint filed against Chief Justice Corona—which used the two (2) grounds of “betrayal of public trust” and “culpable violation of the Constitution”— will be shortly discussed below.

Why is Respondent Corona alleged to have been partial to Gloria Arroyo from the time he was appointed as Justice through his appointment as Chief Justice and up to the present time? May these acts or is his conduct as Supreme Court Chief Justice be considered as betrayal of public trust?

Sec. 15, Article VII of the Constitution clearly prohibits the President from making appointments within 2 months immediately before the next Presidential election as affirmed in the previous case of In Re: Appointments of Valenzuela and Vallarta as RTC Judges.[15] However, in the case of De Castro vs. JBC and President Arroyo[16] which was enunciated in 2010, the Supreme Court oddly reversed the ruling and held that the prohibition does not apply to the Members of the Supreme Court. Despite the obviously negative and confidence-shattering impact of the “midnight-appointment”, respondent Corona accepted his midnight appointment as Chief Justice by then President Gloria Arroyo.

A tabulation of the voting record of respondent Corona will show that he has consistently sided with the Arroyo administration in 15 politically-significant cases[17] involving the Arroyo government’s frontal assaults on constitutional rights prior to his appointment and even during his term as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Among others, respondent Corona concurred in the Supreme Court ruling that President Aquino’s order creating the Truth Commission was unconstitutional (Biraogo vs. Philippine Truth Commission) and in the Supreme Court decision stopping the Aquino administration from revoking the appointment of Arroyo’s alleged midnight appointees (Bai Omera D. Dianalan-Lucman vs. Executive Secretary Ochoa). However, in cases involving Arroyo, respondent Corona dissented in the Supreme Court decision declaring Arroyo’s Presidential Proclamation 1017, which put the country under a state of national emergency in 2006, as partly constitutional and partly unconstitutional (David vs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo), and in the Supreme Court decision declaring that the tapped conversations between Arroyo and Election Commissioner Garcillano was not prohibited from broadcast (Chavez vs. Gonzales).

Is Corona, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and public officer, covered by the requirement of disclosure of his statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth under Sec. 17, Art. XI of the 1987 Constitution? Is his failure to do disclose his SALN a culpable violation of the Constitution and a betrayal of public trust?

Article XI, Section 17 of the Constitution states that “a public officer or employee shall, upon assumption of office and as often thereafter as may be required by law, submit a declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities, and net worth. In the case of the President, the Vice-President, the Members of the Cabinet, and other constitutional offices, and officers of the armed forces with general or flag rank, the declaration shall be disclosed to the public in the manner provided by law.” This requirement covers Corona. However, respondent Corona failed to disclose to the public his statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth as required by the Constitution in violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act. Respondent Corona is also suspected of having accumulated ill-gotten wealth, acquiring assets of high values and keeping bank accounts with huge deposits, among others, a 300-square meter apartment in the Fort in Taguig.

What is the standard of competence and conduct applicable to members of the judiciary of the Supreme Court? Did Corona fail to meet this standard?

Is this tantamount to culpable violation of the Constitution and/or betrayal of public trust?

Sec. 7, Art. VIII of the Constitution provides that a member of the Judiciary must be a person of proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence.

Respondent Corona was appointed by Mrs. Arroyo as Chief Justice of the SC. Previously, respondent served Gloria Arroyo as her Chief-of-Staff and Spokesperson when the latter was Vice-President, Presidential Chief-of-Staff, Presidential Spokesman, and Acting Executive Secretary when she was President. In the following instances, respondent Corona failed to meet the standard required of a member of the judiciary.

A. Flip-flopping rulings in the case of FASAP vs. PAL

In several cases, Respondent Corona showed his partiality especially in the flip-flopping of the Corona Court in the case of FASAP vs. PAL –the recall of the 7 September 2011 Decision denying a Second Motion for Reconsideration of the 2008 ruling in favor of FASAP, acting upon a mere letter from PAL’s counsel Atty. Estelito Mendoza (who is a private counsel of Gloria Arroyo) and without requiring a comment from or notice to the other parties. Respondent Corona caused and allowed the violation of the adverse party’s constitutional right to due process under his watch and without any measure of remorse. This betrays respondent Corona’s lack of ethical principles and leadership and has further eroded the faith of the people in the Judiciary.

B. Mrs. Corona’s appointment as Board of Camp John Hay

Respondent Corona also compromised his independence as magistrate when his wife, Cristina Corona, accepted an appointment from then President Gloria Arroyo to the Board of the John Hay Management Corporation (JHMC), a government owned and controlled corporation (GOCC). This, despite the clear directive provided under Sec. 4 of the Code of Judicial Conduct which provides that “Judges shall not allow family, social, or other relationships to influence judicial conduct or judgment.”[18] Several complaints were filed against Mrs. Corona by her fellow JHMC Board members because of acts of misconduct and negligence. However, the complainants were removed by then President Arroyo from office while Mrs. Corona was promoted as OIC Board Chair of JHMC.

C. Discussing privately with litigants in the Vizconde Case

Respondent Corona also failed to maintain the high standard of independence and propriety when he discussed a case pending before the Supreme Court with one of the parties therein, to wit, People of the Philippines vs. Lejano (Vizconde Massacre Case),[19] thereby breaching the rule on confidentiality. Worse, Respondent Corona intrigued against the honor and integrity of a fellow Supreme Court Justice as allegedly lobbying for the acquittal of Hubert Webb, in violation of Sec. 3(k) of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act which prohibits any official from divulging valuable information of a confidential character acquired by his office or releasing such information in advance of its authorized release date. In another case, to wit, Inter-petal Recreational Corporation case,[20] Respondent Corona displayed unethical conduct when he met ex parte with the lawyer of a party to the case in connection with a case pending before him.

Did Corona betray the public trust by encroaching upon the powers of Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, in violation of the Principle of Separation of Powers by allowing the issuance of a “Status Quo Ante” order against the House of Representatives in the case concerning the impeachment of then Ombudsman Merceditas Navarro-Gutierrez?

Respondent Corona railroaded the proceedings in the Guttierez case in order to have a Status Quo Ante Order issued in her favor. As stated in Justice Sereno’s dissent, most of the Supreme Court justices received the Petition after the deliberations, while three (3) justices (Velasco, Bersamin and Perez) who voted to issue the Status Quo Ante Order received the petition a day after the status quo ante order had already been granted. The issuance of this TRO violated the principle of separation of powers since the Supreme Court effectively prevented the House from initiating impeachment proceedings which power falls under the latter’s exclusive jurisdiction.

In the cases involving the 16 newly-created cities, and the promotion of Dinagat Island into a province, where he decided in favour of gerry-mandering, did he violate the Principle of Res Judicata? Is this a culpable violation of the Constitution?

Respondent Corona, by allowing the reversals of several supposedly final judgements of the Supreme Court (called “flip-flopping”), violated the principle of the immutability of final judgments. The principle of immutability of final judgments is one of the primordial rules for having a credible and effective system of administration of justice. These reversals were supposedly instigated through personal letters or ex-parte communications addressed to the Respondent Corona, particularly in the following cases: (1) the League of Cities v. COMELEC[21] case involving the creation of 16 new cities; (2) the case of Navarro v. Ermita[22] which involved the promotion of Dinagat Island from municipality to province; and (3) the case of FASAP v. Philippine Airlines, Inc., et al.[23]

Did Corona unjustly arrogate to himself and to a committee he created the authority and jurisdiction to investigate an alleged erring Member of the Supreme Court which power is vested by the Constitution in the House of Representatives via impeachment? Is this a betrayal of public trust?

It was alleged that in the Vinuya vs. Executive Secretary[24] Decision concerning the plight of the surviving Filipino “comfort women” during the Japanese occupation, rampant plagiarism was committed by the ponente, Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo. It appears that, Respondent Corona formed an Ethics Committee for the purpose of determining the culpability of the Supreme Court Justice – an impeachable officer. Very clearly, respondent had no power to do this since under the Constitution, the power to make accountable impeachable officers belonged exclusively to the House of Representatives. Thus, Respondent betrayed the public trust by arrogating unto himself, and to a Committee he created, the authority and jurisdiction to investigate and to subsequently exonerate the said Supreme Court Member.

Did Corona show partiality (i) in granting a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) in favor of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her husband Jose Miguel Arroyo and (ii) in distorting the Supreme Court decision on the effectivity of the TRO despite a clear failure to comply with the conditions of the Supreme Court’s own TRO?

The Supreme Court, under Respondent Corona, immediately acted upon the Petition filed by Mrs. Arroyo and granted her request for a TRO despite the fact that there are clear inconsistencies in the latter’s petition. In view of certain objections against the grant of the TRO, a holding of a hearing within the short period of five (5) days was recommended. Despite this recommendation, Respondent Corona engineered a majority of 8 votes (as against five dissenters) for the immediate grant and issuance of the TRO in favor of Mrs. Arroyo and her husband, in blatant violation of the Supreme Court’s own internal rules.

Further, despite the conditions laid down by the SC for the issuance of the TRO, Respondent allowed its issuance notwithstanding the fact there was non-compliance with an essential pre-condition therein, particularly Condition No. 2, to wit: “The petitioners shall appoint a legal representative common to both of them who will receive subpoena, orders, and other legal processes on their behalf during their absence. xxx.” The Special Power of Attorney dated 15 November 2011 which they issued to their counsel failed to state that their counsel had the power to receive subpoenas, orders and other legal processes. Instead, they only empowered their counsel to “produce summons or receive documentary evidence.” The Supreme Court, by a vote of 7–6, found that there was no compliance with the second condition of the TRO. Consequently, for failure to comply with an essential condition for the TRO, the TRO is not effective. Surprisingly, however, the SC decided that the TRO was effective despite non-compliance with an essential condition of the TRO.

Did Corona, as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, fail and refuse to account for the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF) and Special Allowance for the Judiciary (SAJ) collections thereby committing Graft and Corruption? Is this a betrayal of public trust?

Respondent Corona has reportedly failed and refused to report on the status of the JDF Funds and the SAJ collections. Respondent Corona supposedly also failed, as Chief Justice, to account for funds released and spent for unfilled positions in the judiciary and from authorized and funded but not created courts. In particular, the annual audit report of the Supreme Court of the Philippines contained the observation that unremitted funds to the Bureau of Treasury amounted to P5.38 Billion. Further, the Special Allowance for the Judiciary along with the General Fund, and Judiciary Development Fund in the amount of P559.5 Million were misstated resulting from delayed and/or non-preparation of bank reconciliation statements and non-recording /uncorrected reconciling items.

The general grounds for impeaching a public official (as provided under the Constitution) and the specific articles of impeachment will subsequently be discussed more elaborately.

The materials posted here may be summaries of team outputs or of works of other authors (properly recognized) on the matter of Impeachment. The information materials on the impeachment process and on the impeachment case against Chief Justice Renato Corona seek to educate the people on the bases for the complaint and to give updates regarding the trial at the Senate. The ultimate objective of this forum is to assist the people as they participate in this process of making the Supreme Court and its Members accountable to the people, regardless of the outcome of the trial.

*** A lawyer by profession, AKBAYAN Rep. Kaka Bag-ao was the Convenor of the Alternative Law Group (ALG), a network of NGOs providing legal support to marginalized communities. She was the legal counsel of the Sumilao farmers.


[1] Sec. 1, Article XI of the Constitution.

[2] Castillo vs. Bellosillo, 354 SCRA 641.

[3] Deliberations on the 1987 Philippine Constitution

[4] Deliberations on the 1987 Philippine Constitution.

[5] Cruz, Isagani. Philippine Political Law. 1996 Edition. Central Lawbook Publishing Co., pp. 334-336.

[6] Justice Vitug’s Separate Opinion in Francisco, Jr. vs. House of Representatives, GR No. 160261, November, 2003, citing Akhil Reed Amar, “On Impeaching Presidents,” Hofstra Law Review, Winter 1999, Vol. 28, No. 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Justice Vitug’s Separate Opinion in Francisco, Jr. vs. House of Representatives, GR No. 160261, November, 2003, citing Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “Reflections on Impeachment,” The George Washington Law Review, Vol. 67 (1999).

[9] Justice Vitug’s Separate Opinion in Francisco, Jr. vs. House of Representatives, GR No. 160261, November, 2003, citing Tañada vs. Cuenco, 103 Phil 1051.

[10] Justice Vitug’s Separate Opinion in Francisco, Jr. vs. House of Representatives, GR No. 160261, November, 2003, citing Stephen B. Presser, “Would George Washington Have Wanted Bill Clinton Impeached?”, The George Washington Law Review, Vol. 76, 1999.

[11] Copied verbatim from Supra, Footnote 15

[12] Phrasing copied from Justice Vitug’s Separate Opinion in Francisco, Jr. vs. House of Representatives, GR No. 160261, November, 2003.

[13] Footnote No. 20, Justice Vitug’s Separate Opinion in Francisco, Jr. vs. House of Representatives, GR No. 160261, November, 2003

[14] By the framers of the Constitution of the United States of America from which the Philippines modelled its own Constitution and Impeachment Proceedings; As quoted in Justice Vitug’s Separate Opinion in the case Davide Impeachment, citing Michael Nelson, ed., “The Presidency A to Z,” Washington D.C. Congressional Quarterly (1998)

[15] 298 SCRA 408.

[16] GR No. 191002, 191032, 191057, A.M. 10-2-5-SC, GR No. 191149, 191342, 191420, 17 March 2010.

[17] Track Record of Respondent Corona’s Voting Pattern in 10 Cases involving Arroyo

  1. Information Technology v. COMELEC and Mega Pacific (January 13, 2004)
  2. Sanlakas v. Executive Secretary (February 03, 2004)
  3. Tecson v. COMELEC (March 03, 2004)
  4. Pimentel v. Ermita (December 13, 2005)
  5. Senate v. Ermita (April 20, 2006)
  6. Gudani v. Senga (August 15, 2006)
  7. Lambino v. COMELEC (October 25, 2006)
  8. David v. Arroyo (May 03, 2006)
  9. Chavez v. Gonzalez (February 15, 2008)
  10. Neri v. Senate (March 25, 2008)
  11. Akbayan v. Aquino (July 16, 2008)
  12. Benigno Simeon Aquino III v. COMELEC, G.R. No. 189793 (April 7, 2010)
  13. Biraogo vs. Philippine Truth Commission (G.R. No. 192935, December 7, 2010)
  14. Bai Omera D. Dianalan-Lucman vs. Executive Secretary (G.R. No. 193519, October 12, 2010)
  15. Gloria Arroyo vs. Leila de Lima (G.R. No. 199046, November 15, 2011)

[18] Sec. 4, Canon 1, Code of Judicial Conduct.

[19] G.R. No. 176864, December 14, 2010.

[20] G.R. No. 186711.

[21] League of Cities v. COMELEC, supra.

[22] G.R. No. 180050, April 12, 2011.

[23] G.R. No. 178083 in relation to Administrative No. 11-10-1-SC.

[24] G.R. No. 162230, April 28, 2010.

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