Noynoy Aquino vs Renato Corona and the issue of judicial independence
We know that there’s no love lost between Chief Justice Renato Corona and President Benigno Aquino III even before the former was officially sworn in by ex President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as the leader of the high court. The tensions reached incredible heights this year.
Last September, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that Malacañang “reduced the judiciary’s 2012 budget to P13.396 billion and transferred the allocation for unfilled positions to the miscellaneous personnel benefit fund (MPBF), which would be under the control of the Office of the President.”
Just last month, Department of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima openly defied a Supreme Court temporary restraining order which effectively allows CGMA to travel abroad. Then shortly, the SC ordered the distribution of the Cojuangco-owned Hacienda Luisita to farmers. Reeling from successive judicial setbacks, Aquino went on the offensive – launching a tirade against the Chief Justice (despite being just inches apart) during his keynote remarks at the 1st National Criminal Justice Summit last December 5. Virgilio Bugaoisan of the Daily Tribune writes:
Throwing good manners, presidential dignity and respect for a co-equal and independent branch, as well as proper breeding out the window, President Aquino went much too far yesterday as he insulted Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice Renato Corona to his face in a Justice Summit organized by the high court with the Department of Justice and the Interior and Local Governments department.
The chief justice was just a few meters away from him during the opening of the summit held at the Manila Hotel, stoic in his demeanor.
Showing good manners, breeding, and dignity befitting his office, the chief justice was seen as impassive and silent even amid the charge of Aquino that it was the SC that violated the Constitution, and not he.
In a response read by Supreme Court administrator Jose Midas Marquez, the high tribunal described Aquino’s tirades as “disturbing,” saying:
“It is not at all unusual for the Executive Branch to disagree with the Judicial Branch. But what is considerably unusual is for the Chief Executive to look down on the members of the Judiciary in public at a Justice Sector Coordinating Council session, and to their faces denounce the Court’s independent actions, as the Chief Justice sat speechless, motionless and expressionless because of the requirements of protocol,” he added.
As succeeding events revealed, the frontal attack by Aquino on Corona is just a teaser on an impeachment initiative to be launched against the latter by the former’s lapdogs in the House of Representatives. Last December 12, the leaders of the lower house were able to gather 188 signatures to immediately transmit the articles of impeachment against Corona to the Senate for trial – bypassing the need for hearings at the committee level to determine if the charges are sufficient in form and substance. Interviewed by the Philippine Star, Mindoro Oriental Rep. Reynaldo Umali said that because of the overwhelming number of House members endorsing the complaint, “Chief Justice Corona is virtually impeached.”
The senators, led by Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, will serve as the judges during the trial. Two-thirds of all the senators must find Corona guilty on any one of the eight articles of impeachment for him to be removed from office. The trial will begin once the Senate resumes its session on January 16 and may last for six months, according to Senator Francis Escudero.
The brashness by which Aquino and his friends in Congress railroaded the impeachment complaint against Corona (is the respondent even aware of the charges raised against him?) can be better placed in context with the way the Commission on Elections rushed to file electoral sabotage charges against Arroyo last November 18.
Keep in mind that COMELEC en banc had to meet 7 in the morning on that day so they can endorse the charges to the Pasay Regional Trial Court by noontime. Judge Jesus Mupas was able to issue an arrest warrant against the former president less than four hours after being assigned t handle the case.
Reacting to Aquino’s open hostility to CJ Corona, noted constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas said: “Nakakabahala nga. I don’t know kung ano mangyayari diyan. In his (Aquino’s) speeches, he sounds like Fidel Castro.” He complemented Corona for choosing “not to go down to the level of the president’s ranting.” Veteran Senator Joker Arroyo, a human rights lawyer during the Marcos era, described Aquino as a “genius” for governing like an autocrat without having to declare Martial Law.
During an event held in support of the embattled Chief Justice, Judge Antonio Eugenio, the incumbent president of the Manila Judges’ Association and former president of the Philippine Judges’ Association. As Manila Standard Today reported, he compared President Aquino to German dictator Adolf Hitler:
“They act by sheer numbers. They act on the basis of popularity,” Eugenio said of the President and his allies in the House.
“But remember history. When Hitler assumed power in Germany, he was the most popular figure and trampled upon the rights of everyone because he was popular. We all know what happened to Adolf Hitler.”
Approached by reporters right after hearing Aquino’s direct tirades against him, Corona dismissively said: “Magpapasko na, hayaan na natin.” A few days after being impeached by Aquino allies in the Congress, the calmness in Corona disappeared, saying: “I oppose this relentless persecution, intimidation and bullying. I oppose this dictatorship that President Benigno Simeon Aquino III is slowly establishing.” Another great political war is on.