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Acquitted or convicted? Corona Impeachment Trial endgame

Since the prosecution and defense panels are already done giving their respective closing arguments in the 43rd and final day of Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment trial, the senator-judges are now ready to hand their verdict. The decision, whichever way it goes, is bound to be historic since this mark the first time that the Philippines has had a completed impeachment trial.

Dennis Manalo, one of Corona’s lawyers, while delivering his part in the defense panel’s closing arguments (screen grab from YouTube)

Prior to the Corona case, the only other impeachment suit to reach the Senate was the one against then-President Joseph Estrada. This lasted from December 2000 until January 2001. Because of People Power II, Estrada’s lawyers did not have the chance to present their case.

Meanwhile last year, then-Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez resigned her post 10 days before her trial was due to start. With those precedents in mind, one can easily understand that the continued call for Corona to resign even while the trial is ongoing is an exercise in futility. It is important for this impeachment trial to reach its just conclusion for Filipinos to know if this constitutional process is indeed working.

Chief Justice Renato Corona – will tomorrow be his last day in office?

The Corona trial seemed to have moved at a faster pace since Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, acting as the impeachment court’s presiding officer, announced last May 7 that the proceedings should not go beyond May 31. As it is, the body will make its decision two days before that deadline. The Senate just came from a six-week Lenten break when Enrile made the declaration. The 2nd regular session of the 15th Congress will end by June 8.

From eight, the number of the Articles of Impeachment against Corona has been reduced  to three (Articles II, III, and VII).  The prosecution appears to be pinning its hopes on Article II, which accuses Corona of not declaring all of his bank accounts and properties in his annual Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth. The affirmative vote of sixteen senator-judges (or two-thirds of all senators) is needed to remove Corona from office.

Once impeached, Corona will not only lose his position – he will also be perpetually disqualified from holding any government post. In an interview with radio station DZBB Thursday afternoon, Senator-Judge Edgardo Angara said this will be the sole penalty for Corona in case of conviction. Earlier, Senator-Judge Miriam Defensor-Santiago implied that removal from office is only the main punishment and that Corona can just be censured or suspended.

During a press conference last Monday morning, De La Salle University College of Law dean Jose Manuel Diokno explained to this writer that unlike in regular courts, filing a motion for reconsideration in case of a conviction is not an option for Corona. Hence, he has to vacate his position immediately once such verdict has been made. In Article 11, Section 3.7 of the 1987 Constitution, it is stated that impeached officials “shall be liable and subject to prosecution, trial, and punishment, according to law.”

Then-Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, handing to President Aquino her resignation letter (credits: Jay Morales / Malacanang Photo Bureau)

Vera Files’ Ellen Tordesillas reported last year that former Ombudsman Gutierrez’ entered a deal with the Aquino administration. The government will not file any charges against Gutierrez in exchange for her resignation. Her retirement benefits will also be left intact. During his trial’s six-week break, Corona claimed that emissaries of Aquino asked him to resign or avail of early retirement.

In case Corona gets acquitted, his victory may be short-lived. The one-year ban on initiating impeachment charges will lapse by December 2012, and the five articles of impeachment dropped by the prosecution early this year can be revived against him. The impeachment court has not yet decided on the defense panel’s motion to consider Corona acquitted on the said five charges (which aims to prevent the prosecution from reusing those charges).

One person who has put a lot of political capital (and therefore stands to lose ground if the chief magistrate gets acquitted) in the effort to impeach Corona is President Aquino himself. Former Senator Francisco Tatad warned Aquino that Corona’s non-conviction can turn him into a lame duck president, advising him to begin distancing himself from the proceedings.

Ernesto Maceda, another former senator, went as far as claiming that “a vote for Corona is a vote for (Vice President Jejomar) Binay.” Maceda explained that if Corona is ousted, Aquino’s Liberal Party will continue its dominance through the 2013 and 2016 elections. For his part, the president said in an event last February that Corona’s acquittal will derail his government’s reform agenda and fight against graft and corruption. Tomorrow afternoon, we will all know how this winner-take-all high-stakes political drama will end.

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