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Corona’s contemptible performance

Like millions of others, I was glued to the television the other day watching Chief Justice Renato Corona testify in his own impeachment trial.

Everything about last Tuesday was dramatic. First, there was his refusal to take the stand. He then relented and agreed to testify after the Ombudsman had detailed Anti-Money Laundering Council documents indicating that the chief justice had at least $12 million in various accounts. Prior to last Tuesday, his counsels and talking heads assured the public that Corona would “tell all” and would expose the malice of the individuals who falsely testified against him.

On the day itself, there was a meticulous script acted out by “B” actors, who now deserve acting awards. There was the traditional mass officiated by religious leaders closely identified with former President Gloria Arroyo, the usual illegal mass action by court officials and employees, and even a hero’s send-off for the embattled Corona.

At the Senate itself, the script was literally visible: a couple of pages of a monologue read out by Corona himself, a major deviation from ordinary court proceedings where witnesses are never allowed to deliver opening statements. This was a very carefully written script. Its writers knew that the opus would be allowed by a court that has repeatedly declared that it would respect the magistrate if and when he takes the stand. More importantly, its writers knew that the people would be watching.

And boy, what a show it turned out to be!

The scripted monologue itself was pathetic. Not only was it very poorly written, it was also bereft of the truth that Corona promised the nation. Half of it was mud thrown at the President, Ronald Llamas, and even Franklin Drilon. The other half was about the dirty laundry of the Basas.  Was Corona unmindful that his own children and wife were members of the same clan? The Senate President repeatedly asked him if he was finished, but he went on with his litany on matters, which were irrelevant and immaterial. And when he finally addressed the issue leveled against him by the Ombudsman, he resorted to a negative pregnant: the Ombudsman was lying but he admits having dollar deposits which according to him, are absolutely confidential and need not be declared in his SALN.

Prior to his appearance, a little known employee of the BIR, of all agencies, which the chief justice himself quoted in his monologue, opined that dollar deposits do not have to be disclosed in the SALN.

After which, he resorted to a conditional waiver of the secrecy of his dollar and pesos deposits, which takes effect only if and when the 188 congressmen who voted to impeach him and Franklin Drilon sign similar waivers. Talk of a cheap trick!

And after an excruciating two hours of vilification and self-pontification, he states that he is the chief justice of the Republic and leaves the stand.

I still can’t decide which was more offensive: his litany of mud or his walkout. I ask this because he is not just a very high official sought to be removed from his office. He is the chief justice if the land and as such, should personify the prestige and dignity of the legal profession. By resorting to mudslinging at the stand, Corona broke all rules of evidence that were developed over time to ascertain precisely the truth of controverted matters. And by walking out, he has shown contempt not only for the Senate sitting as an impeachment court, but to the rule of law itself, which as chief justice, he should be the first to uphold. If his departure were really for medical reasons, why did he not ask for leave of court? That would have been easy and would certainly have been granted on humanitarian grounds. It does not help that he was captured on camera clearly intent on leaving the Senate on cue. Clearly, what he and his advisers did not anticipate was that the Senate President would order the lock-out of the Senate to prevent him from leaving.

As I write this, it has become apparent that the chief justice will not return to the Senate as he is reportedly in the intensive care unit. I do not question his state of health as that is now between him and his creator. What I condemn is his performance that degraded the legal profession and eroded the people’s trust in the rule of law.

At the very least, Corona has proven to all that he does not deserve to remain as chief justice!

Probity and discounts

Sometimes, a fumble can lead to a win. This was what happened two days ago at the Senate in the impeachment hearing of Chief Justice Renato Corona. On Monday, we were enthralled by a declaration that the chief justice was given a whopping 40-percent discount amounting to P10 million by Megaworld. I was then an invited commentator at DZMM. Just out of curiosity, I went online on my iPad and typed “Megaworld and Corona” in Google search. Lo and behold, there it was: Megaworld vs. Judge Cobarde, a decision penned by no less than then Associate Justice Corona which was a P25 million win for the company.The case of Cobarde arose from a complaint filed at the regional trial court for almost P30 million in unpaid brokers fee for the sale of a resort beside Shangri-La hotel in Mactan Island. In the course of the proceeding, the parties entered into a compromise agreement whereby Megaworld agreed to pay the complainant almost P30 million. There was in fact a partial payment of about P5 million, leaving a balance of about P25 million. Later, Megaworld commenced proceedings to vacate such a judgment based on a compromise agreement. This kind of  a judgment is normally immediately final and executory. Megaworld lost in both the RTC and in the Court of Appeals. In the Supreme Court, Justice Corona penned the decision reversing the CA and declaring the judgment on a compromise as null and void. It spared Megaworld from paying the balance of P25 million.The year of promulgation of the Cobarde judgment was 2004. Construction of the Bellagio started in 2003 and was finished in 2008. I asked the question: is the P25 million victory related to the P10 million discount? If it is, both Megaworld and Corona could be liable for  violating the anti-graft and corrupt practices act. Bribery is the giving of any consideration in exchange for a favor. Unlike other laws, our anti-graft laws punish both the giver and the receiver.

I was hence not surprised when the following day, the Megaworld marketing director stated that what the company had given the Corona’s was a P5-million price reduction because of water damage sustained by the unit as a result of a typhoon; a further P3 million discount since the consideration was paid within one year, and a further P2 million discount. Now it can be told, it was not a P10-million discount. Just a 5 million discount over and above another 5 million price reduction.

I am of course not concluding anything as of yet. Senator Serge Osmena rightfully demanded from Megaworld evidence of the alleged water damage, as well as evidence of insurance coverage since almost all buildings, finished or otherwise, have insurance against water damage. These will prove if the damage to the unit was in fact commensurate to the price reduction. Anent the discount, I think Megaworld has for all intents and purposes admitted that it gave the Coronas an extraordinary discount since it has previously admitted that normal discounts for cash transactions is only 15 percent of the selling price. If the normal selling price is P24 million, as it claimed, the maximum discount should only have been P3.6 million. Why did Megaworld officials give the Coronas P5 million in discount?

In any case, the material point already proven by the prosecution is that the Coronas grossly understated the value of the Bellagio property since it was only declared as having a value of P6 million. Worse, there was a complete omission of the P14 million cash that they used to purchase the property. Previously, the prosecutors also proved that two other properties, a lot in McKinley Hill and another unit at the Spanish Bay Tower at the Fort, were also not declared in the SALN. Again the reason all public officers are required to file their SALNs annually is to enable the public to inquire whether there has been an increase in a public officer’s assets on a year-to-year basis given that their incomes are fixed by law. If a public officer could not adequately explain how he acquired the additional assets, the law presumes it  to have been ill-gotten.

I am distraught too at Megaworld’s spin in its releases. It claimed that it have lost two cases and won only one case from the Supreme Court. It is always silent on the fact that its victory was worth P25 million and that the decision was penned by Corona himself. It highlights a loss where it failed to collect P5 million, omitting the fact that this involved the same losing party in Cobardo. It also highlights a loss in the case of Tanseco vs. Megaworld where Corona was a member of the division that rendered the judgment.

The point, though, is that a magistrate should be purer than Caesar’s wife. No upright and becoming magistrate should have accepted an extraordinary discount specially from a winning litigant in his own court, moreso if he himself penned the winning decision.

True, the prosecution failed to introduce what it characterized as a 40-percent discount into the records. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the people now know the kind of magistrate Corona is.

ON THE CJ ISSUE: A Breach of the Mandate

Presumptive President-elect Noynoy Aquino has been emphatic: he will not recognize an Arroyo appointed Chief Justice. Arroyo supporters have made this a casus belli against the presumptive President-Elect.

Can the presumptive Chief Executive ignore an issue that has been ruled upon by the highest court of the land? His critics say this would be an impeachable offense for culpable violation of the Constitution. Why? Under our scheme of government, the Judiciary is a co-equal branch of government and ignoring an Arroyo-appointed Chief justice would be equivalent to an infringement of judicial power.

I submit however, that the real issue is what happens when the ultimate defender of the Constitution is itself in breach of its own mandate. Under this circumstance, should it be allowed a monopoly in upholding constitutional supremacy?

The court set aside  the principle of stare decisis when it overturned Valenzuela, an earlier decision that ruled that the midnight ban on appointments covers the judiciary, without changed circumstances. It did this purportedly on the basis of  constitutional construction.  The language however, of Section 15, Article 7 of the Constitution is so clear that it precludes the need for construction: “Section 15. 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.”

The Constitution is written for the benefit of ordinary persons and not just magistrates. Where the fundamental law provides for a prohibition with specified exceptions, all other appointments are equally, fundamentally prohibited. This includes appointments to the judiciary.

De Castro versus Judicial Bar Council invokes alleged intent, as mentioned by then Commissioner Florence Regalado during the proceedings of the Constitutional Commission. He however did not indicate where he derived this alleged intent aside from personal recollection. In contrast, the lone dissenting opinion of Justice Conchita Morales specifically quoted then Commissioner Hilario Davide from the proceedings of the Constitutional Commission: Section 15 of Article VII covers appointments to the judiciary.

If what the majority did was the correct way of proving intent, I shudder to think what will happen to jurisprudence when the drafters of the Constitution are no longer around. That may mean, following the technique of the majority, an eventual impossibility to prove constitutional intent in the future.

The issue is not the jurisprudence but the breach of the mandate. The fact that the court is referred to as “Supreme” is not a guarantee that it is infallible and will never abdicate its constitutional mandate. This happened in our recent history on two occasions: in Javellana when the Marcos Supreme Court sought refuge in the political question doctrine and abdicated its all-important tasks as guardian of constitutional supremacy, and in Aquino, which eventually inspired People Power 1.

The Presumptive President-Elect must keep his promise not to recognize the legitimacy of an Arroyo appointed Chief Justice for two reasons. First, he must honor the mandate of the sovereign people when they ratified the 1987 Constitution. Second, this has become a political issue already decided by the people when they gave the Presumptive President–Elect an overwhelming mandate.

Does the majority of the members of the high court believe that their rulings can be etched in stone without any political context? I submit that the High Court’s role is to uphold the supremacy of the constitution so that despots may be prevented from rewriting or interpreting the fundamental law to suit their personal and selfish interests. It should however, not be exercised to thwart the true intent of the people who gave their mandate to the constitution. And certainly, judicial power cannot and should not be used to thwart popular will of the sovereign who only now, chose Noynoy Aquino as their true leader based on a promise not to recognize the legitimacy of an Arroyo midnight apointee.#30#.