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Thursday, April 5, 2012

The people have spoken: “Guilty!”

By Perry Diaz

(Photo credit: RAPPLER)

When the Senate impeachment court was going into a six-week recess in observance of Holy Week, two surveys caught a lot of people by surprise. Pulse Asia and the Social Weather Stations (SWS) – the country’s top pollsters – released their surveys about people’s reaction as the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato C. Corona concluded the prosecution phase and began the defense phase.

The first was Pulse Asia who released its survey on March 20, two days before the impeachment trial was suspended for the long Holy Week break. It couldn’t be timelier. The effect was devastating!

The survey, conducted from February 26 to March 9, showed Corona’s approval rating at 14% while his disapproval rating went up to 58%, a 34% increase since November 2011 before the House of Representatives impeached him. It also showed his trust rating drop to 11% from 29% last November while his distrust rating drastically increased to 60% from 27% last November.

And here’s the stinger: The survey showed that nearly half (47%) of the respondents view Corona as guilty while only 5% said that he is innocent of the charges. The rest of the respondents (43%) were undecided.

A week after the Pulse Asia survey came out SWS released the results of its own survey: 73% of the respondents believe that Corona is guilty of the impeachment charges while only 25% believe he is innocent.

It’s interesting to note that the survey was conducted on March 10-13 just when the defense started its presentation of witnesses and evidence. When the respondents were asked if it was important for Corona to testify personally at the trial, 73% answered “Yes” while 26% said “No.”

Damage control

In an attempt to downplay the impact of the surveys, Corona’s defense lawyers said that the decision of the Senate should be based only on law and evidence. At a news briefing, Corona’s lawyers said that the survey results “should not be used in propaganda (against Corona) and sway public opinion because what the people have heard so far is only the side of the prosecution.” They expressed optimism that the “results of future surveys would eventually favor the Chief Justice and the defense panel as it continued to offer documentary and testimonial evidence to debunk the impeachment articles against Corona.” They reiterated that the impeachment trial was “not a popularity contest,” saying, “the public should focus more on the evidence presented by both the defense and prosecution panels in court than the issues being discussed in the media.”

And in a display of naiveté, Supreme Court administrator and spokesperson Jose Midas Marquez said that the survey was premature for anybody to conduct opinion polls because the impeachment trial was ongoing. “We don’t know the basis of the respondents in saying that (the Chief Justice) is guilty or innocent. The defense isn’t through yet,” he said. Well, Mr. Marquez, it’s all about perception. And in politics, perception is reality — you are what you’re perceived to be.

Moral fitness

What Corona’s lawyers and spokespersons don’t seem to realize is that the impeachment trial is not a judicial process that relies purely and solely on evidence. It is a search for the truth to determine if the impeached public official had betrayed the public office that he was entrusted with by the people. It is not about trying the case on legal technicalities. It is not about proving that he is the most qualified person for the job. It is not about having the best educational credentials and honors in his curriculum vitae.

It is about whether corona is morally fit for the job and whether he possesses the wisdom to pass judgment not on a narrow interpretation of the law but on a fair and balanced adjudication of the case. In other words, the Chief Justice is the linchpin of judicial authority and should – nay, must — therefore be at the apex of moral purity and the epitome of judicial wisdom.

Controversial ruling

Recently, the Supreme Court made a controversial ruling when it reverted to the government the 1,282-hectare Piedad Estate in Quezon City. The Piedad Estate was one of hundreds of Friar Lands confiscated during the American colonial period and sold to private individuals or groups with the passage of the Friar Lands Act of 1904. At about that time the Manotok family purchased a 34-hectare slice of Piedad Estate.

The Supreme Court’s ruling was based on the failure of the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources to sign the deed of conveyance. For this bureaucratic oversight, the high court ruled that the government repossesses the entire Piedad Estate.

But what is strange with the Supreme Court’s ruling was the way a majority vote was reached on March 6, 2012. Justice Martin Villarama, who penned the ponencia, could only muster seven votes to concur with his ponenciawhile seven votes were lined up to vote against it. A tie wouldn’t cut it. He needed another vote to make it happen.

The 15th justice, Mariano del Castillo, who was on sick leave since February 13 — due to a heart bypass operation — was not expected to be back to work until March 28. While he was on sick leave, he did not participate in any Supreme Court deliberation nor vote in any case… except once, the Piedad Estate case, in absentia.

But what appeared above Del Castillo’s name on the ponencia was a handwritten note, which said: “I certify that J. del Castillo sent his vote concurring with Justice Villarama,” and signed, Renato C. Corona. Del Castillo’s signature did not appear above his name, which would be indicative that he did not peruse the ponencia.

With Corona’s handwritten note and signature in lieu of Del Castillo’s signature, the Piedad Estate ruling was passed on a razor-thin 8-7 vote. Those who concurred were: CJ Corona signing twice (for himself and Del Castillo), Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Jose Perez, and Jose Mendoza. Those who dissented were: Justices Antonio Carpio, Presbitero Velasco, Arturo Brion, Roberto Abad, Maria Lourdes Sereno, Bienvenido Reyes, and Estela Perlas-Bernabe.

The question is: Was Corona morally right in signing for Del Castillo who was on sick leave and who apparently did not read or review Villarama’sponencia?

Given the importance of this ruling, which could affect millions of Filipinos owning former Friar lands, and which are estimated to encompass a large area of Metro Manila, the effect could be catastrophic!

Why did Corona act in a manner that could have far-reaching consequences and could potentially trigger tens of thousands of lawsuits against the government, which doesn’t have any vested interest in the Friar Lands? What did he gain by doing it? Is it in any way linked to the impeachment trial?

Is it any wonder then why the “court of public opinion” deems Corona not trustworthy? If he is not worthy of the people’s trust, should he then be removed from office?

As the two surveys show, the people have spoken: “Guilty!”


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