Thrilla in Manila: impeachment of the Philippines’ chief justice

Authors: Cristina Bonoan, the Philippines, Alejandro Ciencia, UP, and Björn Dressel, ANU

On 16 January, the Philippines Senate opened a hearing on the impeachment of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Renato Corona, on eight different charges.

 

He stands accused of betraying the public trust through ‘partiality and subservience’ in cases involving the former president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who appointed him, as well as corruption and constitutional violation.

The impeachment process is at the crux of an increasingly tense political drama unfolding in Manila. In instigating the hearings, the current president, Benigno Aquino III, has taken on not only the former president but also one of the most respected institutions in the country — the Supreme Court. Boxing fans remember the iconic ‘Thrilla in Manila’ that pitted Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier in 1975. Like its predecessor, the current thriller pits whole political groups against one another. But this time it is not about a world championship belt, and the outcome may affect governance and lives in the Philippines for years to come.

While political drama is hardly new to the Philippines, few would have predicted such an intense confrontation back in May 2010, when President Aquino was elected by a landslide after campaigning on a platform of good governance and anti-corruption. Recognising the growing public dissatisfaction over abuses of power under the previous administration, and promising a new ‘social contract’ with the Filipino people, the president at once issued an executive order establishing a ‘truth commission’ to investigate claims of corruption. But in December 2010, in what would become the first of several setbacks the new administration would face, the Supreme Court ruled the order unconstitutional. And in 2011, it reversed a watch-list order barring former president Arroyo from leaving the country pending criminal investigation for electoral sabotage, and ruled against President Aquino’s family in an agrarian reform case. The relationship between the judiciary and the executive has become increasingly tense; in this context, the impeachment trial has major political significance for an administration eager to follow through on its campaign promises.

Critics of President Aquino see the impeachment as part of a witch-hunt against former president Arroyo and her allies. On the other hand, Arroyo’s critics consider the impeachment well founded. They point out that Chief Justice Corona is a close ally of the former president, having served as her acting executive and legal counsel when she took office in 2001. Arroyo controversially appointed Corona chief justice two days after the 2010 election in which Aquino triumphed. In protest against this ‘midnight appointment’, which is constitutionally prohibited, Aquino refused to have Chief Justice Corona deliver the oath of office at his inauguration. But the Supreme Court — all of whose members have been appointed by Arroyo — ruled that Corona’s appointment should stand.

Although Aquino and his supporters are eager to see Corona removed, the impeachment process will be fraught with difficulties. To begin with, there are several institutional hurdles to overcome. Under the 1987 constitution, one-third of all members of the lower house have to endorse an impeachment complaint for trial by the Senate, and at least two-thirds of the Senate must vote to impeach. Mustering the numbers in the Lower House may be easy, but the president’s support in the Senate is less certain because only four of its 23 sitting members belong to his Liberal Party.

Not surprisingly, then, procedural rulings by the Senate have so far favoured Chief Justice Corona. Although his petition for the case to be thrown out was rejected, the Senate ruled that the subpoenas for Corona and his wife to testify violated their constitutional right against self-incrimination and the rules on spousal privilege. It also decided that the defence must not be compelled to release documents that could be used against Corona. A Supreme Court ruling to halt the trial would clearly provoke a major conflict between the legislature and the judiciary.

Then there are the actual impeachment allegations. Some of the eight charges may be hard to sustain both because they were quickly cobbled together and because the Senate has so far shown little sympathy to the prosecution’s arguments. There is clearly much at stake for both the president and the Supreme Court. The trial has polarised political and legal opinion, causing deep fault lines within the academic and legal communities. But the trial is exposing much more as the political nature of the impeachment process is itself debated. For some, the impeachment is in essence a matter of the president’s willingness to be accountable to the public and his intent to deliver on campaign promises of reform and anti-corruption. They see the process as ‘politics by other means’ — namely, an attempt to secure the public’s goodwill in an otherwise highly resistant environment. Others, such as the Integrated Bar, have criticised it as a ‘breakneck impeachment’, trumpeting concerns about mob rule, pandering to public sentiments, denial of due process and an attack on judicial institutions.

Yet, as these differences illustrate, current developments highlight a related point that has yet to be fully accounted for: the growing judicialisation of politics in the Philippines, or the growing politicisation of the Supreme Court by political actors on either side. Ultimately, the process may have far-reaching consequences, not only for the professionalism of the judiciary (which has already been challenged in recent cases of plagiarism) but also for governance in the country as a whole. As such, it might even revive debates over constitutional reform.

A verdict is unlikely to be rendered soon — with Congress retiring for the Easter recess on 23 March — and the trial will probably continue when the Senate resumes on 7 May. It is clear that no matter the outcome of the trial, damage will have been done to major institutions in the Philippines. As in the iconic match between Ali and Frazier in 1975, someone will be counted out; the real question is who will be left standing in the court of Congress and, perhaps more importantly, in the public view.

Cristina Bonoan is a former law clerk for the Supreme Court of the Philippines and now works as a governance and public sector management consultant.

Alejandro Ciencia is Assistant Professor and Chair, Department of Economics and Political Science (DEPS), College of Social Sciences, University of the PhilippinesBaguio. 

Björn Dressel is Senior Lecturer at the Crawford School of Economics & Government, the Australian National University, and Associate Investigator for the Fragile States working group at the Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security.

A version of this article was first published here on the Constitution Making blog.

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