Philippine Constitutional Crisis Turns Messy

The campaign by President Benigno S. Aquino III against his rival and predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is broadening into a messy affair in which Aquino apparently has declared war on the country’s Supreme Court in his attempt to bring her to justice.

On Monday, opponents charged, Aquino engineered an overwhelming 188-member majority of the 284-member House of Representatives to impeach Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona. In November Corona led the court in a vain effort to allow Arroyo to escape the country for medical treatment ahead of arrest on corruption charges.

The case now goes to the Senate for trial. With the legislature adjourning soon for the Christmas holidays, the trial is not likely to take place before January. It appears to be the first time in recorded Philippine history in which a chief justice has been impeached.

In the year and a half since Aquino assumed the presidency, the Supreme Court has waged a last-ditch battle to protect Arroyo, on Dec. 6, 2010 vetoing Aquino’s creation of the Philippine Truth Commission, saying it violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause because it singled out Arroyo for investigation.

Undeterred, Aquino has pursued a relentless effort to get Arroyo into court, picking off her supporters almost one by one. Her defense chief resigned almost as soon as Aquino took office. The Ombudsman she appointed, Merceditas Gutierrez, resigned her office in April, days ahead of what was almost certain impeachment by the Senate.

Critics say there is growing concern that Aquino’s vendetta against Arroyo, guilty or not, is a preoccupation that is getting in the way of his governance of the country. If Corona is indeed tried and removed by the Senate, it appears reasonable to assume that the rest of the Supreme Court is going to become a lot more docile in rulings affecting the administration. That in turn calls up some other unsettling Southeast Asian actions against the courts. The old saying that bad cases make bad law has been paralleled by bad firings which have wrecked the impartiality of the courts.

In 1984, for instance, Senior District Judge Michael Khoo acquitted the then-lone opposition member of the Singaporean parliament, J B Jeyaretnam, of making a false declaration about the accounts of his Workers’ Part. Shortly after that, Khoo lost his job and was unceremoniously moved to the attorney-general's chambers, widely considered to be a much lower posting. The Jeyaretnam episode is the last time on record that a high-profile case ever went against any members of Singapore’s ruling Lee family or the government.

Then, in 1988, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia fired Mohamed Salleh Abas, the internationally respected lord president of the Federal Court of Malaysia and subsequently did away with the entire independent composition of the court, appointing his own allies and ultimately largely destroying the independence and respectability of the Malaysian judiciary.

Likewise, the Thai courts have shown an increasing tendency to bend with the prevailing administration, first ruling twice to oust constitutionally elected governments aligned with former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and later stripping him of much of his fortune. Then, after became clear earlier this year that the Pheu Thai Party with which he was aligned and whose head is his sister, Yingluck, the courts started reversing themselves in tax cases to give favorable rulings to other members of the Shinawatra family.

Corona himself told reporters the effort to oust him from the court would destroy Filipino democracy, and that he wouldn’t resign.

"We do not want to see a constitutional crisis befall our democracy," he said. "But if we are challenged to defend our independence, we shall not meekly walk away."

Arroyo elevated Corona to the job of chief justice two days after the May 2010 elections that brought Aquino to the presidency and just a month before her term expired. Once Arroyo’s chief of staff, Corona was named to the bench in 2002.

The former chief executive’s most potent weapon in escaping arrest on the corruption and vote-rigging charges that had dogged her for much of her presidency was the Supreme Court, almost all of whose members she had appointed during her nine-year stint in office. Corona’s impeachment follows a series of events that began on Nov. 15 when the court ruled 8 to 5 to issue a temporary restraining order against a travel ban issued by the government that would have allowed the former president and her husband, Miguel, to leave for medical treatment, which many doubted she needed.

However, the government then issued new charges of vote-rigging against Arroyo and prevented her departure with a dramatic arrest at the Manila Airport when Arroyo appeared, in a wheelchair and wearing a cervical collar and other accoutrements, in a bid to fly to Singapore for treatment for what was said to be a degenerative nerve condition. She was taken to a private Manila hospital to await treatment before being moved to a government hospital on government orders.

The court answered the defiance of its decree to allow Arroyo to leave by resurrecting on a 14-0 vote a long-simmering case concerning the redistribution of the vast Hacienda Luisita owned by the Cojuangco side of President Aquino’s family to 6,000 farmer beneficiaries. The land was originally ordered redistributed nearly two decades ago as a result of agrarian reforms. However, the Cojuancos managed to get around the agricultural reform of the sugar plantation, which covers nearly 5,000 hectares of land in central Luzon.

Members of the house alleged that the Aquino forces had pulled out all the stops to obtain the impeachment action against Corona, with the number of signatories roughly double the required one-third membership of the house.

According to the articles of impeachment, Corona “betrayed the public trust through his track record, marked by partiality and subservience in cases involving the Arroyo Administration from the time of his appointment as Supreme Court justice which continued to his dubious appointment as a midnight chief justice and up to the present.”

The articles also accused Corona of failing to disclose a true statement of his assets, liability and net worth, allegedly having accumulated “ill-gotten wealth, acquiring assets of high values and keeping bank accounts with huge deposits, issuing “flip-flopping decisions in final and executor cases; in creating an excessive entanglement with Mrs Arroyo through her appointment of his wife to office; and in discussing with litigants regarding cases pending before the Supreme Court.”

Media reports quoted Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile that the upper house would only be able to act on the articles of impeachment when session resumes in January 2012.