(MANILA TIMES)  by YEN MAKABENTA - Before we get lost again in a forest of side issues, propaganda and self-serving statements, let us keep our eyes on the ball and on the President.

In his televised privilege speech at the Senate last Monday (20January), Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla jr. disclosed that President Benigno S. Aquino 3rd had a private meeting with him, with local Government Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas II and Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch’Abad both present.

During the meeting, the President asked the senator for a personal favor — that he vote to convict former Chief Justice Renato Corona at his Senate impeachment trial.

By intervening in a trial invested with great public importance (A Filipino chief justice was being impeached for the first time), and which the public knew was largely instigated by the President himself, Aquino committed not only an act of great impropriety and ethical dubiety, he opened himself to the possible charge of tampering with a jury or judge.

A case of judge and jury tampering

In legal parlance, particularly in the United States, jury tampering is the crime of attempting to influence a jury through other means than the evidence presented in court, such as conversations about the case outside the court, offering bribes, making threats or asking acquaintances to interfere with a juror.

A person commits the crime of jury tampering if, with intent to influence a juror’s vote, opinion, decision or other action in the case, he attempts directly or indirectly to communicate with a juror other than as part of the proceedings in the trial of the case. Jury tampering may be committed by conducting conversations about the case outside the court, offering bribes, making threats or asking acquaintances to communicate with a juror.

The crucial point about jury tampering is the presence of intent to influence a juror’s vote, opinion, decision or other action in a case.

In the Corona impeachment case, Senator Revilla was clearly a senator-juror, one of 23 hearing the case. President Aquino showed intent and desire to influence his vote in the case. He admits to having met with three other jurors as well.

Defense through casuistry

In response to this clearly damaging disclosure, the President and his communicators and advisers have resorted to outright denial and obfuscation and the flooding of news channels with self-serving statements exculpating the president.

Because of Revilla’s popularity as a show-biz personality, Malacañang Communications set up an interview of the President by show-biz Broadcaster and Kris Aquino groupie Boy Abunda.

The interview was broadcast by ABS-CBN at 10 in the evening last Tuesday. Aquino essayed the same defense that had already been assiduously disseminated by Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma.

This line of defense goes as follows: The President was only trying to “counter” the pressure being exerted on senator-judges to exonerate Corona, but he does not consider his action a form of pressure to secure Corona’s conviction.

Aquino said aside from Senator Ramon Revilla Jr., he also met with Senators Teofisto Guingona III, Ralph Recto, and Jinggoy Estrada.

Explaining his action, he elaborated: “Normally, I would have just let that pass, but there were so many confirmed reports that several sectors were exerting heavy pressure on senator-judges to decide not based on the merits of the case, to exonerate Corona in exchange for something.

“Is it right for me to just stand by while these sectors are threatening and pressuring our senators? I think it is natural for me to ask them and confirm with them and let them feel that there are people who, if they do the right thing, are ready to support them. I would have been very irresponsible if I just let those who were exerting pressure to have their way without addressing this or doing something to counter this pressure.”

This line of reasoning is what my classes in philosophy and rhetoric at the Ateneo described as “Casuistry.”

The term “casuistry” is used either to describe a presumably acceptable form of reasoning or a form of reasoning that is inherently unsound and deceptive.

The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word is “often (and perhaps originally) applied to a quibbling or evasive way of dealing with difficult cases of duty.” Its textual references are consistently pejorative (“Casuistry destroys by Distinctions and Exceptions, all Morality, and effaces the essential Difference between Right and Wrong.”)

Encyclopedia Britannica pointedly notes: “The fine distinctions employed by some Jesuit Casuists caused their opponents to equate casuistry with specious reasoning.”

Aquino’s and Coloma’s efforts to rationalize the president’s actions have not had much traction, especially with the legal community.

The dean of the Lyceum College of Law, Soledad Mawis, says that Aquino’s meeting with Revilla was improper because Revilla was still acting then as a senator-judge.

Mawis said if Corona was the one who invited Revilla to a meeting, it would also be seen as inappropriate.

“Even if you just knock on the room of judge when your counterpart lawyer is not present, there is already a sense of impropriety. All the more that there was impropriety because the one on the dock was the Chief Justice of the Philippines,” Mawis said in a television interview.

“In fact, we have a provision —Article 214 of the Revised Penal Code—that any executive officer who orders a judicial authority to act in a certain way, can be criminally liable,” Mawis added.

The defense lawyers of Corona at the impeachment trial have also taken cognizance of the ethical issues raised by Revilla’s disclosure.

One of the lawyers, Tranquil Salvador, says that it is unfortunate that President Aquino meddled in the process.

Salvador said that while they (the defense panel and Corona) fully trusted in the fairness of the impeachment process, the President apparently worked to ruin its integrity by influencing some senator-judges.

“I am deeply saddened because we participated in the process in the belief that it was fair and compliant with the requirements of justice, due process and fair play,” he told The Manila Times.

Assuaging a family’s anguish and national malaise

As I was writing this column, my researcher came in to inform me that Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago has called for a review of the Corona case in view of the developments indicating interference in the process of the impeachment trial.

Such review is overdue. Corona and his family have suffered severely – almost as though he went through his own Stations of the Cross.

There is great uneasiness in the land over this trial, and what makes all of us uneasy is that we still don’t know how or what to think about what happened. Only justice can assuage their anguish and this malaise.

Only a change of behavior by the President can wipe away this blot in his record.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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