FR. JOAQUIN BERNAS, SJ: ECHOES FROM CORONA IMPEACHMENT



Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas S. J.

MANILA, JANUARY 27, 2014 (INQUIRER) By Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas S. J. - In his recent privilege speech before the Senate, Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla alleged that President Aquino sought to influence his vote on Chief Justice.

Renato Corona’s conviction.
As expected, President Aquino denied that he tried to influence anybody, but he admitted that he talked to Senator Revilla and other senators in the wake of the mounting pressure on the prosecution.

What then was the point of the visit if not to help the prosecution? Merely to say “Hello”?

The incident has triggered two questions. First, was the conversation with Senator Revilla an impeachable offense?

Second, what effect could the revelation of Revilla and the admission of President Aquino have on the conviction of Chief Justice Corona?

On the first question: If you are inclined to support impeachment, the grounds you will have to weigh are “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.”

Choose your pick. I am not inclined to join in the game especially when I consider the current composition of Congress where impeachment cases must go.

The second question is more interesting. I have been asked if it is possible for the Supreme Court to review and reverse the conviction of Chief Justice Corona. The first thing I can say about this is that there is no jurisprudence on the question. I have discussed this before; but since it is being asked again, especially in the light of Senator Revilla’s accusation and President Aquino’s admission, let me discuss it once more.

Necessarily we have to begin with the constitutional provision which says: “The Senate shall be the sole judge to try and decide all cases of impeachment.” How absolute is the exclusivity of the power of the Senate?

It might be noted that the power of the electoral tribunals is couched also in exclusive terms: “The Senate and the House of Representatives shall each have an Electoral Tribunal which shall be the sole judge of all contests relating to the election, returns, and qualifications of their Members.” Nevertheless the Supreme Court has reviewed and invalidated a final vote tally made by an electoral tribunal which the Court found to have been unsupported by evidence. How did the Philippine Court arrive at its conclusion?

The answer of the Court to that question was Article VIII, Section 1, a new provision in the 1987 Constitution, which has been accepted as an expansion of the powers of the Supreme Court. This provision says that “Judicial power includes the duty of courts of justice… to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the Government.”

Moreover, Section 5 of the same Article VIII says that the Supreme Court has the power to “Exercise original jurisdiction over… petitions for certiorari, prohibition, mandamus, quo warranto, and habeas corpus.” Certiorari is precisely for handling cases of grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction.

This was the basis for the Supreme Court’s review of a number of decisions of an electoral tribunal. The question now is whether the Court will apply this same provision to decisions of the Senate in an impeachment case.

In trying to discern which direction the Court might go in the impeachment case, I am reminded of what one writer said of the US Supreme Court:

“The reason underlying this difficulty is all too well known: the Supreme Court is not simply a Court; it is an important part of the American political process. Because the key phrases of the Constitution have such grand ambiguities, the Court has wide discretion in passing on matters with a constitutional dimension, and because such matters are likely to concern and affect the larger issues of American life, the Court, in passing on them, exercises great political power.

“The Court thus has a hybrid role; and the arresting thing is that were its role to be purified in either direction—by having it become more simply a court and nothing more, or by having it become, bluntly, a political agency and nothing more—it would lose its power and its purpose. The special burden of the Court, then, is to exercise great political powers while still acting like a court, or if we prefer, to exercise judicial powers over a wide domain while remaining, realistic, and alert as to the political significance of what it is doing.”

Indeed, there is grand ambiguity in the apparent conflict between the expanded power of the Supreme Court in Article VIII, Section 1 and the exclusive power of the Senate in Article XI, Section 3(6). The Court should resolve this ambiguity in a manner that will best serve the nation.

However, I do not believe that it would be in the best interest of the nation for the Supreme Court to initiate a head-on collision with the Senate, especially since Corona himself, the person most involved, or the person with the clearest locus standi, seems to have accepted the Senate verdict.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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