BABE’S EYE VIEW
By Babe Romualdez
The Philippine Star
Thirty years ago, I had a rare opportunity of interviewing Senator Ninoy Aquino in Tokyo while he was traveling in exile. I was then a news reporter for Channel 9 when I bumped into the senator at the shopping arcade of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. He invited me for coffee in his suite that evening where he was having a meeting with Doy Laurel, Lorenzo Tañada Sr., and Ernie Maceda. I distinctly remember asking him, “Why do you want to go back at this time when you know Secretary Enrile is going to have you arrested?”
I will never forget his classic Ninoy answer: “Sila ang pari, sila ang hari. Tell them they can start cleaning their guns. I am going home.”
The world — and our country’s history — has indeed turned around many times since then. Today, Ninoy’s son Noynoy is president, facing what is perhaps the biggest test of his administration thus far – the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona, whom he has identified as a stumbling block in his fight against graft and corruption. But for many Filipinos however, the underlying issue has gone beyond the removal of Renato Corona – and has inadvertently shifted to the separation of powers between co-equal branches of government. The question now foremost in the minds of people is whether the Senate, acting as the impeachment court, has the sole authority to decide on matters pertaining to the impeachment without interference or intervention from the Supreme Court.
Our 1987 Constitution is almost the exact replica of the American system, wherein the House of Representatives has the power to impeach while the Senate is vested with the power to conduct the impeachment trial. That the country is poised towards a historic moment goes without saying, but the tedium marking the early days of the proceedings almost drove people to lose interest. That is, until Ilocos Norte Congressman Rudy Fariñas stood up and debated with the defense and even the Senate president on whether the impeachment court is indeed above the Supreme Court.
It was actually a learning opportunity for many to hear two brilliant minds — one a seasoned legislator and politician, the other a relatively younger man – debating the finer points of law, the articles of impeachment, and whether the substance of the complaint should be based on the contents of the pleading, not just the title. No doubt the Ilocano legislator – who finished Law from the Ateneo and was at the top 10 of the 1978 Bar exams — is emerging as the shining star of the prosecution team, effectively arguing that any official who violates public trust must be made accountable, strongly cementing his argument that for the longest time, the Supreme Court has been lording it over (and presumably getting away with so many things because they have relatively been shielded from public scrutiny) when he said: “Sila lang ang laging hari.”
The arguments of Fariñas — delivered in the vernacular and in layman’s terms — certainly resonated among many Filipinos who feel that no one should be above the law — not a single public servant — from the president down to the lowest government clerk. After all, it’s no secret that even members of the judiciary are susceptible to corruption, to put it mildly. In the minds of many — the issue is simple: if the Chief Justice has nothing to fear or hide, then details of his dollar accounts should be disclosed. This was the same challenge issued by President Noy, stressing that as a public servant, the Chief Justice should be able to evoke public trust — in which case he should voluntarily disclose details of the questioned accounts to demonstrate his innocence.
As it is, the defense has sought relief from the Supreme Court which issued a temporary restraining order to stop the Senate from subpoenaing foreign bank deposits — triggering fears of a potential constitutional crisis should the Supreme Court and the Senate go head to head over the issue. Many leaders of the banking industry argue that the subpoena could set a dangerous precedent that violates bank secrecy laws — which was disputed by experts who pointed out that an exception to bank secrecy laws can be made if it involves cases of impeachment.
Naturally, opinion is divided even among experts, with constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas saying the Senate and the SC are equal, and that the latter can intervene if there is abuse of discretion. There are those however who are convinced that the impeachment court is imbued with the unique power to decide on the accountability and culpability of officials who are, so to speak, more equal than others because the only way they could be relieved from office is through the process of impeachment – with the Senate being the only entity that could conduct the trial. Even in the United States, the courts refused to intervene in cases dealing with the impeachment of judges because the US Constitution has granted such power to the legislative branch.
Many Filipinos now more than ever appreciate the crucial role senators play in maintaining the balance of power. In this instance, they have in fact become the court of last resort. The days of kings and dictators are long over. It would be wise for all public servants to remember that “a public office is a public trust,” and be reminded of “hubris” — the arrogance of power before a fall. Recent ousted leaders like Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak found this out the hard way. No one has a monopoly on power. There are no more kings; only kingmakers — and that role belongs solely to the people.
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