The trial of Chief Justice Corona hangs in the balance. Its fate could be a boon or a bane for good governance.
If we rule out a mistrial (highly unlikely at this point), then there are only two possible outcomes of the Corona impeachment trial: acquittal or conviction. Either way, the Filipino people have indicated their willingness to accept the Senate’s verdict. The problem is that the Palace and its adherents are only willing to accept one: his conviction.
What should happen if Corona is acquitted? Well, it seems that both the Ombudsman and the Palace are intent on filing a fresh complaint when the one year ban expires in December. The current trial hinges on whether or not his omissions of dollar denominated assets (the existence of which he testified to yesterday) in his SALN constitute enough grounds for impeachment. Next time around, the complaint will focus squarely on questions of ill-gotten wealth.
The difficulties of a second impeachment trial have not dawned on the faithful yet. First of all, next year is an election year. December of this year will be when the candidates for the Senate begin their election campaigns. Congress will then go on recess to allow incumbents seeking re-election to focus on winning a fresh mandate. This will mean postponing until after the May elections any impeachment proceedings, when in all probability the UNA coalition will increase its numbers in the upper chamber.
That means at the halfway point of the second Aquino presidency, the government will be hobbled by an unnecessary distraction as it seeks to press home its agenda for inclusive and sustainable growth through good governance. Of course by then, Corona would have corrected his SALN to include all his assets, and if his story of how he acquired his riches adds up, ill-gotten wealth might be a lot harder to prove than the omission of certain items in the first instance.
The one positive thing that might come out of an acquittal is greater resolve on the part of reform-minded senators and congressmen to push for greater powers for the Ombudsman, the BIR and other relevant government agencies to investigate public officials for corruption.
On the other hand, what should happen if Corona gets convicted? After being removed from office, he could face criminal prosecution in the graft court. This time around the question of amassing ill-gotten wealth could be the issue. There are again two possibilities. He could either be acquitted or convicted.
The question of admissibility of evidence presented at the Senate impeachment trial will resurface. The legality of obtaining the bank and AMLC documents will be central. If Corona is acquitted on legal technicalities, it would reflect badly on the government’s ability to gather good credible evidence to build a case. It would reinforce the dismal conviction record of our anti-graft bodies. This again might prompt new rules that would arm them appropriately in pursuing their mandate in a more orderly and effective manner.
If on the other hand he is convicted of corruption on the basis of the evidence gathered by the Ombudsman and presented at the impeachment trial, it could lead to a backlash by Congressmen who are already proposing to curb the powers of that office (not that those powers have helped in convicting corrupt officials in the past, as the Sandiganbayan’s report for the first quarter of 2012 has shown: a mere 10 per cent of cases filed by the Ombudsman or 8 out of 78 resulted in a conviction).
In fact, the biggest damage to be inflicted by the impeachment of the Chief Justice could be this: a weakening of already weak and toothless agencies based on perceptions of institutional over-reach by them.
So either way, it seems good governance will still hang in the balance.