Tide turning against President Aquino?

Yesterday, the prosecution team in Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment trial has prematurely rested its case, thereby dropping five of the eight impeachment charges. This decision has been a surprise, and the motivations behind it are not yet clear– they will certainly become a subject of speculation among Manila’s commentariat today.

But I think what’s clear now is that, more than two months after President Benigno S. Aquino III and his allies launched their surprise blitzkrieg attack against Chief Justice Renato Corona, the President’s forces now appear to be in some sort of a disadvantage. It appears that the tide of the war has shifted against the Aquino government. There are three reasons behind this.

The first reason is the bold assertiveness of the majority in the Supreme Court. It has come to the rescue of its embattled Chief, ordering the Senate to halt its inquiry into the Chief Justice’s unexplained dollar accounts and barring all its members and employees from testifying in the Impeachment Court. And despite this shocking display of arrogance, the duly-elected Senate, heretofore known for its assertion of its independence, chose to bow down to the members of the Supreme Court majority, all of whom are merely appointees of a president widely-acknowledged to have been illegitimate. Their myopic excuse is that they wanted to avoid a constitutional crisis.

The second reason is the increasing judicialization of the Senate Impeachment Court. While there had been some liberalities allowed at the onset, and the Senate President himself has pronounced that the trial is not a criminal one; the Senate has adopted a generally conservative attitude on things that matter. This is despite the overwhelming consensus in the American jurisprudence, which the framers of the Philippine Constitution affirmed in 1987, that the Senate Impeachment Court is supposed to be a policy-making body first before it is a judicial one.

This judicialization stems from a couple of factors. Firstly, you have the maneuverings, both legal and political, by the Chief Justice’s high-caliber defense counsels. The Defense’s dramatic allegations of bribery in the Impeachment Court, for instance, had pushed the Senate to prove its impartiality by accepting the temporary restraining order (TRO) issued by the Supreme Court against the Senate’s subpoena on the Chief Justice’s dollar accounts. Secondly, you have the myopic framing of the impeachment trial by some of the lawyers among the senator-judges, especially Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, on a purely legal perspective. Sociologist Randy David calls this the Lawyer’s Umwelt. This is probably the reason why the Senate President, for instance, denied the Prosecution’s motion to present as witness a ranking official of the Philippine Airlines (PAL), which had given the Chief Justice and his wife free flights and other perks while the Supreme Court was hearing a case involving PAL, on the basis of mere technicalities.

For the President and his allies, what this increasing judicialization implies is that a significant number of the senator-judges would probably require a high standard of proof to convict the impeached Chief Justice. But with an assertive Supreme Court– emboldened by a subservient Senate– aiding the Defense, there’s no way for the Prosecution to meet this high standard. Therefore, these senator-judges are more likely to acquit.

Things could have been different had public opinion been overwhelmingly for the Chief Justice’s conviction. In such a situation, the senator-judges would have been more predisposed to take the proceedings in a more liberal manner. This leads me now to the third reason: The public has gone quite apathetic. While the overwhelming majority had been solidly behind the President at the onset, it appears that their attention span had worn out. The most recent survey shows that the public would respect the Senate’s decision, whatever it may be. Either the President’s operators have failed to sustain the tide of public opinion against the Chief Justice or the public has just grown mature enough to leave the resolution of the issue to their political institutions.

Palace mandarin and blogger Manuel L. Quezon III has said that the Chief Justice’s camp has practically conceded the court of public opinion. But it appears that that court is not even a significant front in the Palace-Faura War anymore.

The public’s attitude can still change, of course. But this is highly unlikely at this point, unless the President re-calibrates his message in a spectacular way. My suspicion, and this is shared by many others too, is that the public does not really see the immediate significance of the Chief Justice’s impeachment trial, other than its entertainment value. This is because unlike the Presidency, the public doesn’t feel particularly strongly about the unelected position of Chief Justice.

Complicating matters for the President is the Iglesia ni Cristo factor. Its bible exposition yesterday didn’t turn political, but it did create a fuss. The event was clearly a mobilization intended to send a message to President Aquino: The Iglesia can provide, at the very least, a substantial cushion for the embattled Chief Justice, the President’s reform agenda be damned. Of course, the Iglesia would never win a long-term political war with the President; but at this point the Iglesia’s influence does matter, and it remains to be seen how the President would deal with Bishop Manalo’s church.

At the onset, the impeachment trial was clearly a very risky gamble. Indeed, I thought it was a mere bluff to force the Chief Justice to resign, a la Merceditas Gutierrez. In retrospect, I think the President’s camp may have underestimated Mr. Corona’s determination to fight the President, even to the extent of letting important political institutions– including the Senate, the checks and balance system and indeed his very own position and the Supreme Court itself– be diminished along the way.


JJ Domingo blogs at The Nutbox (@the_nutbox on Twitter)