The Original Sin of Renato Corona, the Most Controversial Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court

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"I know the legal justifications for your appointment, but what's the moral justification?"

This was my question to Renato C. Corona, the most controversial Chief Justice the Philippines ever had, during a dinner-meeting with several bloggers at his Supreme Court office in Manila last Wednesday. The said meeting was organized by Noemi Lardizabal-Dado, editor of Blogwatch.

"Well, modesty aside, if you see my qualifications, I think you'd agree that any president would appoint me, or at least consider appointing me, to the post," he said.

"Yes, I do agree with you, sir. But why, then, did you not wait for President Aquino to appoint you instead?"

Well, you see, the Constitution does not provide for an acting Chief Justice."

But this doesn't mean that designating an acting Chief Justice is unconstitutional, isn't it? The Judiciary Act of 1948 states that in the event of a vacancy in the position of Chief Justice, the most senior of the associate justices shall assume the position in an acting capacity, until the new chief magistrate is chosen. Indeed, Hilario Davide served in this capacity before he was appointed by President Joseph Estrada in 1998.

For me, however you look at it, Corona's appointment by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo two days after the election of President Benigno S. Aquino III should have been declared unconstitutional. The Constitution was clear in banning any presidential appointments two months before the current president's term ends; but Arroyo allies, citing ambiguity in the language of the Constitution, asserted that his prohibition apply only in appointments to positions in the Executive branch. Yet the living framers of the Constitution insist that there is no such ambiguity, and that the ban also applies on members of the Judiciary. This is why, in 1998, Chief Justice Andres Narvasa refused to allow out-going President Ramos to appoint a replacement for Associate Justice Ricardo J. Francisco, who was then retiring.

Obviously, the reason why the framers of the Constitution enshrined the ban on midnight appointments is because they deem that, in a transition period, the President is merely a care-taker who must not do anything that would undermine the intentions of the President-elect.  This is supposed to be common sense: In 1953, for instance, the great Manuel Moran, even though he badly wanted the post, refused out-going President Elpidio Quirino's offer to be appointed to the Supreme Court because he thought any such appointments should be a decision of the then incoming President, Ramon Magsaysay.

Arroyo's father himself, Diosdado Macapagal, knew how inappropriate midnight appointments are: He voided 350 such appointments by his predecessor, Carlos P. Garcia, within twenty-four hours of assuming the Presidency. The Supreme Court upheld him, ruling that an out-going President "should not do acts which he ought to know would embarrass or obstruct the policies of his successor."

But lawyers can always make what appears to be wrong right. The Corona-led Supreme Court upheld the Chief Justice's midnight appointment, making it, at least technically, legal. But making an act legal doesn't make it right, which is why my question was framed not on legalities but on the general wisdom of Corona's midnight appointment.

"Yes, that's the legal justification, but what makes it right?" I pressed the Chief Justice. "How harmful is a vacancy in the position of Chief Justice to the Judiciary that a president had to appoint you immediately, and only two days after the election of her successor?"

"Well, you see, there was no big case in 2010," he said. "But what if there were?"

This answer implied that the Chief Justice is so important to the Supreme Court that a case could not be heard without him. I find this strange. Being merely primus inter pares, the Chief Justice's only role is to preside over the hearing of a case. Without him, the most senior Associate Justice can preside. As Corona himself said that night, the Court is collegial, and the Chief Justice's vote is only as important as his fellow justices' vote.

During that two-hour meeting, I found Chief Justice Corona very pleasant and unassuming. He doesn't inspire the same gravitas other national leaders do, but he was articulate and obviously intelligent. We share the same passion for history, and he was kind enough to show his collection of enlarged photocopies of historical documents showing the extra-ordinary role his wife's family, the Basas, played in Philippine history. I understand now why many Supreme Court employees are all out in supporting him. He is likeable.

But I don't think he was being truthful, or at least not completely. I don't think he really believes that his midnight appointment is morally justifiable, which is why I chose not to press the matter further.

For me, the issue of Corona's appointment is the crux of this whole controversy. The Supreme Court may have wrapped the said midnight appointment with all its elaborate technical legalese; but, from the perspective of the country's general consensus of what is right and wrong- based on its political experience, jurisprudence and the intent of its Constitution-it was, at the very least, an act of grave imprudence and, at worst, a brazen attempt by a corrupt president to undermine her successor, thereby thwarting, for the third time, the people's will.

Like the other bloggers who were present last Wednesday, I'm willing to give Chief Justice Corona the benefit of the doubt with regards to corruption allegations. But one thing remains clear: Offered an appointment that was clearly against convention, against precedence, and against good faith; Corona, if he really is the morally-upright man he claims himself to be, should have chosen to refuse, thereby upholding delicadeza. But he chose otherwise.

That, I think, was Corona's original sin.

JJ Domingo is a Manila-based political blogger and is the author of The Nutbox, where this article was first published. He had contributed to the Philippine Online Chronicle (POC). He previously wrote about the impeachment trial of the Philippine Chief Justice

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