Stumbling Into History

by Juan L. Mercado

Renato Corona stumbled into history books Tuesday. He became the first Supreme Court chief justice ever to be barred from leaving the Senate.

Will he set another record next week? That’s when 23 senator judges decide whether or not he should be trashed on an impeachment charge of smudging salted-away dollars from his Statement of Assets and Liabilities.

Corona stalked out before the impeachment court gave him permission to leave the witness stand. Guards slammed Senate exits shut after presiding officer Juan Ponce Enrile ordered a lock down and  Corona be brought back.

Aides later trundled a limp chief justice to the session hall in a wheel chair. “We apologize to the court”,  flustered lead counsel Serafin Cuevas said.  Corona was really ill. He was? Tuesday night, he was confined at Medical City.

In this country, hospitals have become the last foxholes for officials on the lam: These include Agriculure undersecretary “Joc Joc” Bolante, Commission on Elections Benjamin Abalos, the Ampatuan, father and son of Maguindanao, plus Erap.  Gloria Macapagal Arroyo today is confined in a Veteran’s Memorial Hospital suite, awaiting trial for plunder and election sabotage.  In these cases, the press is reduced to sifting spins, by spokespersons of the refuge-seekers, parsed from medical bulletins.

“It was surreal,” emailed retired professor Adelaida Bago. “Every time Corona uttered words unbecoming of a chief  justice, my lawyer daughter would say: “He’s weird.”  She laughed when I predicted this sordid drama would end up at St. Luke’s Hospital. I erred. That turned out to be Medical City.

“The sight of the highest magistrate,  being indirectly scolded by the impeachment judge, on national television for improper behavior in court through his defense counsel gave Bago goose bumps.

Will the impeachment court keep to it’s timetable?   Senator-judges seek to avoid a repeat of dead-end fiasco of Estrada ‘s  uncompleted  impeachment. They plan to hear closing statements by  prosecution and defense, then  hand down it’s decision late Monday, maybe Tuesday.

Who knows?. “When men  speak of  the future, the gods laugh”,  a Chinese proverb says. It is clear, however, there is a growing number who think Corona has lost the moral capacity to serve as chief justice.  He is  “dead man walking”, as the 1995 film put it.

Reforms that a post-Corona Supreme  Court adopt are moving to front burners. They start with a mess that Economist Peter Wallace aptly call: ”a dysfunctional court system”.  It is one rigged against  the needy to coddle the powerful.

Excerpts:  In the Court of Appeals 17,571 cases sit, some for over 3 years. In the lower courts there are cases that have been there for 10 years (average) to 24 years (extreme cases). In the Maguindanao massacre, some 120 accused are still at large.

Majority of  Arroyo justices skewed  decisions for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. These ranged from upholding “executive privilege that gagged NEDA  secretary Romulo Neri from”singing on the anomalous NBN-ZTE deal to rushing a TRO for  GMA’s flight abroad.

“The Philippines possibly has one of, if not the worst judicial systems in Southeast Asia. The slowness, the inability to come to judgment, and some strange judgments that suggest political influences, even reports of corruption are too frequent to not have some credence”.

The World Bank  complained that  “unchecked irregularity” marred it $21.9 million loan for the Judicial Reform Support Project (JRSP).  Nagged by perception of corruption in courts, Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. secured, in October 2003, bank funding for a reform program.

World Bank sought a refund of $199,900 in “ineligible expenditures,” Inquirer reports. Of 70 ineligible transactions, 16 were “attributed to Court Administrator Marquez and his office.” JRSP is a “high-risk” project, the report found. Its financial statements “can no longer be relied upon.”

Other flaws include: self-serving internal audit, lack of segregation of duties to procurement irregularities. The Commission on Audit skewers feet-dragging implementation that resulted in penalties.

The bank’s aide-mémoire “notes gross irregularities happened in 2010 and 2011,”  Budget Secretary Butch Abad pointed out.

During this period, the bank observed “escalating use of funds and procurements that violated the agreement.”  Corona was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 2010.

Court Administrator Marquez also headed the Bids and Awards Committee which held the JRSP checkbook. “In four contracts to one firm, (Marquez) was requestor of services, approver of terms of reference, end user, authorizer of contract extensions, authorizer of payments.

“No one  I talked  has even one good word to say about the Philippine justice system. Particularly of this Supreme Court The worst in living memory” according to one senior person in the system who is intimately aware of the system he has operated in all his life, Wallace wrote.  “The Philippines has to break out of the morass it’s now in.  But it won’t with the court system that now exists.”

However the impeachment court rules  next week, these problems will constitute major challenges ahead.  They are an unsought heritage from the Corona watch —- that has started to slip into history.

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