SINCE CHIEF JUSTICE RENATO CORONA decided to accept the poisoned chalice from President Macapagal-Arroyo, the least he is expected to do is to drink from it. Not least because he has gotten to be chief justice due to efforts and arguments first forwarded in 1998—when his appointment as a judge by President Ramos was voided by the Supreme Court—and which finally bore bitter fruit in 2010, when the Court granted itself an exemption from constitutional prohibitions on presidential appointments during the campaign and transition period, thus paving the way for Corona’s becoming chief justice.
So in a sense he is joined at the hip to the point of view that there shouldn’t be any sort of ban on appointments during election periods or in the transition from one administration to the next. And here, the contrast between this assertion—whether on the part of President Arroyo, who set aside precedents dating back to her own father’s revocation of the midnight appointments of his predecessor—and the present Supreme Court itself (in granting itself an exemption) not to mention Corona himself, who ignored former Chief Justice Manuel Moran’s decision, based on delicadeza, to decline an opportunity to return to the high court by means of a midnight appointment, is instructive.
The President’s decision to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Chief Justice Reynato Puno, the decision of the Supreme Court to reject challenges to that assertion of the power to appoint during the campaign and transition period, and Corona’s accepting the appointment—these are part and parcel of the institutionalization of impunity that has become the hallmark and chief legacy of this administration.
It’s the brazenness of the whole thing, the impunity of it all, that is astounding. And, in turn, it indicates why there are such irreconcilable differences between those who oppose the appointment (and criticize Corona’s thinking he can accept the poisoned cup and be exempt from the effects of drinking from it) and those who demand its uncritical acceptance.
At the heart of the clash of perspectives is the role personal ethics should play in such situations: on the one hand, the President has every right to propose wielding her powers in a controversial manner, and the Supreme Court has every right—the duty, even—to resolve it, and that in the end because they said so, that’s the end of that.
Setting aside the recent track record of the high court for making decisions, then reconsidering them, and in the process overturning decisions that in the past would have stood as final, there remains a question that is beyond the province of the law, and more within the province of how, exactly, officials should handle their powers.
Should they approach their powers with self-control and restraint in mind, or throw caution to the winds on the Marcosian principle that “nothing succeeds like success!” so long, as a cowed and frightened “Supreme” once whispered to him, “a color of constitutionality” is preserved? There is only one word to describe the President’s decision to assert what she saw as her prerogative to appoint Corona, and that word is, malicious.
And in that sense, the Supremes and their new chief are complicit, though they and the President know full well the truth of that old maxim: possession is nine-tenths of the law. Whether the country is divided on the legitimacy of the new chief justice, with some viewing him as de facto and others, de jure, the reality is he now presides over the high court, has been recognized as such, and the options of the next chief executive in terms of dealing with a co-equal branch of government, are limited.
Since we are bound to respect the office, never mind our personal opinions of the temporary occupant of that office, we will all stand when the new chief justice enters a room, and we are, so long as we remain committed to a government of laws and not men, will accept the decisions of the Supreme Court even when yesterday’s decisions end up overturned by tomorrow’s new decisions based on repeated motions for reconsideration—though hardly anyone doubts the pending second motion for reconsideration of the high court’s paving the way for Corona’s appointment will be overturned.
Only if you view challenging the validity of the malicious midnight appointments of the President—and I am paraphrasing the words of her father in characterizing the midnight appointments of his predecessor, the executive act that formalized what Moran already knew, eight years earlier, as the wrong thing for an incumbent to do in the closing days of his term—as illegal, can anyone think there is a constitutional crisis. Last anyone checked, going to court or even impeachment are bonafide constitutional methods for rectifying wrongs.
But there is a crisis: of legitimacy, and of ethical governance. The line has been drawn in the sand, and the cunning trap here is the clamor from certain quarters to put a premium on appearances and to downplay the deep significance, the fundamental difference in approaching governance, between the President and her expected successor.
In the end what every administration has the right to expect, is to set the tone for its turn at the helm. This is why there have been so many innovations and departures from tradition in inaugurations. Thus putting in place a chief justice who soiled his own robes not only justifies, but almost makes mandatory, some sort of deviation from tradition. Whether a barangay captain or associate justice administers the presidential oath matters less than the next president’s right to demonstrate that ethics will be part of his core approach to the responsibilities of his office.
My views on this subject can be found in my blog entries Midnight appointments (January 15, 2010) and The dynamics of succession (January 23, 2010), and, in my columns Scorched earth to the bitter end (January 18, 2010) nd The presidential tar pit (March 21, 2010), and in this transcript of my interview on The Rundown last Tuesday. See also today’s Inquirer editorial, Corona of thorns.