Judgment Day: Chief Justice Renato C. Corona

May 28, 2012

By: Atty. Ryan L. Tanjutco

The seemingly never ending saga that is the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona is about to come to a historic close. For the first time, an impeachment court was able to complete its proceedings and is ready to render judgment.

Despite their fumbles and miscues, the prosecution has been able to salvage three out of the eight Articles of Impeachment. The centerpiece being Article 2 which alleges that Chief Justice Renato C. Corona culpably violated the Constitution and/or betrayed the public trust by failing to disclose to the public his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth in accordance with Section 17, Article 11 of the 1987 Constitution.

On the part of the defense, Chief Justice Corona directly admitted that he did not disclose his dollar deposits amounting to $2.4 Million because they were confidential under the Foreign Currency Deposits Act. He also claimed that he did not state in his SALN his three other peso accounts amounting to Php 80 Million because these were co-mingled funds and included money from Basa Guidote Enterprises, Inc., a corporation owned by the family of his wife.

Stripped of all its drama, legalese and hyperboles, the main issue that will determine the fate of the Chief Justice is whether he committed an impeachable offense when he did not declare his Dollar deposits and other Peso accounts in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN).

The senator-judges are now faced with the unenviable task of either convicting or acquitting the Chief Justice by considering the applicable laws and the evidence and testimony on record. A judgment of acquittal would mean that they accept hook, line and sinker, the defense theory that a public official is not bound to declare his foreign currency deposit accounts in his SALN due to Section 8 of Republic Act 6426 or the Foreign Currency Deposit Act, which states, to wit:

“All foreign currency deposits authorized under this Act, as amended by PD No. 1035, as well as foreign currency deposits authorized under PD No. 1034, are hereby declared as and considered of an absolutely confidential nature and, except upon the written permission of the depositor, in no instance shall foreign currency deposits be examined, inquired or looked into by any person, government official, bureau or office whether judicial or administrative or legislative, or any other entity whether public or private.”

Such a decision, however, is fraught with disastrous consequences for transparency and accountability as corrupt government officials need to only convert their pesos into foreign currency to avoid declaring their assets in their SALN. Ultimately, it would offer them a haven to escape scrutiny and examination of their ill-gotten wealth. This is not consistent with the spirit and intent of Section 17, Article XI of The 1987 Constitution which declares that “a public officer or employee shall, upon assumption of office and as often thereafter as may be required by law, submit a declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities, and net worth.”

It also renders nugatory the provision of Section 8 of Republic Act 6713 or the “Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees”, which states that “public officials and employees have an obligation to accomplish and submit declarations under oath of, and the public has the right to know, their assets, liabilities, net worth and financial and business interests including those of their spouses and of unmarried children under eighteen (18) years of age living in their households.

It must also be remembered that the confidentiality clause of the RA 6426 is directed only to banks to keep the foreign currency bank accounts of their clients privileged and confidential. It should not be taken to mean and be used as an excuse for a government official to evade his disclosure responsibilities under the law.

It has also been argued that the non-declaration by the Chief Justice of his dollar deposits and other peso account in his SALN does not constitute an impeachable offense, Jurisprudence, however, is replete with cases dismissing government officials for non-declaration of assets in their SALN for lesser reasons than those proferred by the Chief Justice. Thus,

  • In the case of Rabe vs. Flores [A.M. No. P-97-1247.  May 14, 1997] Interpreter III Delsa M. Flores was dismissed from service with forfeiture of all retirement benefits and accrued leave credits and with prejudice to re-employment in any branch or instrumentality of the government, including government-owned or controlled corporations for merely failing to disclose in her SALN that she was running a stall in the market.
  • In the case of Concerned Taxpayer vs. Doblada [A.M. No. P-99-1342.  June 8, 2005], Norberto V. Doblada, Jr., Sheriff IV of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Pasig, Branch 155, was accused of having acquired properties during his incumbency as sheriff, the values of which “are manifestly out of proportion to his salary as such public employee and to his other lawful income or incomes from legitimately acquired property. He was found guilty of violating Section 7 of R.A. No. 3019 and Section 8 of R.A. No. 6713 for his failure to declare a true and detailed statement of his assets and liabilities for the years 1974, 1976, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995 and 1998 and was meted out the penalty of dismissal from service pursuant to Section 9(b), R.A. No. 3019 and Section 11, R.A. No. 6713.
  • In the case of Flores vs. Montemayor [G.R. No. 170146, August 25, 2010], Atty. Antonio F. Montemayor was a Regional Director II of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), Region IV, in San Fernando, Pampanga. He did not declare his 2001 Ford Expedition in his 2001 SALN and a 1997 Toyota Land Cruiser in his 2001 and 2002 SALN.  He was, thus, dismissed from government service for his repeated and consistent failure to reflect truthfully and adequately all his assets and liabilities in his SALN.

Ultimately, the Chief Justice, being the highest magistrate of the land, must be held to a higher standard. Not only must his actions be guided by legal principles but he should be morally upright and be the among the first to uphold transparency and accountability in government. Fittingly, the words of the Supreme Court in a slew of cases are now apropos:

“We have repeatedly held that although every office in the government service is a public trust, no position exacts a greater demand for moral righteousness and uprightness from an individual than in the judiciary.  Personnel in the judiciary should conduct themselves in such a manner as to be beyond reproach and suspicion, and free from any appearance of impropriety in their personal behavior, not only in the discharge of their official duties but also in their everyday life.  They are strictly mandated to maintain good moral character at all times and to observe irreproachable behavior so as not to outrage public decency.” [Legaspi vs. Garrete, 242 SCRA 679, 701, March 27, 1995 citing Montemayor vs. Collado, Adm. Matter No. 2519-MJ, September 10, 1981, 107 SCRA 258, 264; Association of Court Employees of Panabo, Davao vs. Tupas, Adm. Matter No. RTJ-87-141, July 12, 1989, 175 SCRA 292, 296; Leynes vs. Veloso, Adm. Matter No. 689-MJ and Virrey vs. Veloso, Adm. Matter No. 809-MJ, the two latter cases promulgated on April 13, 1978, 82 SCRA 352, 328.]

Little did the Supreme Court know that these pronouncements would one day apply to one of their esteemed colleagues, none other than the Chief Justice of the Philippines himself. With judgment day close at hand, the Chief Justice of the Philippines can only wish that he be excused.

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Results of 2011 Bar Examinations

February 29, 2012

The Supreme Court has released the results of the 2011 Bar Examinations held last November. A total of 1,913 examinees out of 5,990 hopefuls passed the bar for a passing average of 31.95%, one of the highest ever in the history of the bar exams. The topnotcher is Raoul Angelo Atadero of Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) with a score of 85.53%. The rest of the top 10 are:

1. Raoul Angelo D. Atadero (ADMU)
2. Luz Danielle O. Bolong (ADMU)
3. Cherry Liez O. Rafal-Roble (Arellano University)
4. Rosemil R. Bañaga (Notre Dame University)
5. Christian Louie C. Gonzales (UST)
6. Ivan M. Bandal (Siliman University)
7. Eireene Xina M. Acosta (San Beda)
8. Irene Marie P. Qua (ADMU)
9. Elaine Marie G. Laceda (FEU-DLSU)
10. Rodolfo Q. Aquino (San Beda)

Surprisingly, no one from the University of the Philippines made the top 10. The 2011 bar exams, for the first time, contained multiple choice questions aside from the usual essay type. Congratulations to all new lawyers! For a full list of successful examinees, please click here. Oath-taking will be on March 21, 2012.

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Standard of Evidence in Corona Impeachment Trial

January 27, 2012

The issue of what standard of evidence will be used in determining the fate of Chief Justice Renato Corona has cropped up in the impeachment trial at the Senate. The prosecution is of the opinion that the standard should be “substantial evidence”, while the defense claims that it should be “proof beyond reasonable doubt”. It is now worth examining the different standards of evidence under the Rules of Court and related jurisprudence.

SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE

Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla of evidence.  It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, even if other minds equally reasonable might conceivably opine otherwise. [Montemayor v. Bundalian, 453 Phil. 158, 167 (2003).]

In administrative proceedings, the quantum of proof necessary for a finding of guilt is substantial evidence, i.e., that amount of relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.  Further, the complainant has the burden of proving by substantial evidence the allegations in his complaint.  The basic rule is that mere allegation is not evidence and is not equivalent to proof.  Charges based on mere suspicion and speculation likewise cannot be given credence.  Hence, when the complainant relies on mere conjectures and suppositions, and fails to substantiate his allegations, the administrative complaint must be dismissed for lack of merit.

PROOF BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT

Proof beyond reasonable doubt means proof to the satisfaction of the court and keeping in mind the presumption of innocence that precludes every reasonable hypothesis except that for which it is given.  It is not sufficient for the proof to establish a probability, even though strong, that the fact charged is more likely true than the contrary.  It must establish the truth of the fact to a reasonable certainty and moral certainty – a certainty that convinces and satisfies the reason and conscience of those who are to act upon it. [People v. Castillo, G.R. No. 132895, March 10, 2004, 425 SCRA 136, 166, citing United States v. Reyes, 3 Phil. 6 (1903).]

The Constitution itself provides that in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall be presumed innocent until the contrary is proved. An accused is entitled to an acquittal unless his guilt is shown beyond reasonable doubt. It is the primordial duty of the prosecution to present its side with clarity and persuasion, so that conviction becomes the only logical and inevitable conclusion, with moral certainty.

The necessity for proof beyond reasonable doubt was discussed in People v. Berroya [347 Phil. 410, 423 (1997)]:

[Proof beyond reasonable doubt] lies in the fact that in a criminal prosecution, the State is arrayed against the subject; it enters the contest with a prior inculpatory finding in its hands; with unlimited means of command; with counsel usually of authority and capacity, who are regarded as public officers, as therefore as speaking semi-judicially, and with an attitude of tranquil majesty often in striking contrast to that of defendant engaged in a perturbed and distracting struggle for liberty if not for life. These inequalities of position, the law strives to meet by the rule that there is to be no conviction where there is reasonable doubt of guilt. However, proof beyond reasonable doubt requires only moral certainty or that degree of proof which produces conviction in an unprejudiced mind.

PREPONDERANCE OF EVIDENCE

Preponderance of evidence” is the weight, credit, and value of the aggregate evidence on either side and is usually considered synonymous with the term “greater weight of the evidence” or “greater weight of the credible evidence.” “Preponderance of evidence” is a phrase that, in the last analysis, means probability of the truth. It is evidence that is more convincing to the court as worthy of belief than that which is offered in opposition thereto. [Perfecta Cavile, Jose de la Cruz and Rural Bank of Bayawan, Inc. v. Justina Litania-Hongaccompanied and joined by her husband, Leopoldo Hong and Genoveva Litania, G.R. No. 179540, March 13, 2009, citing Go v. Court of Appeals, 403 Phil. 883, 890-891 (2001).]

Rule 133, Section 1 of the Rules of Court provides the guidelines in determining preponderance of evidence, thus:

SECTION I.  Preponderance of evidence, how determined.  In civil cases, the party having burden of proof must establish his case by a preponderance of evidence. In determining where the preponderance or superior weight of evidence on the issues involved lies, the court may consider all the facts and circumstances of the case, the witnesses’ manner of testifying, their intelligence, their means and opportunity of knowing the facts to which they are testifying, the nature of the facts to which they testify, the probability or improbability of their testimony, their interest or want of interest, and also their personal credibility so far as the same may legitimately appear upon the trial. The court may also consider the number of witnesses, though the preponderance is not necessarily with the greater number.

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The Corona Impeachment Trial: Inhibition of Senator Judges

January 24, 2012

Over the weekend, news report came out that the defense panel in the Corona Impeachment Trial is planning to ask for the inhibition of certain senator-judges, ostensibly for showing bias and partiality towards the prosecution and acting as prosecutors themselves. We now tackle the rules and jurisprudence regarding the inhibition and disqualification of judges to see if there is legal basis for the defense panel’s plan.

Section 1, Rule 137 of the Rules of Court sets forth the rule on inhibition and disqualification of judges, to wit:

SECTION 1.  Disqualification of judges. – No judge or judicial officer shall sit in any case in which he, or his wife or child, is pecuniarily interested as heir, legatee, creditor or otherwise, or in which he is related to either party within the sixth degree of consanguinity or affinity, or to counsel within the fourth degree, computed according to the rules of civil law, or in which he has been executor, administrator, guardian, trustee or counsel, or in which he has presided in any inferior court when his ruling or decision is the subject of review, without the written consent of all parties in interest, signed by them and entered upon the record.

 A judge may, in the exercise of his sound discretion, disqualify himself from sitting in a case, for just or valid reasons other than those mentioned above.

This rule enumerates the specific grounds upon which a judge may be disqualified from participating in a trial.  It must be borne in mind that the inhibition of judges is rooted in the Constitution, specifically Article III, the Bill of Rights, which guarantees that no person shall be held to answer for a criminal offense without due process of law.  Due process necessarily requires that a hearing is conducted before an impartial and disinterested tribunal [Gutierrez v. Santos, G.R. No. L-15824, May 30, 1961, 2 SCRA 249.] because unquestionably, every litigant is entitled to nothing less than the cold neutrality of an impartial judge. All the other elements of due process, like notice and hearing, would be meaningless if the ultimate decision would come from a partial and biased judge. [Rallos v. Gako, A.M. Nos. RTJ-99-1484 and RTJ-99-1484 (A), March 17, 2000, 328 SCRA 324.]

The second paragraph of the rule addresses voluntary inhibition. Based on this provision, judges have been given the exclusive prerogative to recuse themselves from hearing cases for reasons other than those pertaining to their pecuniary interest, relation, previous connection, or previous rulings or decisions. The issue of voluntary inhibition in this instance becomes primarily a matter of conscience and sound discretion on the part of the judge. [Latorre v. Ansaldo,  A.M. No. RTJ-00-1563, May 31, 2001, 358 SCRA 311.] It is a subjective test the result of which the reviewing tribunal will generally not disturb in the absence of any manifest finding of arbitrariness and whimsicality.

This discretion granted to trial judges takes cognizance of the fact that these judges are in a better position to determine the issue of voluntary inhibition as they are the ones who directly deal with the parties-litigants in their courtrooms. [Gutang v. CA, 354 Phil. 77 (1998).] Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that the authority for voluntary inhibition does not give judges unlimited discretion to decide whether or not they will desist from hearing a case. [People v. Kho, G.R. No. 139381, April 20, 2001, 357 SCRA 290.]  The decision on whether or not judges should inhibit themselves must be based on their rational and logical assessment of the circumstances prevailing in the cases brought before them. [Gacayan v. Pamintuan, A.M. No. RTJ-99-1483, September 17, 1999, 314 SCRA 682.] Similarly, the right of a party to seek the inhibition or disqualification of a judge who does not appear to be wholly free, disinterested, impartial and independent in handling the case must be balanced with the latter’s sacred duty to decide cases without fear of repression.  [Webb v. People, G.R. No. 127262,  July 24, 1997, 276 SCRA 243.] The movant must therefore prove the ground of bias and prejudice by clear and convincing evidence to disqualify a judge from participating in a particular trial.

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