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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Day 3 of Corona Impeachment Trial – SALN Drama

January 19, 2012

The legal fireworks in the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona reached a crescendo yesterday with the testimony of Supreme Court Clerk of Court, Enriqueta Esguerra-Vidal. Called yesterday to the witness stand by virtue of a subpoena requested by the prosecution, Ms. Vidal was at first a very hesitant witness. Questions propounded by Atty. Mario Bautista elicited very few information and were  expectedly confronted by objections from the defense, led by Atty. Serafin Cuevas. Ms. Vidal eluded questions concerning the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of Chief Justice Renato Corona and hid behind the 2 May 1989 En Banc Resolution of the Supreme Court that required authorization before the Clerk of Court can release the SALN of any justice.

At the end, it took the queries of Senator Franklin Drilon andseveral senators-jurors and a firm order from Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile to convince Ms. Vidal to turn over the SALN of Chief Justice Renato Corona to the impeachment court.

So what were the important legal lessons in day 3 of the trial? First, is the importance of obeying a subpoena. As defined under the Section 1, Rule 21 of the Rules of Court, a subpoena is a process directed to a person requiring him to attend and to testify at the hearing or the trial of an action, or at any investigation conducted by competent authority, or for the taking of his deposition. It may also require him to bring with him any books, documents, or other things under his control, in which case it is called a subpoena duces tecum. 

As seen yesterday, even if Ms. Vidal tried to convince the senators-jurors that she needed the authorization of the Supreme Court before submitting the SALN to the impeachment court, she had no choice but to comply since the said documents were requested through a validly issued subpoena. Had she continued to be non-cooperative, she could have been cited for contempt.

Impeachment Court vs. Supreme Court

As the impeachment trial progresses, it seems that the impeachment court and the Supreme Court are on a collision course due to the complex and conflicting issues being tackled. At no time has this been more evident than in yesterday’s hearing when the senators-jurors asserted its independence from the Supreme Court on the issue of Corona’s SALN. It seems that the impeachment court is of the opinion that they are a constitutionally created body and that the Supreme Court is co-equal to the Senate only when it is performing its legislative duties. It would be interesting to see if the Supreme Court can review the decision of the impeachment court later on.

Lawyer vs. Senator-Juror

Another interesting highlight of the impeachment trial yesterday was the objection posed by Atty. Cuevas to a question propounded by senator-juror Franklin Drilon to Ms. Vidal. A sheepish Atty. Cuevas had to backtrack when reminded by Senate President Enrile that this was not allowed under the Rules on Impeachment promulgated by the Senate.

Even during proceedings in regular courts, a judge is allowed to question witnesses and any lawyer worth his salt would not object to this. As held by the Supreme Court in several cases, a judge is called upon to ascertain the truth of the controversy before him.  He may properly intervene in the presentation of evidence to expedite and prevent unnecessary waste of time (Domanico v. Court of appeals, 122 SCRA 218, 225 [1983]) and clarify obscure and incomplete details after the witness had given direct testimony. (Valdez v. Aquilizan, 133 SCRA 150, 153 [1984]). After all, the judge is the arbiter and he ought to satisfy himself as to the respective merits of the claims of both parties in accord with the stringent demands of due process. (People v. Ancheta, 64 SCRA 90, 97 [1975]).

NOTED…Private Prosecutor Atty. Mario Bautista had to be reminded that he had to state the purpose of his witness’ testimony…Atty. Cuevas was very active in his objections and cross-examinations and came off as a better litigator…Senate President Enrile continues to be an effective and patient Presiding Officer, its a good thing that a lawyer, a very wise and experienced one at that, is the captain of a ship, which is always weathering legal storms…From their performance yesterday, it seems that the private prosecutors are also experiencing “birthing pains” in the impeachment trial, looks like its time to stop delegating litigation work on the law firm associates and hit the trenches once again.

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Day 2 of Corona Impeachment Trial

January 18, 2012

The second day of the Corona impeachment trial at the Senate proved to be interesting and delved into several basic legal principles and procedures. The first involves marital and filial privilege as brought about by the denial by the impeachment court of the prosecution’s request to subpoena the wife and children of the impeached Chief Justice. Marital and filial privilege is found under Sections 22 and 24 (a), Rule 130 of the Rules of Court, which state to wit:

“Sec. 22.Disqualification by reason of marriage. — During their marriage, neither the husband nor the wife may testify for or against the other without the consent of the affected spouse, except in a civil case by one against the other, or in a criminal case for a crime committed by one against the other or the latter’s direct descendants or ascendants.”

 “Sec. 24.Disqualification by reason of privileged communication. — The following persons cannot testify as to matters learned in confidence in the following cases:

(a)The husband or the wife, during or after the marriage, cannot be examined without the consent of the other as to any communication received in confidence by one from the other during the marriage except in a civil case by one against the other, or in a criminal case for a crime committed by one against the other or the latter’s direct descendants or ascendants.”

The second legal principle tackled is the right to self incrimination. This issue cropped up when the impeachment court denied the prosecution’s motion to subpoena several documents related to the purchase of  properties allegedly acquired by Corona and his family through ill-gotten means. The right to self-incrimination is enshrined in the Bill of Rights and found under Section 17 Article III of the 1987 Constitution which provides that “no person shall be compelled to be a witness against himself”. It is worth mentioning that an ordinary witness may invoke the right but he may only do so as each incriminating question is asked. On the other hand, an accused in a criminal case (who is akin to an impeached official) may invoke the right, but unlike the ordinary witness, he  may altogether refuse to take the witness stand and refuse to answer any and all questions.

Another legal principle that was discussed is the right of the prosecution to alter the sequence of the presentation of evidence. A lengthy debate ensued during the trial but it was unclear on whether this was indeed the right of the prosecution or merely discretionary upon the court. Eventually, it was agreed that the prosecution should just rearrange the sequence of the presentation of their evidence.

The prosecution also seemed to have forgotten the best evidence rule and the manner in presenting documentary evidence in court when Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga, one of the prosecutors, admitted before the impeachment court that they did not have witnesses to authenticate “computer-generated” documents from the Land Registration Authority (LRA) on Corona’s alleged properties. The “computer-generated documents” may not pass the best evidence rule found under Section 3, Rule 130 of the Rules of Court, which states:

“When the subject of inquiry is the contents of a document, no evidence shall be admissible other than the original document itself.”

Trial Notes….The lack of trial technique and practice of the prosecution was very evident in today’s trial….The first issue was put to vote by the senators-jurors when Senator Alan Cayetano disagreed with Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s ruling to deny the issuance of the subpoena to Corona’s family members. Eventually, the Senate President was upheld through a 14-6 vote. Is this a portent of things to come?….Those voting to uphold were Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Vicente Sotto III,  Edgardo Angara, Joker Arroyo, Franklin Drilon, Francis Escudero, Gregorio Honasan, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Panfilo Lacson, Lito Lapid, Sergio Osmena III, Francis Pangilinan, Ralph Recto, and Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. Those opposed were Senators Alan Cayetano, Pia Cayetano, Aquilino Pimentel III, Teofisto Guingona III, Antonio Trillanes IV, and Manuel Villar….The Supreme Court averted what could have been a constitutional crisis when it did not issue a TRO on the impeachment trial.

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Impeachment Trial of CJ Corona Begins at Senate

January 16, 2012

The trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona began today at the Senate, with the Senators acting as an impeachment court. There were several key developments in today’s hearing, to wit:

  • Corona’s motion for a preliminary hearing was denied.
  • The motion to cite the prosecution team for contempt was dismissed due to lack of standing by the movant.
  • The prosecution gave their opening statement, through Rep. Niel Tupas, calling Corona a “loyal servant of GMA” and showing the properties he allegedly obtained. He also declared Corona, due to his misdeeds, unfit to remain Chief Justice.
  • The defense gave their opening statement, through Atty. Eduardo de los Angeles, by reiterating that the Chief Justice does not own 45 real estate properties as alleged by impeachment prosecutors and that President Aquino is antagonistic to the Supreme Court because of its ruling in the Hacienda Luisita case.
  • Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile advised both parties to exercise some “degree of caution” in exposing evidence outside of the impeachment court.
  • The lawyers for both parties entered their appearances.

Chief Justice Corona was present at the hearing, together with his wife and Court Administrator Midas Marquez. It is expected that the impeachment trial will last anywhere from 1 to 6 months. The prosecution has stated that they will begin presenting their witness by tomorrow.

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