“There is no doubt that we are staring at a constitutional crisis right in the face,” said Supreme Court spokesperson Midas Marquez, after the House of Representatives impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona. But on the day Marquez uttered his grave declaration, the Philippine republic seemed none the worse for wear from the supposed titanic and historic crisis it was going through. All three co-equal branches of government continued to operate normally—even the Supreme Court, which, Marquez admitted, would continue to function regularly, despite the impeachment of the Chief Justice.
By sunset of that day, nothing untoward had happened to the state or to its citizens. Whatever large-scale disruption there was would, in fact, occur only the next day—on the Supreme Court’s turf, when Marquez, also the court administrator, enjoined everyone in the judicial branch of government to suspend work for the day to listen to Corona’s speech decrying his impeachment and vowing to cling to his post by hook or by crook. Among the hearings affected by the court suspensions was the Ampatuan massacre trial. Marquez would subsequently deny that he ordered a “court holiday,” but an Iloilo judge said he got the call from Marquez himself.
In any case, nearly the country’s entire judiciary ground to a halt, with employees of Manila salas even trooping to the Supreme Court grounds to cheer as their embattled chief launched a counterattack against President Aquino and his allies in Congress with a sour, caustic peroration that sounded more like a campaign stump speech, and whose main meat—“Handa po akong humarap sa paglilitis”—the courts could have been told about without them having to go on work stoppage. Incidentally, the high court itself has forbidden government personnel from suspending official work to engage in rallies or politically related activities. Surely this counted as one. But for the Chief Justice’s sake, one supposes, a creative reinterpretation of the law was again in order.
The anomalous court holiday derives from the same hubristic mindset that informs the so-called “constitutional crisis” Marquez troubles his head with: the idea that the Supreme Court is Corona, and Corona is the Supreme Court, and any attack on the Chief Justice is therefore also an assault on the Court and the branch of government it heads. “Make no mistake,” said Marquez, “this is an assault not only on the person of Chief Justice Corona, not only on his office, not only on the Supreme Court. This is an assault on all the rights, powers and privileges of the entire judiciary.”
Corona himself, unperturbed by any scintilla of humility or circumspection, has no problem proclaiming that he and the office he holds are indeed one and the same: “I am here. I am not going anywhere. I am your defender and most of all I am your Chief Justice. Together we will face these challenges and fight all who dare to destroy the Court and our system of justice under the Constitution.”
Ah, the Constitution. It’s a good thing Corona mentioned it, because nowhere in that document does it say that any government official becomes one with the office he or she holds, and that that government official may be removed from office only at the risk of damaging the office itself. When President Joseph Estrada was impeached by Congress, did the nation hear him complain that the onslaught against him was “an assault on all the rights, powers and privileges” of the presidency? Even Estrada wasn’t too dumb to claim that. The Constitution, in fact, lays out the opposite spirit. All government officials, whether elected or appointed, are accountable for their actions, and successful enforcement of that accountability—through constitutional offices such as the courts, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Sandiganbayan—could only disinfect and strengthen the offices defiled by their wayward personnel.
But, since the Chief Justice can’t be sued in his own court, the Constitution mandates one avenue by which to enforce accountability on him: impeachment. Loud and clear. When hard questions, then, are asked of the nation’s chief magistrate, when he is asked to explain himself on matters where his fairness, impartiality and fidelity to the oath of office he took are perceived to be in doubt, why should that be, necessarily and automatically, an assault on his office and the entire judiciary itself?
Corona’s impeachment is about Corona alone. He and his office are not one and indissoluble. To claim otherwise is the height of delusional conceit.