Feb 7, 2021 @ 13:25
SC says CJ Corona ‘involuntarily retired,’ grants benefits to widow, rails against misuse of SALNs
The Supreme Court (SC) has unanimously ruled that Chief Justice Renato Corona was “involuntarily retired” and his widow Ma. Cristina was thus entitled to survivorship benefits, in a decision that revisited the 2012 impeachment process and stressed that Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs) are “never a weapon for political vendetta.”
In a 26-page decision penned by Associate Justice Ramon Paul Hernando, the SC declared the late Corona entitled to retirement benefits and other allowances under Republic Act (RA) Number 9946, equivalent to a five-year lump sum of the salary and other perks he was receiving at the time of his removal on May 29, 2012.
The claim of his widow Ma. Cristina for survivorship benefits would be reckoned from the lapse of the five-year period on the lump sum. All benefits were ordered “immediately released” to her, “subject to usual clearances.”
The SC deemed Corona to “have been involuntarily retired from public service due to the peculiar circumstances surrounding his removal by impeachment” and opted not to forfeit his retirement benefits and allowances.
It said the Senate’s power was limited to only removing impeachable officials from their seat and permanently disqualifying them from public office.
It stressed that an impeachable official “does not risk forfeiture of the constitutional rights to life, liberty or property” upon conviction by the Senate. It said a “separation determination of liability under the courts of law is necessary to withhold such rights.”
“Without a proper determination of or even a basis for any recoverable liability under the law due to causes beyond his control, Chief Justice Corona may be considered involuntarily retired from public service,” read the decision.
In the absence of a provision laying out the consequences of removal by impeachment, the SC opted to apply equity instead of dismissing the claim of Corona’s widow to survivorship benefits “without citing any legal basis.”
The SC disagreed with the Office of the Chief Attorney’s (OCAt) position that Section 1 of RA 9946 only granted benefits to those who retire upon reaching the age of 70 or resign due to incapacity to discharge duties.
It pointed out that the same section provided for optional retirement by a justice or judge who rendered at least 15 years of service in the Judiciary or government, reached the age of 60, and spent the last three years serving the Judiciary.
All of these requisites were met by Corona, as he served in the Malacañang from 1992 to 2002, became Associate Justice in 2002 and was appointed Chief Justice in the last days of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s tenure in 2010.
The SC noted that Corona’s benefits could have been forfeited if he were criminally convicted. However, he died on April 29, 2016 before any of his charges for perjury, tax evasion, and violation of the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees were decided.
“The late Chief Justice practically lived and died a public servant and thus entitled to retirement benefits, which the Court finds no rhyme or reason to withhold from him. In the computation of his retirement benefits, it shall be reckoned from the time he was convicted in the impeachment case,” read the decision.
The SC added that there were cases in which it granted “humanitarian respite” even to erring judges of lower courts who were found criminally and administratively liable, such as one who expressed remorse for committing sexual harassment and another who needed funds to cover medical expenses.
While these judges were granted only 25% of their benefits, the SC said they could not do the same to Corona because “no evidence in any quantum of acceptable evidence had ever been proffered before the regular courts of law to hold the former Chief Justice liable.”
The SC also deemed Corona’s situation from that of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who was removed by her own colleagues.
“Impeachment is political; quo warranto is judicial. Impeachment proceedings seek to confirm and vindicate the breach of the trust reposed by the Filipino people upon the impeachable official, but quo warranto determines the legal right, title, eligibility, or qualifications of the incumbent to the contested public office,” read the decision.
Both Corona and Sereno were removed over allegations related to SALNs: Corona failed to disclose his SALNs to the public, while Sereno did not file hers during some years when she taught at the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Law.
The Office of the Solicitor-General (OSG) also requested the SALNs of Associate Justice Marvic Leonen in its apparent attempt at repeating the success of Sereno’s ouster, but the SC unanimously rejected it.
Revisiting the circumstances of Corona’s removal, the SC noted the statements of the late Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago arguing that it was a “stunning penalty for it ruins a life” and questioning if the omission in the SALN belonged to the same class as treason or bribery.
“For the future’s worth, it is herein stressed that the SALN is a tool for public transparency, never a weapon for political vendetta. The Filipino people live, toil, and thrive in a democracy, but the rule of law should not stand parallel to the rule of the mob. Toe this line, and the nation may eventually behold the laws that the Courts have forever sworn to uphold battered and bent,” the SC said.
It concluded by quoting the prayer recited by then-Senator Manny Villar, one of the 20 who voted to convict Corona: “Mangibabaw nawa ang respeto sa bawat isa. Mangibabaw nawa ang paggalang. Mangibabaw nawa ang katarungan. At higit sa lahat, mangibabaw nawa ang tama.”