Corona: “We are fully supportive”

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on January 27, 2011

“We are fully supportive of government investment initiatives,” Supreme Court Justice Renato Corona told members of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) last week. “The court is not going to be an impediment to foreign investment.”

Mr. Corona was responding to questions related to a much-reported and much-speculated upon rift between the executive and judicial branches of government. In prepared remarks Mr. Corona had earlier said that, “the system of checks and balances is alive and functioning.” He began his remarks on a high note, framing them in the context of recent survey results pointing to unusually high optimism for the administration for President Benigno S. Aquino III, and the Philippines.

It’s important, he said, to “capitalize on the optimism of Filipinos, who comprise a nation full of hope.” That same sense of hope and anticipation is prevalent among foreign investors as well, as I wrote late last year following the Infrastructure Philippines 2010 business forum. Asian Development Bank country director Neeraj Jain said at the time that the Philippines has great potential.

But there are challenges, too, as we all know well. With the Philippines viewed as among the most corrupt countries in the world in numerous global surveys, rule of law and the integrity of the judiciary are at the core of those challenges. This explains why media and investors are so concerned with the question of whether the Supreme Court will prove to be an obstructionist court to reform.

The early evidence was disconcerting. The Supreme Court voided the administration’s very first executive order, which created the Philippines Truth Commission. The Truth Commission was formed to investigate alleged corruption under Mr. Aquino’s predecessor. It was reportedly formed to ensure a transparent examination of the administration of former president and now Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Critics of the previous administration allege that Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez has stonewalled investigations into corrupt practices, citing a close relationship with Mrs. Arroyo’s husband. Many legislators agree. However, when the House of Representatives began impeachment proceedings against Mrs. Gutierrez, the Supreme Court issued a status quo ante order which effectively derailed the effort.

The Supreme Court also undermined the administration’s second executive order revoking “midnight appointments” Mrs. Arroyo made during a pre-election constitutional ban. It reinstated Bai Omera Lucman to a position on the Commission on Muslim Filipinos. Critics also note that Mrs. Arroyo appointed 14 of the 15 sitting justices. Mr. Corona’s own appointment—although affirmed by the Supreme Court—during the appointments ban remains controversial.

Mr. Aquino has expressed frustration with the Court. But in response to the question regarding a rift last week, Mr. Corona said, “I don’t think there is a rift between the president and the executive. We play our roles under the constitution.” Mr. Corona did profess to be concerned about the impact of criticism on the image of the Supreme Court in the aftermath of recent decisions and a separate controversy involving a plagiarized decision, but added, “I am more concerned about doing what is right.”

Although obviously annoyed with criticism of the court, Mr. Corona acknowledged that critics have a right to express their opinions. “People have a right to express their opinions about our decisions. That’s democracy,” he explained. However, he made no secret of his feelings that not all criticism is made in good faith. “There are people who went out of their way to disparage the decisions” of the court, he complained, suggesting a shadowy political motive.

Decisions by the Supreme Court and Mr. Corona’s remarks last week seem to suggest two things. First, either wrongly or rightly, the Supreme Court is not going to look kindly on efforts to skewer Mrs. Arroyo or the officials she appointed. That will hamper and probably completely stall efforts to bring the former president and her officials to task for alleged corrupt practices.

Second, aside from shielding the previous administration from investigative harm, the Supreme Court intends to be a positive force for development. Investors will want to take Mr. Corona’s remarks last week regarding support for investment initiatives at face value. The administration will too, I suspect. After all, it has had to start wooing investors by promising them it will protect them from decisions by the courts that undermine investments.

Ultimately, Mr. Aquino is on the line for increasing job-generating foreign investment. But investors will also be looking to Mr. Corona and the Supreme Court to demonstrate their full support.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2010 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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