MANILA, Philippines - Renato Corona, the 23rd Chief Justice of the Philippines, has had his share of rough sailing as head of the judiciary.
After all, his appointment by former President now Pampanga representative Gloria Macapagal Arroyo before she stepped down from Malacañang, struck resistance from quarters who believed her successor, President Benigno Aquino III, should have appointed the next chief magistrate.
But 62-year-old Corona, who marks his first year as chief magistrate today, is not one who dwells on the past, nor one who worries over what others think, as long as his conscience says he is doing the right thing.
This, he says, helps him get through at the helm of the Judiciary.
"Ultimately, it's just your conscience you are answerable to. People can damn you, people can say you are this and that. Ultimately that's not going to matter. What will matter -- are you at peace with yourself?" Corona says in an interview with ABS-CBN News.
In this rare interview inside his formal office at the Supreme Court, Corona answers just about any and every question hurled at him, even the most controversial, the most painful.
'Not really very close to GMA'
We begin with the question perhaps most common in the minds of people critical of the high tribunal: is he or is he not loyal to Mrs. Arroyo whose cabinet he served and who appointed him Associate Justice of the High Court, and later, Chief Justice?
"As a matter of fact, I think that's a misconception, to say that I was really really very close to her. Because if I was really very close to her, I would not have asked to be appointed to the Supreme Court. I asked to move out of Malacañang," Corona says.
Corona, a man of deep faith to those who know him well, reveals politics in Malacañan drove him to venture to the more independent, more politically-insulated Supreme Court.
"I worked in Malacañang twice. Under (former president Fidel Ramos) and under Arroyo. I tell you, the politics there is really different. After a while, I didn't want it anymore that’s why I asked to be appointed to the Supreme Court," he says.
Corona's appointment to the high tribunal may have been a victim of that brand of politics as reports say he was supposed to be appointed by Mrs. Arroyo as Associate Justice as early as 2001, but his appointment papers were recalled in favor of Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.
Corona does not validate the information but merely says that issue is a closed book.
"To me kasi tapos na iyon, tapos na iyon. Whether he got appointed first, I got appointed first, ni-recall iyong appointment ko -- you know these things won't matter anymore... I don't delve in the past," he says.
'An independent, trustworthy Supreme Court'
And while some may beg to disagree, Corona says, the one thing he is most proud of thus far, is the independence of the Court he leads.
"The most significant - as far as I'm concerned because I think it's important to me and this is kasi one of the things that I promised when I became Chief Justice -- was to ensure the independence of the Court. And I'm happy for that, that I was able to, in my own little way, prove that point that the judiciary should be independent. And it is.
"As you can see, there were cases that were ostensibly or apparently or supposedly interested si former President Arroyo - natalo siya dito," he says.
Corona does not go into details, but the High Court's ruling in favor of the impeachment proceedings against Arroyo ally, resigned Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, comes to mind.
In the case of the junking of the Truth Commission aimed at holding some Arroyo administration officials accountable for graft and corruption, Corona says that was decided "purely on its legal merits."
Simply put, Corona says his is a Court the people can trust.
"I would like to tell our people that they have a Supreme Court they can trust, and I give them my word on that. Of course, you have people who are not happy with some of our decisions, saying oh, ganito raw, nagkaganyanan. If they only knew, if they only knew how seriously we discuss and (deliberate) on our decisions, they will not say it," he says.
But Corona is a man trained to deal with reality and the limits of human understanding. Thus, he adds, people may believe him or not, what matters is the truth is between him and his God.
"I can deny it, I can say this, I can say that, but in the end, it's really conscience I'm answerable to. It's God. I believe firmly in that na may retribution. And I still think there's a place in hell reserved for a judge or a justice who decides contrary to his conscience. Alam niyang mali, gagawin pa niya.
"And ultimately, yun lang yun, because you will never be able to please everybody," he says.
Rough-sailing vis-a-vis Malacañang
Those apparently not pleased with the High Court include the present occupants of Malacañang.
Corona candidly talks about his thoughts and feelings on June 30, 2010, where, for the first time in recent history, a Chief Justice was a mere audience to the swearing in of a new president.
"This is the first time I'm going to talk about it, that June 30. Last year, I refused to talk about it. Did I feel bad? Yes, I did. After all, I am also a human being, I had my feelings. Did I get insulted? Yes, I was insulted. Did I get offended? Yes, I was offended. But did I show it? No. Never. I put up a brave front there, I did it as a matter of duty. I went there. And put up a semblance of respect and deference to the president of the Philippines.
"After all, he (is) the president. And I deferred to him. And I thought it was my duty as Chief Justice to do that, regardless of my personal feelings," he says.
"I had to separate my personal feelings from my official functions as Chief Justice. I had a duty to perform as far as I was concerned. I had a duty to show respect and reverence to the president of the Philippines, and I did it," he adds.
This reporter vividly remembers the Chief Justice's reply to requests then from media men for a brief message from him for the president's inauguration: "We are here to show our support for the president."
Corona says every public servant should learn to create a wedge between his private and public lives.
"There is no place for being onion-skinned in a job like this because it's not my job to be onion-skinned. My job is to decide cases fairly, according to my conscience, the way I see it under the Constitution, under the law. Other than that, no personal feelings, no emotions are involved.
"Unfortunately, not everybody who hears or reads (the Supreme Court's decisions) is a lawyer, and I guess laymen would probably have a different understanding of how lawyers would understand a case or a decision. But then it's a job, we have to do it. Just because people will misunderstand you should not prevent you from doing it that way," he says.
That's the way the Chief Justice mainly sees strong criticisms hurled against the 15-member Court and its lower courts: misunderstood, especially when the allegations are baseless. Take for example, he says, allegations of partiality and corruption that are not supported by proof.
A matter of conscience and faith
Then again, Corona says, resisting temptations that invite one to veer away from the straight path -- whether in the judiciary or elsewhere -- is, most of all, a matter of conscience and a matter of faith.
"In the end, as I said... ultimately, it's just your conscience you are answerable to. Ikaw ba, nahaharap mo ba iyong sarili mo sa salamin tuwing umaga? Naaatim ba ng kunsyensya mo na iyong pinapakain mo sa pamilya mo, nanggaling sa masamang paraan? Pinagnakawan mo, pinapakain mo sa pamilya mo? Pinapag-aral mo sa mga anak mo? Maaatim ba ng kunsyensya mo iyon?" he says.
Corona says baseless attacks and criticisms, while these hurt members of the Court, must be set aside.
"Humanly speaking, nasasaktan din naman kami. We are human beings, meron naman kaming damdamin. And who wants to get attacked? But you see, you have to separate your public persona as a magistrate from your individual personality because I think a public official should always, first and foremost, have in front, his public persona.
"As you probably have seen, I've been ultra-patient, ultra-forgiving, and I think, ultra-christian in the way I have conducted myself. Iyong emotions -- nasaktan siya -- wala yan. That will not matter. Keep it to yourself, keep it to yourself," he says.
All-out support for PNoy
Which is why, Corona says, in spite of not meeting eye to eye on several occasions in the past with President Aquino and the executive branch, he can still work with the president whom, he says, he supports all the way.
"I'm supporting him 100%. That is my message to him. I'm supporting him and I wish him well, and I wish that his administration will succeed. If there's anything that the Supreme Court can do to help move this country forward, we will do it.
"And as far as what happened in the past, tapos na iyon. I don't look back to that anymore. It's not being a good Christian to harp on things that hurt you and things that disappoint you. Tama na iyon, tapos na iyon. We just look forward, and I'm sure - there is still 5 more years of the Aquino presidency - I'm sure the president and I can still work well with each other," he says.
Agenda for next 7 years
Corona's term ends in 2018, and for the remaining 7 years of his leadership, he intends to accomplish several things up on his sleeve, namely:
1) computerization of the judiciary, including an enhanced case flow management system, which will enable the Supreme Court to monitor the status of cases in lower courts and speed up the resolution of cases;
2) decongestion of court dockets, which will include a program for hiring retired judges to assist sitting judges;
3) revision of the partly outdated Rules of Court and the mode of trial at lower courts; and
4) more relevant trainings for judges, among others.
Among the Chief Justice's priority programs is the multi-dimensional judicial reform agenda aimed at strengthening the institutional integrity of the courts, a campaign, which he says, is in for the long haul.
There are, of course, projects which are already a constant source of pride and satisfaction for the chief magistrate, among them, the Enhanced Justice on Wheels (EJOW) program, where "those that are forgotten," are accorded their day in court.
Through EJOW, the courts are brought closer --literally-- to the people via buses that hold hearings and speedy case resolutions.
"I think this is really an excellent project.. Pag may EJOW sa isang probinsya, pinupuntahan ko talaga. It makes me feel not only as a good magistrate, but as a good Christian. I feel good about it," Corona beams.
And that is precisely what this day is all about for Chief Justice Renato Corona -- a day to feel good about small steps taken the past year towards greater challenges, or maybe even rougher but nonetheless conquerable waters, up ahead.