THE PHILIPPINE CENTER for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) has asked the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) to grill aspirants to the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on the key issues of transparency and accountability as the JBC holds public interviews with 22 nominees for the highest position in the judiciary.
This even as the PCIJ has asked the Supreme Court en banc to amend the guidelines it issued last month on the release of copies of the statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALN), personal data sheets (PDS), and curriculum vitae (CV) of members of justices, judges, and judiciary personnel.
The JBC began publicly screening the 22 nominees for Supreme Court Chief Justice on Tuesday, interviewing six of the aspirants on the first day. The interviews are being done in the public eye, with the JBC fielding questions to the aspirants over live television.
In a letter to the JBC members dated July 24, the first day of the interviews of the nominees, PCIJ Executive Director Malou Mangahas asked the council to consider that the issues of transparency and accountability “are matters of the highest importance to the public good, as you conduct interviews with nominees to the position of Chief Justice.”
“It is our earnest request that the Judicial and Bar Council consider the concerns raised in our letter as policy questions that must be discussed with the 22 nominees. but most especially those who are incumbent members of the high court,” Mangahas wrote the JBC.
Mangahas pointed out that six of the 22 nominees to the post of Chief Justice are incumbent members of the Supreme Court, who were also party to the drafting of the Supreme Court guidelines that the PCIJ was now appealing.
Failure to disclose his SALNs had triggered the impeachment of Renato C. Corona as chief justice in May 2012, and prompted the current search for his successor. Since 1989, various high court rulings have kept the asset records of the justices under lock and key, in clear defiance of the Constitution and anti-graft laws.
Mangahas said it was important that the JBC raise the issue of transparency with both incumbent and prospective members of the tribunal if only to make clear to the public where the aspirants really stand on the issue.
Meanwhile, in its letter of appeal to the Supreme Court, the PCIJ acknowledged the tribunal’s decision granting the PCIJ request for SALNs of members of the judiciary. However, the PCIJ noted that certain “modifications” were necessary to make the decision fully compliant with the Constitutional provisions on transparency.
The PCIJ and its legal counsels, lawyers Solomon F. Lumba and Nepomuceno Malaluan, raised four major concerns about the high court’s Guidelines. These are:
- the Guidelines’ lack of presumption of SALN disclosure in favor of the people’s right to information;
- the Guidelines’ absence of clear deadlines for the court to grant or deny requests for SALNs;
- the Guidelines’ absence of speedy procedures for appeal of denied requests; and
- the distinction that the Guidelines made between the disclosure of the latest SALNs filed by judges and justices, and those they filed in prior years.
In light of these gaps or weaknesses of the Guidelines, the PCIJ proposed that:
1. The Guidelines should include the presumption of disclosure in favor of the people’s right to information, and that all requests for SALNs “should be granted granted in case of doubt, and the burden of proving the validity of a denial rests on the judiciary.”
In Legaspi vs. Civil Service Commission, the PCIJ letter cited that, “In case of denial of access, the government agency has the burden of showing that the information requested is not of public concern, or, if it is of public concern, that the same has been exempted by law from the operation of the guarantee.” To hold otherwise, as the Guidelines suggest, the high court may only serve “to dilute the constitutional right,” the PCIJ said.
2. The Guidelines should include reasonable time periods for the grant or denial of a request. Absent such, the right to information could easily and effectively be frustrated through mere administrative inaction.
3. The Guidelines should include an orderly and speedy procedure for appeal or review of a denial of a request.
4. The Guidelines should dispense with the unwarranted distinction between the disclosure of the latest SALN, Personal Data Sheets (PDS) and Curriculum Vitae (CV) of the justices and judges, and those filed in prior years.
The PCIJ wrote the high court: “The deliberations of the Constitutional Commission show that the 1987 Constitution sought to institutionalize a new form of accountability in government in order to: (1) deter conflicts of interest; (2) prevent graft and corruption; and (3) allow the public to determine whether the highest officials of the land are living within their means.”
Hence, the PCIJ added, “If the Constitutional intent is to be achieved, there can be no valid distinction between the latest SALN/PDS/CV and prior ones because the full significance of the information contained in each can only be appreciated when analyzed in relation to the whole.”
“Like it or not, the Supreme Court is expected to set the norm and the highest standards on this matter,” the PCIJ letter to the Supreme Court states. “The PCIJ respectfully requests the Honorable Court to modify the 7-point guidelines to further enable the people’s right to information and promote the state policy of full disclosure.”
The Civil Service Commission and the Office of the Ombudsman also received copies of the PCIJ letter. Read it below