SUPREME COURT ASSOCIATE JUSTICE Arturo Brion defended the apparent opaqueness of the judiciary on the transparency of its asset data records by saying that the court was concerned that its independence would be compromised.

Brion was the 10th nominee to be interviewed by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) as it screens 22 aspirants for the highest judicial position in the country. The JBC began holding public interviews for the 22 aspirants on Tuesday. Six of the aspirant-nominees are sitting members of the Supreme Court.

During his interview by the JBC Wednesday afternoon, Brion told the JBC members that the high tribunal had already made “significant steps on an individual basis” with respect to transparency and accountability in the Supreme Court. In fact, Brion said that even before the tribunal had made a formal waiver of disclosures of their statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALN), he had already expressed his willingness to disclose his assets.

But Brion told the JBC that transparency was “not a magic word na lahat nalang ipakita natin sa publiko at sa madla.”

“We have many concerns to think of, concerns for the nation, concerns for our individual self,” Brion said.

“This had happened before (in a lower court), they did not want to disclose because of concerns for the independence of the court,” Brion said. “Naririnig na rin natin sa lower court judges that they will be harassed of their SALNS will be disclosed to everyone.”

Brion stressed that the tribunal already has a disclosure policy, crafted after media and civil society groups asked the judiciary to make its asset data records available as mandated by the Constitution and the Code of Conduct for Public Officials and Employees.

“Meron kaming disclosure policy,” Brion said. “Pero hindi naman media lang ang nanghihingi (ng records.) May requests sa mga studyante na pagaaralan raw, may assignment raw from the professors. Sabi ko, ano ang gagawin natin dito?”

“So we ended up putting up guidelines. We are making disclosures as needed,” he said.

The Supreme Court had released a 21-page decision last month specifying guidelines for the release of asset data records of the judiciary. The guidelines were released following several petitions filed by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) for more transparency from the courts.

The PCIJ noted that unlike the legislature and the executive, the judiciary had effectively exempted itself from the Constitutional requirement of disclosure of asset data records. The Surpeme Court under then Chief Justice Andres Narvasa had imposed a blackout on the release of asset records of the judiciary in the early nineties, claiming that members of the judiciary were being harassed by litigants.

The guidelines released by the Supreme Court last month were still too restrictive, said PCIJ Executive Director Malou Mangahas in a letter of appeal sent to the Supreme Court en banc on Tuesday. Mangahas pointed out that the the SC guidelines still put the burden on the petitioner to explain why he needs the documents. In addition, the guidelines state that the Court en banc needs to rule on petitions for the documents, effectively making every petition a matter for the entire tribunal.

For his part, Elections Commissioner Rene Sarmiento said he wanted a judiciary with more focus on social justice and human rights. Sarmiento was a human rights lawyer and a member of the Free Legal Assistance Group before he was drafted to be part of the 1987 Constitutional Convention. Sarmiento also spoke of the need for “restorative justice” through the rehabilitation of offenders.

Sarmiento also pitched the idea of encouraging the Supreme Court and other courts to start writing decisions in the national language, so that justice could be more accessible to the masses. In fact, Sarmiento delivered his brief message, and answered almost all the questions of the JBC members in Filipino.

For this, Sarmiento was repeatedly grilled by JBC member Regino Hermosisima, who noted that almost all court decisions in the past were written in English. To this, Sarmiento said it may be time that the judiciary make the slow transition to the national language.

One JBC member told Sarmiento that she would have to ask her questions in English, and it was up to Sarmiento if he would like to respond in Pilipino or English.

At one point, Hermosisima even chided Sarmiento for using Filipino in front of the JBC, saying it was “all for show” as the proceedings were being broadcast live.

Sarmiento also disclosed that he was supportive of moves to amend the Constitution, which he helped draft in 1987. Sarmiento said there were several economic provisions, such as the limitation on foreign ownership of property, that need to be amended to keep up with globalization.

The last interviewee of the day was retired municipal court judge Manuel Siayngco Jr.. While sitting Justices like Roberto Abad and Arturo Brion had the floor for up to two hours during their JBC interview, Siayngco was questioned for less than half an hour. Many of the JBC members waived their right to pose questions to Siayngco.



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