ON FEBRUARY 20, 1989, then President Corazon C. Aquino signed into law Republic Act No. 6713, or An Act Establishing a Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees. The Code, authored by then Senator Rene A. V. Saguisag, clearly and explicitly states that all public officials and employees must regularly file their Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) as part of a move for greater transparency and accountability.
More than that, the Code states that these documents must be made publicly available to all those who request them, within reasonable limits.
But 23 years later, Saguisag is still waiting for the justices of the Supreme Court, the highest tribunal and the ultimate interpreter of all the laws of the land, to comply with that simple law.
In all the years that the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism has been gathering SALNs of ranking officials to track the growth of their wealth, the Supreme Court has been the most consistent in ignoring the requirement of RA 6713 for public disclosure of the SALNs. Through the years, the Supreme Court has issued various resolutions exempting itself from public disclosure of asset records. The most common justification used by all the Supreme Courts, past and present – to preserve the independence of the courts by protecting its magistrates from harassment. However, it is a justification that does not appear to apply to all other government officials and employees of the executive and legislative branches, who must still abide by the provisions of RA 6713.
Not even the impeachment and conviction of Chief Justice Renato Corona for willful failure to disclose his true assets has moved the Gods of Padre Faura into a regime of greater transparency.
In fact, with the assumption of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno as the lead magistrate, the Supreme Court has further tightened its hold over the SALNs. Not only has the Supreme Court consolidated all the previous resolutions and directives restricting access to the SALNs, it has also made any decision to release such documents a decision by the court en banc. This means that simple requests for SALNs now have to be decided on by the entire court.
The SALN is not the only issue in which the Supreme Court has shown itself beyond the reach of ordinary laws. De La Salle University College of Law Dean Jose Manuel Diokno points to several decisions by the SC exempting it from other requirements that other government officials must comply with. For one, the SC has issued circulars that effectively shield justices and judges from the scrutiny of the Office of the Ombudsman.
“Is it judicial independence at issue here, or judicial impunity?” Diokno asks.
Saguisag, for his part, asks a much simpler question: If the highest court of the land can flout the law, “where else can we take the SC?”
In the last of its four-part series on the wealth of the Supreme Court justices, PCIJ Executive Director Malou Mangahas looks at how the highest court in the land has succeeded in what Saguisag calls “amending” existing laws to suit its own needs, protect its own interests, and write its own definition of transparency.