President Aquino with Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno (Malacanang photo)

The nation’s first woman and youngest Chief Justice, Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno, has promised to roll out major reforms in a judiciary that has for so long refused to be fully transparent and accountable.

Will the courts open up under Sereno? Will she deliver “very good 18 years” or “very bad 18 years” for access to information and justice, in a judiciary that for two decades has insisted in keeping the asset records of “the Gods of Padre Faura” under lock and key?

It is too early to call a verdict, of course but the first step seems obvious. To lead by example, Sereno might have to start with herself.

Thus far, she has disclosed only summaries of the data she enrolled in her SALNs for the years 2009 and 2010. She did so in January 2012, at the start of the impeachment trial at the Senate of her predecessor Renato C. Corona – a trial triggered by the then chief justice’s failure to declare and disclose the true details of his wealth.

Our latest two-part report, “Transparency and the New CJ,” looks at the bottlenecks in the quest for full transparency and accountability in the judiciary, and its compliance with the SALN Law, Republic Act No.6713, or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

It reveals, too, how the selection process of the Judicial and Bar Council, despite its efforts to allow live coverage by television and social media networks of its public interviews, could still stand vast improvement.

A JBC member and the Council’s executive officer tell the PCIJ that the selection process failed to test the financial integrity, as well as the real or potential conflict-of-interest issues facing the candidates. Such failure, they say, derives from the JBC’s lack of time, personnel, and capability to analyze the SALN, and the bank and other asset records of the candidates.

Part 1 and Sidebar 1 of our report reveal the business interests and financial connections of Sereno and the seven other short-listed candidates to the position of Chief Justice. The PCIJ conducted a reverse search of corporate files of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and mined its databases of SALN, election spending reports, and other public records for this story.

Part 2 looks at the unyielding drought in the SALNs being disclosed by the Supreme Court, two months after it issued guidelines on the release of SALNs, amid public clamor for transparency in the judiciary in light of Corona’s impeachment.

An opaque situation lingers in the judiciary despite over five dozen requests for SALNs that media agencies and law students have filed over the last two months. Until last week, the court en banc has granted provisional approval of only two requests, but personnel of the Office of the Clerk Of Court say that not a single SALN has actually been released to the requesters.

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