When Maria Lourdes Sereno applied to join the Supreme Court in 2010, she submitted a single Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth or SALN: that of 2006. The Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) certified this in a December 2017 letter to Reynaldo Umali, chair of the House committee on justice, that had initiated an impeachment process against the Chief Justice. 2006 was the year Sereno left the University of the Philippines College of Law where she was professor for almost 20 years.
In 2010, the JBC, which vets candidates to the judiciary, did not require candidates for associate justice to submit their complete assets statements. It was only after former chief justice Renato Corona was convicted in May 2012 by the Senate that the JBC revved up and imposed a new requirement: applicants for the newly vacated post of chief justice, those in government, should present all past SALNs. In addition, the JBC asked for a bank waiver so that it could check out their local and foreign accounts, if necessary.
Remember that the impeachment trial of Corona became a national educational campaign on the importance of SALNs. In a historic moment – the first since 1989, when the Supreme Court exempted the judiciary from disclosing the justices’ and judges’ SALNS – Corona’s assets statements during his years on the Court were made public.
Through the SALNs, a whole new world opened up to reveal a shocking fact: the chief justice, who leads the branch of government considered the last arbiter, was enjoying wealth which was clearly beyond his means.
Thus, the SALN suddenly became the focus of attention, a vital tool in uncovering corruption and boosting transparency. The JBC responded to the momentum unleashed by the impeachment through its new rule.
The trouble was, the JBC didn’t follow it. Instead, it opted for “substantial compliance” but it did not define precisely what this meant. Minutes of the JBC meeting in July 2012, before it was to shortlist candidates, showed that it was Senator Francis Escudero who first brought up the idea – he represented the Senate in the JBC – after which his colleagues picked it up and used it loosely. They agreed to classify who among the candidates had “substantially complied.”
No one asked how many years of SALNs would fall within “substantial compliance.” In the case of Sereno, for example, would 3 years of SALNs constitute “substantial compliance”? That was left undecided and instead was tossed to the executive committee of the JBC after giving some time for candidates to submit the rest of the SALNs. [The executive committee is composed of the 4 full-time regular members. They represent the private sector, legal academe, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), and retired Supreme Court justices.]
Where then did the information – that past SALNs of 10 years constituted “substantial compliance” – come from? Apparently, some in the JBC were guided by Republic Act 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials/Employees, which provides in section 8 (on filing of SALNs and disclosure), article 4, that:
Any statement filed under this Act shall be available to the public for a period of ten (10) years after receipt of the statement. After such period, the statement may be destroyed unless needed in an ongoing investigation.
Milagros Fernan-Cayosa, who represents the IBP, recalls: “This was one instance where all the steps of the JBC processes were taken by the JBC en banc [meaning the entire JBC to include the ex-officio chair and members]. While the determination of compliance was supposed to be by the Execom [executive committee], it was actually done by the JBC en banc just before the [public] interviews since we had limited time…All the members were made aware through the July 20 and 24, 2012 reports who among the aspirants submitted what. There was no Execom meeting for the CJ process.”
So there, a loose vetting process. The JBC is part of the problem.
As former president Aquino, who picked Sereno to be chief justice, recently told reporters, in Filipino, “The JBC should be the one to answer that [why Sereno qualified to be in the shortlist despite not filing SALNs] because when they gave me the list, being on the list means they’re qualified as chief justice nominees.”
There have been a number of suggestions to improve the selection process of judges and justices. Recently, the PDP-Laban, among its amendments to the Constitution, proposed the abolition of the JBC. Instead the IBP replaces it and the Senate approves the shortlists – from which the president makes the appointments.
The JBC has not been insulated from the politics of the day. Angelina Gutierrez, former representative of retired Supreme Court justices in the JBC, candidly spoke about the foremost challenge facing the JBC: it is “vulnerable to partisan politics.”
In a speech before the IBP in 2015, she said that the JBC is composed of people who could be influenced by the president: “The secretary of justice is his alter ego…the representative from Congress may belong to his political party.” The president also appoints the chief justice, who heads the JBC, and the 4 regular members.
It therefore takes independent and courageous members to keep the JBC faithful to its task – as well as a vigilant public. – Rappler.com