FUROR OVER THE CORONA SALN
Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J.
On the third day of the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Corona the Supreme Court Clerk of Court, appearing as a witness summoned by the prosecution, found herself trapped between, as it were, the devil and the deep blue sea. Commanded by the Senate jury to produce the SALN of Chief Justice Corona, which she admitted she had brought with her, the Clerk of Court balked and asked for time to get authority from the Court to release the document. She said that by the Rules of Court she could not release it on her own. Who should the Clerk of Court obey, the Supreme Court or the Senate jury?
The story begins with a provision in the Constitution requiring that the statement of assets and liabilities of certain high ranking public officials, including justices of the Supreme Court, “shall be disclosed to the public in the manner provided by law.” The manner provided by law, i.e., by R.A. 6713, is that Supreme Court justices should file their SALN with the Clerk of Court. R.A. 6713, moreover, requires that the SALN should be open for inspection and copying by interested parties.
However, occasioned by the request of a private party litigant for the statement of assets and liabilities of justices of the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court in 1989 issued a Resolution directing that such requests should be granted only for legitimate and justifiable reason. The Court was concerned that the unregulated release of SALN could endanger the independence of the judiciary.
Since then the practice has been that when a request for the SALN of a Supreme Court justice is sought, the matter is included by the Clerk of Court in the agenda for the weekly en banc meeting of the Court. According the Clerk of Court, this has happened only nine or ten times since 1989 and it has never occasioned controversy.
This too is how the subpoena for the SALN of Chief Justice Corona was handled. Unfortunately, however, the Court meets en banc only every Tuesday which meant that the Clerk of Court had to wait for a week. Must the Senate also wait?
Incidentally, this was not a question of who as between the Senate jury and the Supreme Court is superior. After all, the Senate jury is no other than the same Upper House of Congress. The Senate jury is not a distinct body from the Senate but is the same Senate but given non-legislative authority to be exercised occasionally. The three departments of government are coequals working in coordination with each other. When faced with a situation when they seem to appear to be an immovable force pushing against an immovable wall, what is constitutionally demanded of them is to look for ways of working together. This is what happened here. The Clerk of Court surrendered the documents with the assurance that she would face no censure from the Supreme Court.
It is also worth nothing that access to matters of public interest, including government documents, is a right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. However, jurisprudence says that this right does not mean that everyday is an open house in public offices. The custodian of the document has the inherent power to regulate the manner of access to these documents. But there are instances when the custodian might, for some reason other, deny access to the documents. In such situations the remedy that has been used is to file a petition for mandamus in court. In fact, it is partly for the purpose of facilitating access to documents without the hassle of having to go to court that there is now pending in Congress a Freedom of Information Bill.
But note that the demand for the SALN of Corona already came from a court, that is, from the Senate exercising the powers of an impeachment court. The impeachment court itself should be in a position to determine whether the demand for the SALN and its use would be for a legitimate purpose. The impeachment court said it was and, happily, the Clerk of Court honored the demand of the impeachment court.
The pending request for a TRO. There are still pending in the Supreme Court petitions for a TRO to restrain the Senate from proceeding with the impeachment trial on the ground that the impeachment complaint filed by the House is invalid. The petition is asking for an order which would place the Supreme Court in direct collision with the Senate because the Senate jury already decided last Monday that the complaint was valid. In my view this is a correct decision of the Senate. The core of the issue is whether at least one third of the House verified their complaint. The Record of the House says that every single one of the 188 complainants came before the Secretary General of the House to verify their complaint. The Senate jury, at least out of inter-house courtesy, did not question the veracity of the House Record. It would have been different if at least the Speaker of the House had denied its veracity. I strongly doubt that the Supreme Court, at least out of interdepartmental courtesy, will question the veracity of the House Record – especially since the impeachment trial is already in full gear.
23 January 2012