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Lest you be misled into believing that a new era of openness and transparency has dawned over the Supreme Court following the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona, think again because things are a lot more complicated than they look.
The Court’ s recent -- and highly touted -- decision to finally overturn a 23-year-old policy of burying magistrates’ Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth under layers of bureaucracy did not come easy -- keep in mind that the reversal followed the conviction of the Court’s highest-ranking official.
Would the policy have changed, it is tempting to speculate, had the former Chief Justice been acquitted? If anything, the Court’s decision demonstrates that it is not as impervious to public opinion as it once was, that it listens rather than hears, that, when the occasion demands, it engages in rare moments of introspection and takes a hard look at itself and its policies because, in the end, when it speaks with finality, there is no body that can overrule it. The Court is not called “supreme” for nothing.
Change, however, is slow to come to an institution like the Court, which cannot turn on a dime. Which isn’t to say that change isn’t welcome, only that the new-found commitment to transparency ought to permeate all levels of the Court. And, it bears repeating, that the principle of openness should begin, not only when one sits on the Court, but even before it.
Consider the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC). Under Section 9, Article VIII of the Constitution, the JBC prepares the short list of not less than three candidates from which the President chooses the Justice. That the JBC takes its role seriously cannot be doubted. Consider its mission statement:
* recommend appointees to the judiciary only persons of proper competence, integrity, probity, and independence;
* to enhance the quality of the search, screening, and selection processes of the Council;
* to speed up the processing of applications for vacancies especially for salas with heavy case loads;
* to promote transparency and public awareness of matters involving the nomination process in the Council;
* to insulate the nomination process from influence of any kind.
Those are noble sentiments, certainly, and not abstract in their conception, particularly the third, but when you pause for breath after reading the fourth, reconcile the mission statement with section 5 of the JBC’s own rule JBC-10, the officiously titled Rule to Further Promote Public Awareness of and Accessibility to the Proceedings of the Judicial and Bar Council, which provides:
Sec. 5. The interviews shall be conducted in public. During the interview, only the members of the Council can ask questions to the candidate. Among other things, the candidate can be made to explain the complaint or opposition against him.
The proceedings shall be in writing. Cameras and tape recorders, however, shall not be allowed inside the room.
No live TV and radio coverage of the proceeding shall be permitted.
The selection process is genius in its simplicity. Upon the occurrence of a vacancy, the Council announces that it will begin accepting applications for Justice and then screens the applications for candidates who meet not only the base constitutional requirements of natural-born Filipino citizenship, age, and professional experience, but also manifest the intangible qualities of competence, integrity, probity, and independence. After it has narrowed down the applicants to a long list, it schedules an interview during which it grills the candidates. That interview, under section 5, was declared open to the public BUT then closed to television cameras and radio.
One after-effect of the Corona impeachment is that it has shifted the public’s attention to the inner workings of the Court which, by long practice and preference, has always been shrouded in mystery.
It used to be that the public never even knew the identities of their Justices, much less their faces, but Corona’s trial put an end to that when the public was able to put a face to a name, but we talking here only of the person of the Chief Justice; there are fourteen other Members of the Court. With the vacancy, the public is interested in seeing who will be appointed to the post and the interview process sates that interest. No good reason can be advanced why the interviews should not be allowed to be broadcast live when doing so enhances only the transparency of the proceedings. The JBC -- and the Court, by extension, since it exercises powers of supervision over the Council -- cannot say one thing in its mission statement and fail to deliver in its actions.
The choice is simple: TELEVISE THE DAMN THING!