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Ten, twenty years from now, law students reading A.M. No. 09-8-6-SC, or "Re: Request for Copy of 2008 Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) and Personal Data Sheet or Curriculum Vitae of the Justices of the Supreme Court and Officers and Employees of the Judiciary", will be struck by how eminently reasonable the Supreme Court seemed to be in allowing the dissemination of the SALNs of court officials and employees to the public.
If they only have a scant idea about the background circumstances of the decision, of the impeachment of the Chief Justice incumbent just days before the date of the decision, they will little appreciate just how groundbreaking the decision is.
The immediate impact of the decision, of course, is that the Justices have released their latest SALNs. But those of us reading the decision now have no doubt that the impeachment waged by Noynoy Aquino against Renato Corona has had the desired effect: putting the fear of God - or impeachment - in the hearts of the gods of Padre Faura.
Better reasonableness delayed than reasonableness denied, it would seem. To describe A.M. No. 09-8-6-SC as historic is only part of the description; it is also, truth be told, reactionary rather than pro-active.
Consider the following circumstances:
First, notice the date of the decision - June 13, 2012. But the case was initiated by a flurry of 21 letters from news practitioners dating back to 2009, plus two subpoenas ad testeficandum, one of them pertinent to the Corona impeachment, all pleading for copies of the Justices' SALNs.
The Court, however, deferred ruling on the letters and instead referred them to a special committee whose recommendation was to create another Committee on Public Disclosure!
There's something to be said about problem solving by committee, but that's not important; what's important is that current events overtook the case and forced the hand of the Court.
Justices are no fools, as Corona himself said when he finally "testified", and they quickly discerned the public mood, which was that the special exemption they had decreed in their favor from publicizing their SALNs despite anything the Constitution might say on the subject, was becoming untenable.
Second, the reasoning the Court gave for their sudden volte-face was nothing new.
The cases of Valmonte v. Belmonte and Baldoza v. Dimaano which the ponencia cited were decided in 1989 and 1976, respectively; the freedom of information enshrined in section 7 of the Bill of Rights has been there since 1987; so, too, is section 17, article XI of the Constitution.
Republic Act No. 6713, also known as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees - with its implementing rules - took effect way back in 1989 but its applicability to magistrates was negligible to none until the SALN decision.
So why the sudden enlightenment?
We have the impeachment to thank for that.
Lastly, there is no doubting that the Court had to be dragged kicking and screaming into agreeing to release the SALNs. In fact, reading the conditions imposed by the Court pertaining to SALN requests, one is struck by the undercurrent of reluctance with which the Court relents.
How else can one explain the following provision?
I have a big problem with this. The Bill of Right does not burden the citizens' right to freedom of information with any requirement as to underlying reasons.
If curiosity is one of them, why the hell not?
It's absurd, I think, that mass media should have more freedom of access than ordinary citizens considering that freedom of information is not construed to be in favor of news organizations; the ultimate beneficiaries of the right are the people themselves.
How will the Court's proviso impact citizens' journalism, which is increasingly the fashion these days with the penetration and reach of the Internet?
What if the news practitioner is lazy and doesn't do a thorough job of investigating, or worse, what if the news organization's impartiality has been compromised by identifying itself with the interest of the object of investigation?
Equally confounding, who determines the preponderance of the inquirer's curiosity?
Consider also this proviso:
Again, the power to determine whether the request for earlier documents is to be determined by the same persons whose SALNs are the very subjects of the request. There arises an intriguing likelihood of conflict-of-interest.
If I were you, I wouldn't hail the Court’s apparent openness anytime soon.
The SALNs are only the tip of the iceberg.
Remember that one of the charges hurled at Corona during his impeachment was his alleged refusal to account for the Judiciary Discretionary Fund. Come budget time - and that is sure to come - the Court will have to justify its request for an increase in its allocation and, definitely, the Aquino administration will ask for an accounting of the JDF.
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno's stewardship will be tested that crucial time.
Now here's my kicker: supposing Sereno follows her predecessors' footsteps and cites judicial independence to frustrate oversight of the JDF, will Aquino cause the impeachment of the justice he himself anointed?