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COMMENTARY

Confidentiality breach in SC

05:04 AM December 11, 2017

For the first time in the history of the Supreme Court, a sitting member attended a hearing of the House of Representatives to testify on an internal administrative matter.

Associate Justice Teresita de Castro testified on the memo she sent to Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno in 2012 questioning the validity of two administrative orders that the latter issued on the creation of a judicial office in Central Visayas. De Castro said the orders did not reflect the consensus of the full Court.

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The internal communication became the subject of a news report and has been cited as one of the grounds for Sereno’s impeachment in the complaint filed by lawyer Larry Gadon.

The issue of whether or not Sereno usurped the authority of the Court as a collegial body in issuing those orders, and therefore committed an offense that justifies her impeachment, has to be resolved by the House when the impeachment complaint is brought to the plenary for voting.

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But it’s a puzzler how the reporter who reported on De Castro’s memo got hold of it considering the Court’s strict rules on the confidentiality of its proceedings.

Did a Court insider deliberately leak the memo? If so, for what purpose? Or was a copy of the memo lying carelessly in the offices of Sereno or De Castro and the reporter chanced upon it and took a photo?

Regardless of the manner the memo became public, it seems the Court’s security procedures in the handling of internal documents are faulty, or some members of its staff do not take seriously its rules on confidentiality.

By law, the internal proceedings and records of the Court are held in strictest confidence (or made available only on a need-to-know basis) to ensure that the justices render their decisions based on the evidence presented and the applicable law.

The judicial code of omerta is aimed at shielding the justices from outside pressures that may arise from the premature or unauthorized disclosure of their deliberations or decision on pending cases.

Lawyers who have cases pending in the Court would give an arm and a leg to get inside information on the fate of their
cases, so they can take the “appropriate measures” to ensure their victory.

In 2009, a leak on the Court’s deliberations on a criminal case involving a drug dealer who was earlier convicted by a lower court — and whose judge was gunned down on his way home — forced then Associate Justice Arturo Brion to seek police protection because of threats to his life.

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Apparently, the convict got inside information that Brion was against his acquittal and so he put out a contract on Brion’s life. After confirming the validity of the threat, the Court ordered police protection for Brion. The conviction of the drug dealer was eventually affirmed by the Court.

Also in 2009, the Court ordered retired associate justice Ruben Reyes to pay a fine of P500,000 and disqualified him from holding any government office after an investigation showed he leaked an unpromulgated decision to one of the parties in a citizenship case.

Although De Castro’s memo may not involve a decision on a pending case, it relates to a significant action by the full Court on the handling of judicial matters in Central Visayas and the allocation of responsibilities among its offices.

As a representative of an independent and coequal branch of government, the Court is entitled to utmost respect and deference in the administration of its affairs. Its internal discussions on the supervision of the country’s judicial system are as sensitive as its proceedings in the resolution of cases.

The unauthorized disclosure of De Castro’s memo cannot and should not be dismissed as a minor incident, or something expected in any government office. It should be thoroughly investigated to determine culpability for the breach in confidentiality rules.

Tolerating leaks in the Court’s proceedings and activities would be like allowing Lady Justice to partially lift her blindfold so she can take a look at the parties in a case.

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Raul J. Palabrica (rpalabrica@inquirer.com.ph) writes a weekly column in the Business section of the Inquirer.

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TAGS: confidentiality breach, Inquirer Commentary, Maria Lourdes Sereno, Sereno impeachment, Supreme Court, Teresita de Castro
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