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Editorial

Slippery slope

/ 05:07 AM November 04, 2020

Solicitor General Jose Calida is bent on a repeat of the quo warranto strategy that he employed in spearheading the removal of then Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno two years ago. He has appealed to the Supreme Court to reconsider its dismissal in September of his request that the statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALN) of Associate Justice Marvic Leonen for certain years be released to him. Calida’s appeal dated Oct. 22 states plainly: “The Solicitor General is making the request for purposes of possible court action as he represents the State in prosecuting actions for quo warranto.”

The high court is thus confronted by a continuing challenge. The gauntlet was first thrown down by Calida in March 2018, when he filed a quo warranto petition seeking to void Sereno’s appointment as chief justice for failing to submit her SALNs when she was a law professor at the University of the Philippines. A mere two months later, dismaying legal experts and ignoring the protests of concerned groups, the justices took due notice of Calida’s petition and voted 8-6 for Sereno’s ouster.

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The majority justices’ move was a high-water mark in irregularity: Chief Justice Sereno was a constitutional officer and may be removed from her post only through impeachment proceedings. In unprecedented — and unseemly — circumstances, her colleagues in the high court, including the woman who was eventually named by President Duterte to succeed her, publicly spoke of personal grievances as though to rationalize how they would vote. And her removal was seen as designed to put in her place someone less than compliant with the ways of the administration. (Sereno, an appointee of then President Benigno Aquino III, annoyed Mr. Duterte when she defended judges in his “narcolist.”)

Now, with Calida’s refusal to take no for an answer, the high court is compelled to address what Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon quite appropriately described as the “slippery slope” on which it stands.

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“This is an opportunity for the Supreme Court to correct that mistake,” Drilon told Inquirer reporter DJ Yap, referring to Sereno’s removal. He said it was “clear” that Calida’s move was intended for the purpose of “remov[ing] a sitting justice from the Supreme Court.”

The Solicitor General’s motion for reconsideration of the high court’s refusal to release Leonen’s SALNs displays contradictions in government policy. In September during House deliberations on the proposed budget of his office for 2021, Ombudsman Samuel Martires said he had a mind to disallow the release of government officials’ SALNs because, in his “experience,” these had become “a weapon” that could be used to smear anyone, or one’s “political rival.”

He said the government should “restudy the form of the SALN” because it was based on a “vague law” and a “vague system,” yet was being used by enemies of government officials. (The dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ eldest child, Sen. Imee Marcos, later expressed agreement with Martires, saying she had seen officials being “scandalized” in the papers and seemingly “terrorized” on the basis of their SALN.)

Martires subsequently issued new guidelines restricting access to the document, indicating what the nation has come to under an administration that early in its ascendancy boldly promised transparency.

The yearly submission of a SALN by government officials is provided for under the 1987 Constitution as well as Republic Act No. 6713, or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees. The document provides an idea of whether and by how much one’s wealth has grown in public office and is therefore a significant starting point in curbing opportunities for financial chicanery, especially in connection with the President’s directive to Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Oct. 27 to mount an inquiry into corruption “in the entire government — lahat.”

(What sticks out in this confounding mix, the weary observer will note, is Malacañang’s persistent refusal to release the President’s SALN. The document has not been made public since 2017, when, as reported by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Mr. Duterte’s wealth grew from less than P1 million in 1998 to nearly P29 million.)

Now, the Solicitor General is seeking the Supreme Court’s turnaround on its dismissal of his request. It is said that Calida is working on the claim that Leonen failed to submit his SALN for certain years when he was teaching law at UP — the same charge that did Sereno in. In arguing the correctness of his motion, he invokes the Constitution that upholds the right to information and the full disclosure of a public official’s SALN — the same Constitution that specifies an impeachment trial before any constitutional officer can be removed.

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TAGS: Editorial, Jose Calida, Marvic Leonen, SALN, Supreme Court
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