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Within hours of the removal of Renato Corona as chief justice after the Senate impeachment court found him guilty of betrayal of public trust for failing to disclose all his bank deposits, the Supreme Court ordered on Wednesday all justices and judges to make public their statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) for 2011 in an apparent effort to repair the damage wrought on the reputation of the judiciary by Corona’s 6-month trial.

The order was issued after a special full-court session called by Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who stepped into Corona’s shoes as acting chief justice according to the hierarchy of seniority in the succession ladder. The fact that Carpio swiftly called the meeting signaled that even under an interim leadership, the high court was not crippled by the removal of Corona.

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President Aquino, who initiated the campaign to remove Corona, and backed it with the enormous police powers and political patronage resources of the presidency, said on Wednesday that he would not rush the appointment of the next chief justice to avoid the mistake stemming from Corona’s “midnight appointment” by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The question of who will be the next permanent chief justice immediately arose from legal and political circles, which expressed concern that the appointment of a chief justice pliable to the administration’s political objectives, especially on the issue of the President’s anticorruption drive, could fortify fears that such an appointment would further weaken and undermine the independence of the judiciary relative to the executive and legislative branches of the government.

Even at this uncertain period over the uneasy relations between the executive branch and the high court, Carpio seized the initiative to clean up the judiciary with the order to open its members’ SALNs to public scrutiny in the interest of transparency. He did not leave the initiative of a cleanup of the judiciary to a political witch-hunt in the guise of weeding out corrupt judges and those inconveniently standing in the way of implementing the administration’s gospel called “Daang Matuwid.”

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The Supreme Court’s decision to open up the SALNs of all justices and judges came as a response to the public clamor for the disclosure of assets of all officials in the judicial, executive and legislative branches, following the failure of Corona to disclose $2.4 million and more than P80 million in bank deposits. Corona admitted these deposits after he submitted to the impeachment court a waiver of their confidentiality protected by the Foreign Currency Deposits Act (FCDA).

The high court said it was its “collective decision to release the SALNs in full, not [just] summaries.” The guidelines for the public release of the SALNs will be taken up in its en banc session on June 13.

The decision to disclose the SALNs is one of the positive outcomes of the testimony of Corona in the Senate impeachment tribunal last Tuesday, although his testimony was limited to only certain portions of his deposits. This led to his conviction that he was not telling the whole truth.

In his explanation of his vote to convict Corona, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, the presiding officer of the impeachment tribunal, said: “The nondisclosure of these deposits, in both local and foreign currencies, would naturally result in a corresponding distortion of the Chief Justice’s real net worth.”

Enrile maintained that “the constitutional principle of public accountability overrides the confidentiality of foreign currency deposits.”

He added: “The provisions of RA 6426 (FCDA) cannot be interpreted as an exception to the unequivocal command and tenor of Article XI, Sec. 17, of the 1987 Constitution, that the highest magistrate of the land, no less, would think otherwise….

“The so-called conflict between RA 6713 and RA 6426 is more illusory than real. Section 8 of RA 6426 merely prohibits the examination, or looking into, of a foreign currency deposit account by an entity or person other than the depositor himself. But there is nothing in RA 6426 which prohibits the depositor from making a declaration on his own of such foreign currency funds, especially in his case where the Constitution mandates the depositor who is a public officer to declare all assets under oath.”

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Enrile said some had wondered why the Chief Justice should be held accountable for an offense of which many, if not most others, in the government are guilty, perhaps even more than he is.

The Senate President added: “Here lies what many have posited as a moral dilemma. I believe that it is our duty to resolve this dilemma in favor of upholding the law and sound public policy. If we were to agree with the respondent that he was correct in not disclosing the value of his foreign currency deposits because they are absolutely confidential, can we ever expect any SALN to be filed by public officials from hereon to be more accurate and true than they are today?

“I am not oblivious to the possible repercussions of the final verdict we are called upon to render today. I am deeply concerned that the people may just so easily ignore, forget, if not completely miss out on, the hard lesson we all must learn from this episode, instead of grow and mature as citizens of a democratic nation.”

In fact it cannot be ignored that there is now a clamor for public servants to disclose their SALNs—not only the justices and judges but also the President down to members of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The doctrine of Enrile in explaining his vote of “guilty” applies to all. Otherwise, we all face a grand hypocrisy by the self-righteous.

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TAGS: corona verdict, featured column, impeachment trial, opinion, public accountability, SALN, transparency
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