THE impeachment hearings against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno before the House committee on justice have uncovered a disturbing detail of her appointment in 2012: Her failure to comply with the documentary requirements of the Judicial and Bar Council.
According to testimony of her fellow justices, Sereno had submitted a statement of assets, liabilities and net worth for only three years, not the 10 required by the JBC rules.
“I believe that a grave injustice was done to us, the other applicants, for the position of chief justice,” said Associate Justice Teresita de Castro.
Her view was supported by Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta, who testified that he was not aware of a letter Sereno had submitted to the JBC asking to be exempted from the 10-year rule as she no longer could locate her SALN for the years she was an associate professor at the University of the Philippines College of Law.
Peralta, who presided over the JBC proceedings for the nominees for the position vacated by impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona, said Sereno’s letter was not presented to the council en banc.
“I think the minutes will bear that out. Likewise the certificate of clearance attached to the said letter was also not included for deliberation in the JBC en banc when we considered the candidates for voting,” he said.
Had he known about Sereno’s letter and her failure to comply with the SALN requirements, he would have opposed her selection, Peralta added.
Annaliza Capacite, executive director of the JBC, confirmed to the House panel that Sereno had not submitted a complete set of SALN.
But she said the JBC member representing the Senate, Senator Francis Escudero, made the manifestation that “the attempt” to comply with the requirements was enough.
A spokesperson for the chief justice said that Peralta, who had endorsed the shortlist of candidates to the Office of the President, could not now wash his hands of the decision to include Sereno. The spokesperson failed, however, to address the possibility that Sereno’s failure to comply with the SALN requirement was hidden from some JBC members.
This particular point, as Peralta suggests, can easily be sorted by going to the minutes of the JBC proceedings.
Nor does the Sereno camp address the point raised by De Castro—the reason candidates for the position of chief justice submit SALNs and waivers to bank secrecy rights is to enable the JBC to compare their statements with the bank records. But if the SALNs are not complete, what comparison can be made?
At the very least, the revelation about the missing SALN suggest the need for the JBC process to be more transparent. At worst, it suggests that the JBC process can be manipulated to favor certain candidates like Sereno, who had the strong support of then President Benigno Aquino III.
This also might be an opportune time for Senator Escudero to explain why he felt that an attempt to comply with requirements can be seen as “substantial compliance.” The suggestion sounds as ludicrous as the notion that universities ought to grant diplomas to all students who tried to study.
If this rule were applied to all government positions, public office would be packed with people who are, at the most basic level, unqualified.