Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Estela Perlas Bernabe said on Friday that while she has nothing to hide, she shared the view of Ombudsman Samuel Martires that the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of government officials could be weaponized to destroy their reputations.
Appearing before the public interview conducted by the seven-member Judicial and Bar Council for nominees aspiring to succeed Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta who is retiring on March 27, Bernabe stressed that releasing a summary of the justice’s SALNs would be enough to promote transparency.
“I have really nothing to hide. It’s just that sometimes people tend to criticize or to find ways and means to really destroy the reputation of a justice,” Bernabe said, when JBC member and retired SC Justice Noel Tijam asked her if she was in favor of publishing the SALNs of justices for as long as it conforms to the requirements of the data privacy law.
“If there are complaints against the justice, then I think the complainant should really file a case in the proper forum,” she said.
Bernabe agreed with Martires’ view that SALNs could be used against public officials. “To a certain extent, yes, Your Honor,” she said.
“A justice is a person of integrity, competence. He has all the qualifications of a justice, but it might come to a point where the SALN can be used to destroy this certain person,” she added.
Ombudsman Martires had tightened the rules on the release of SALNs by requiring the requester to secure the consent of the declarant or the public official who owns the SALN.
While access to Court records, such as SALN, is not prohibited, it is subject to a regulation.
In its decision last January, the SC ruled that an asset statement of a government official or employee should be viewed as a “tool for public transparency” and not as a “weapon for political vendetta.”
“For the future’s worth, it is herein stressed that the SALN is a tool for public transparency, never a weapon for political vendetta,” the SC said.
“The Filipino people live, toil, and thrive in a democracy, but the rule of law should not stand parallel to the rule of the mob. Toe this line, and the nation may eventually behold the laws that the courts have forever sworn to uphold battered and bent,” it added.
The SC made the statement when it granted the plea of the widow of the late Chief Justice Renato Corona for the release of his retirement benefits and her survivorship pension, nearly nine years after Corona was ousted by the Senate due to his failure to fully disclose his wealth.
Lawyer Maria Lourdes Sereno, who was appointed as successor of Corona, was ousted as chief justice due to failure to comply with the submission of SALN when she was still teaching at the University of the Philippines.
As to her plans in case appointed as Chief Justice, Bernabe vowed to give priority to the computerization of basic court processes, creation of rules to further decongest court dockets, tap a pool of lawyers to assist SC justices in the resolution of cases, and form an advisory council composed of the five most senior justices to ensure continuity of the plans and programs, among others.
Bernabe said she considered herself as a textualist, where she decides “in accordance with the law and the intent of the framers.”
“When the law is clear and the intent is clear, I interpret the law in accordance with the law and the intent of the framers,” she said.
“When the law is vague and the intent could not be determined from the framers then I would apply reason, logic, the societal implications of the ruling and fairness most of all of the court’s ruling,” she added.
Bernabe, who has been with the SC since 2011, said she is healthy enough to lead the judiciary.
“I am very, very healthy and I am fit to be promoted to the position of chief justice,” the 68-year-old magistrate said. “My medical certificates could attest to that.”
This is Bernabe’s second time to apply for the highest post in the judiciary. She lost to incumbent Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta in 2019.
Peralta will retire from the judiciary on his 69th birthday on March 27, one year ahead of the mandatory retirement age for judges and justices. Bernabe is scheduled to retire in May 2022.