Justices’ SALN and other FAQs

Pursuant to the Anti-Graft Law the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Networth (SALN) of the president, vice president, Cabinet members, senators, congressmen and other high government officials — except those of justices and judges — are always released to media at the start of their term and every year thereafter. Why are magistrates exempted? Readers pop this query all the time.

Challenge unaccepted. This frequently asked question (FAQ) was also raised during my first press conference as chief justice on Dec. 22, 2005. In answer, I told reporters that — even if I wanted to — I could not release the justices’ SALN because two decisions promulgated long before I joined the Court banned their release.

I knew that many justices had no objection to the release of their SALNs. In fact, upon being inducted, Justice Adolfo S. Azcuna (now retired from the Court) made public his SALN. However, after he learned of these decisions, he withdrew his SALN from public scrutiny because he (like the other justices) was bound by this jurisprudence, whether he agreed with it or not.

I challenged the reporters and the bar — and this was published and broadcasted — to file an appropriate petition, so the Court could revisit the matter. But no one during my watch picked up my dare.

Personal matters. Some FAQs ask for legal advice on personal problems, especially on family and property relations. At times, even lawyers want me to review their opinions on complicated issues before sending them to their clients.

My usual answer is that I do not dispense long distance advice on personal matters. Every legal problem is unique and requires an ascertainment of the specific facts and a research on applicable laws and jurisprudence. For example, a question asked by a reader is whether she, as an adopted child, will inherit from a deceased son of her adoptive parents.

This query looks deceptively simple. But the answer requires an ascertainment of the facts: What is the legal basis of her “adoption”? Did the decedent have a wife and children? Did he die testate or intestate? If testate, where is the will? Has it been probated? Etc. The best advice I could give is for the reader to consult a good practicing lawyer, and for indigents, the Public Attorney’s Office or the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.

Sometimes, readers raise questions of public interest and of common benefit to a large group. So I render an extended opinion, which I publish in this space, like my piece last Sept. 18 titled “Enfranchising duals and greens.”

Other FAQs. Question: “When you cite cases, you give only the title and date of promulgation. Why don’t you print also the case number and publication source, like the Philippine Reports (abbreviated as ‘Phil’) or the Supreme Court Reports Annotated (SCRA)?”

Answer: To save on space, I do not anymore cite the usual “Phil” or “SCRA” or the case number. By knowing the case title and the date of promulgation, readers can easily access the full text of the decision via the Internet, or the Supreme Court Library. Decisions are printed in the Philippine Reports and the SCRA chronologically per their dates of promulgation. Hence, by knowing the promulgation or issuance date, researchers can easily find the appropriate volume in which the decision is printed.

The date of promulgation is useful not only in finding the text of the decision but also in determining how recent the decision is. Sometimes, jurisprudence change; the later the date of promulgation, the more current and authoritative the judgment is.

Question: “Why are lawyers referred to as members of the bar?”

Answer: Traditionally, courts have a railing or barrier that divides the front area reserved for lawyers (and the witnesses) from the rear portion that is occupied by the general public who watch the proceedings. Since only lawyers may pass the small swing doors of the railing, they are called “members of the bar.” This nomenclature has nothing to do with their vaunted voluminous drinking habit.

Question: “Why have you not joined Facebook, Twitter and other social networks?”

Answer: I thank readers for their well-meaning invitations but I am now retired from public service and would rather keep my privacy as much as I can. I am not sure I can keep up with the demand of updating tweets and small talk in the networks.

But I respond to questions sent to my e-mail address below, provided they are related to my columns. I get over a hundred e-mails a day, most of them junk which I promptly delete. I do not comment on mails not related to my columns. But I reply to relevant ones as soon as I can, usually within 24 hours. To avoid viruses, I do not open unknown attachments.

Question: “Do you have a law firm?”

Answer: No, my law office was dissolved when I joined the Supreme Court. After I retired, I have not formed or joined any law firm, not even as “of counsel.” I feel that it would not be fair to other lawyers if I now practice law. After all, as a former chief justice, I know many of the incumbent justices and judges who may wittingly or unwittingly be accused of bias if I appear before them as counsel, or worse, if I win my cases.

However, as an independent director/adviser of some companies, I pass upon legal matters on the agenda of their board meetings. I articulate what I believe is correct. And I do write my legal opinions in this space on matters of interest to the reading public. I do not claim to be infallible, only reasonable.

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