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SC: Public access to officials’ SALNs not absolute right

In an eight-page notice based on a Feb. 2 resolution and released to the public only last June 30, the magistrates dismissed the petition filed by Louis Biraogo against Ombudsman Samuel Martires. (Philstar.com/Erwin Cagadas, file)

MANILA, Philippines — The Supreme Court (SC) in full session has ruled that the right of access to information on a public official’s statement of assets, liability and net worth (SALN) is “not an absolute vested right.”

In an eight-page notice based on a Feb. 2 resolution and released to the public only last June 30, the magistrates dismissed the petition filed by Louis Biraogo against Ombudsman Samuel Martires.

On Dec. 16 last year, Biraogo petitioned the SC to prohibit the implementation of Memorandum Circular No. 1 issued by Martires, which allows access to SALN only if there is prior written and duly notarized consent of the declarant. Biraogo said the memorandum circular was unconstitutional.

“Here, while the right of access and information to a public official’s SALN is provided under the Constitution and Republic Act 6713, the same is not an absolute vested right,” the SC said.

“The Court has declared in the past that while no prohibition could stand against access to official records such as the SALN, the same is undoubtedly subject to regulation,” the SC said.

It further explained that the power to regulate public access to these documents stems from the inherent power of the custodian – in this case the Office of the Ombudsman – to prevent the damage and loss of the records as well as avoid interference with the duties of the Ombudsman and ensure the right of other persons to make an inspection.

“Thus, a custodian such as the Office of the Ombudsman is not bound under every circumstance to allow or to grant the request of disclosure of a public official’s SALN to the public. A custodian is not prohibited by the Constitution to regulate such disclosure. Its duty therefore, under the Constitution and applicable law, is far from being merely ministerial,” it added.

It also said the high court is in fact the custodian of the SALNs of justices and judges, and it has set guidelines on requesting for copies of these documents. It has also denied, on occasion, requests with “plain discernible improper motive” or intended as “fishing expedition.”

As for Biraogo, he wrote to Martires on Sept. 21 last year asking about procedures to obtain a copy of Vice President Robredo’s SALN.

He reportedly explained that the Vice President’s SALN would be used for his studies on her alleged use of a mansion in Quezon City reportedly using taxpayer’s money.

After receiving no reply, Biraogo reportedly called the Office of the Ombudsman and was told that his request could not be accommodated because of MC No. 1.

The petitioner claimed that MC No. 1 is a violation of the right to information enshrined in Article III Section 7 and Article XI Section 17 of the Constitution, and in Sections 5 9e) and 8 of Republic Act No. 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

But the SC said it does not have unrestrained authority to rule on just about every claim of constitutional violation.

It also said that Biraogo also failed to meet one of the three requirements, particularly presentation of actual case or controversy.

Also the “petitioner has miserably failed to demonstrate any actual act committed by respondent which resulted to a direct and concrete injury or adverse effect against him. It bears emphasis that the alleged verbal refusal of respondent to accommodate petitioner’s request is but a bare, self-serving, and unsubstantiated allegation.”

The high court also pointed out that the petitioner failed to observe the doctrine of hierarchy of courts.

“Thus, while petitions for certiorari and prohibition filed before the Court ‘are remedies by which the grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the government may be determined under the Constitution,’ this is, by no means, an indiscriminate license to disregard the requisites of the Court’s judicial review and the doctrine of hierarchy of courts,” it added.

Media covered

MC No.1 also applies to members of the media. The memorandum also states that “all requests to inspect or to take picture of the SALN will be denied.”

In an electronic mail reply sent last Feb. 16, the ombudsman’s Public Assistance Bureau (PAB) merely “acknowledges” but did not act on The STAR’s request for copies of the 2018 and 2019 SALNs of President Duterte and Robredo. The email reply came eight months after the request was made on June 10 last year.

The PAB advised The STAR to direct its request to the Ombudsman’s Central Records Division. The CRD, however, earlier said the request should be relayed to PAB through email.

Meanwhile, the Civil Service Commission (CSC) has given government offices until July 30 to transmit the collated SALNs for 2020 of their officials and employees to appropriate repository agencies.

In a statement, the CSC said the transmittal may be done electronically due to the pandemic.

The CSC cited its MC No. 6, which sets the guidelines for the filing and submission of SALNs under exceptional circumstances.

Under RA 6713, SALNs of constitutional and national elective officials, including the president and vice president must be transmitted to the central office of the Ombudsman as the repository agency; senators and congressmen to the Secretaries of the Senate and the House of Representatives, respectively; Supreme Court justices to the Clerk of Court of the SC; trial court judges to the Court Administrator, and all national executive officials to the Office of the President.

The SALNs of regional and local officials and employees must be transmitted to the Deputy Ombudsman in their respective regions; officers of the armed forces from the rank of colonel or naval captain, to the Office of the President, and those below said ranks, to the Deputy Ombudsman in their respective regions. The SALNs of all other public officials and employees defined in RA 3019 shall be transmitted to the CSC.

“For agencies submitting to the CSC, one of the repository agencies identified in Republic Act No. 6713, SALNs may be submitted either through physical or electronic modes to the CSC Regional (RO) or Field Office (FO) having jurisdiction over them. The CSC RO/FO will, in turn, transmit them to the CSC Central Office’s Integrated Records Management Office,” the CSC said in its statement. — Evelyn Macairan, Elizabeth Marcelo

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