SC thumbs down requests for confidential court records

by Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 16 2012 05:09 PM | Updated as of Feb 17 2012 01:09 AM

MANILA, Philippines - The Supreme Court (SC) has denied the examination and reproduction of confidential court records of cases cited in the impeachment case against Chief Justice Renato Corona as subpoenaed by the Senate, sitting as an impeachment court, and requested, through letters, by the House prosecution panel.

In a 28-page per curiam en banc Resolution dated February 14, the High Court also maintained that its justices, officials and employees are bound by the rules on confidentiality and barred from disclosing information pertaining to the raffle of cases, actions taken on each case in the agenda of court sessions, and deliberations of justices in court sessions on cases and matters pending before it.

The voting was unanimous with 12 justices present. 

Corona inhibited as well as Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco, Jr., whose congressman son signed the impeachment complaint; Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe was on official leave.

"They [Justices, officials and court employees] are subject as well to the disqualification by reason of privileged communication and the sub judice rule... these rules extend to documents and other communications which cannot be disclosed," the resolution read.

"These privileges, incidentally, belong to the Judiciary and are for the Supreme Court (as the representative and entity speaking for the Judiciary), and not for the individual Justice, judge, or court official or employees to waive," it added.

In separate letters to the Supreme Court in January, members of the prosecution panel requested the following:

- the rollo and certified true copies of the agenda and deliberations of Flight Attendants and Stewards Association of the Philippines (FASAP) vs. Philippine Airlines Inc.;

- the rollo of Navarro vs. Ermita;

- the rollo of Ma. Merceditas N. Gutierrez vs. The House of Representatives Committee on Justice; and

- the rollo of League of Cities vs. Comelec.

The Impeachment Court, on the other hand, issued a subpoena ad testificandum et duces tecum dated February 9, 2012 directing the attendance of Clerk of Court Enriqueta Vidal and Deputy Clerk of Court Felipa Anama, and the production of documents involving FASAP vs. PAL, such as:

- records/logbook of the Raffle Committee showing the assignment of the FASAP case; and

- letters of PAL counsel Estelito Mendoza addressed to the Clerk of Court dated Sept. 13, 2011; Sept. 16, 2011; Sept. 20, 2011; and Sept. 22, 2011;

Another subpoena dated Feb. 10 directed Vidal the following in the case of former first couple Gloria and Mike Arroyo:

- Supreme Court received (with time and date stamp) Petition for Certiorari and Prohibition with Prayer for the Issuance of a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) and/or Writ of Preliminary Injunction filed by Mrs. Arroyo, including annexes;

- Supreme Court received (with time and date stamp) Petition for Certiorari and Prohibition with Prayer for the Issuance of a TRO and/or Writ of Preliminary Injunction filed by Mr. Arroyo;

- Chief Justice Corona's travel order or leave applied for within the month of November 2011;

- minutes of the Raffle Committee which handled the Arroyo petitions;

- appointment or assignment of the Member(Justice)-in-charge of the Arroyo petitions;

- Resolution dated Nov. 15, 2011 in the Arroyo petitions;

- Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) dated November 15, 2011 issued in the Arroyo petitions;

- logbook or receiving copy showing the time the TRO was issued to the counsel of the Arroyos, and the date and time the TRO was received by the Sheriff for service to the parties;

- Special Power of Attorney dated Nov. 15, 2011 submitted by the Arroyos in favor of Attys. Ferdinand Topacio and Anacleto Diaz in compliance with the TRO;

- official receipt dated Nov. 15, 2011 issued by the Supreme Court for the P2-million cash bond posted by Mr. and Mrs. Arroyo, with the official date and time stamp;

- Nov. 15 and 16, 2011 Sheriff's Return for the service of the TRO to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG);

- certification from the Fiscal Management and Budget Office of the Supreme Court dated Nov. 15, 2011, with the date and time it was received by the Clerk of Court showing it to be Nov. 16, 2011 at 8:55 am;

- Resolution dated Nov. 18, 2011 issued in the Arroyo TRO petitions;

- Resolution dated Nov. 22, 2011 on the Arroyo petitions;

- logbook showing the date and time Associate Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno's dissent to the Nov. 22 Resolution was received by the Clerk of Court en banc;

- Dissenting Opinions dated Nov. 13 and 18, 2011 of Associate Justice Antonio Carpio on the Arroyo TRO petitions;

- Separate Opinion dated Dec. 13, 2011 of Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco, Jr. on the Arroyo TRO petitions;

- Concurring Opinion dated Dec. 13, 2011 of Associate Justice Roberto Abad on the Arroyo petitions;

- Official Appointment of Chief Justice Corona as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; and

- Official Appointment of Chief Justice Corona as Chief Magistrate.

When court records are considered confidential

The Resolution discussed at length how confidentiality of court records is defined.

It held that in the Judiciary, certain information contained in the records of cases before the Supreme Court are considered confidential and may not be disclosed in order to preserve the integrity of its decision-making function.

Under Rule 7, Sec. 3 of the Internal Rules of the Supreme Court (IRSC), results of the raffle of cases shall only be made available to the parties and counsels, unless these cases involve bar, administrative and criminal cases which carry a penalty of life imprisonment where the results of the raffle are not disclosed even to the parties themselves.

Under Rule 10, Sec. 2 of the IRSC, actions taken in each case in the Court's agenda are also treated with strict confidentiality and may only be made available to the public after the official release of the Resolution on these actions.

Meantime, under Rule 2, Sec. 10 of the IRSC, deliberations of Justices are considered privileged communication and executive in character.

The "deliberative process privilege" was also stressed, where Justices of the High Court freely discuss and deliberate cases and matters "without fear of criticism for holding unpopular positions or fear of humiliation for one's comments."

The Resolution stated that deliberations in closed-door sessions must remain executive in nature, as the same is also granted the Executive and Legislative branches of government as stated in Chavez vs. Public Estates Authority where executive sessions of the Senate and the Lower House are recognized as confidential, and in Neri vs. Senate Committee on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations where it was held that the privilege is enjoyed by all the branches of government "for their own decision and policy-making conversation and correspondence."

Court records considered 'matter of public record' allowed to be released

While the High Court refused the requested examination by the Prosecution of the rollos of the FASAP vs. PAL, Navarro vs. Ermita, Ma. Merceditas Gutierrez vs. The House of Representatives, and League of Cities vs. Comelec, it allowed the issuance of certified true copies of the Decisions, Orders, and Resolutions it issued in these cases and which have already been released to the parties, including the certified true copies of the parties' pleadings.

The High Court also allowed the release of certified true copies of the letters of Atty. Mendoza.

As to the Senate Impeachment Court's subpoena, all documents subpoenaed pertaining to the FASAP vs. PAL case were not allowed to be released citing the pendency of the case.

Vidal, however, was directed to provide the impeachment court with certified true copies of the Decisions, Orders and Resolutions furnished to the parties, parties' pleadings, and Mendoza's letters.

As for the subpoena on court records pertaining to the Arroyo TRO petitions, the High Court allowed the release of certified true copies only of the following on the basis that these are matters of public record (the rest, privileged and confidential):

- Supreme Court received (with time and date stamp) Petition for Certiorari and Prohibition with Prayer for the Issuance of a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) and/or Writ of Preliminary Injunction filed by Mrs. Arroyo, including annexes;

- Supreme Court received (with time and date stamp) Petition for Certiorari and Prohibition with Prayer for the Issuance of a TRO and/or Writ of Preliminary Injunction filed by Mr. Arroyo;

- Official Leave of Chief Justice Corona's travel order or leave applied in Nov. 2011;

- Resolution dated Nov. 15, 2011 in the Arroyo petitions, as published;

- TRO dated November 15, 2011 issued in the Arroyo petitions;

- official receipt dated Nov. 15, 2011 issued by the Supreme Court for the P2 M cash bond posted by Mr. and Mrs. Arroyo, with the official date and time stamp;

- Resolution dated Nov. 18, 2011 issued in the Arroyo TRO petitions, as published;

- Resolution dated Nov. 22, 2011 on the Arroyo petitions;

- Official Appointment of Chief Justice Corona as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; and

- Official Appointment of Chief Justice Corona as Chief Justice.

The High Court allowed the release of certified true copies of the subpoenaed Opinions of Justices Carpio, Sereno, Velasco and Abad, however, reservations were made as it was pointed out that as an institution, the Supreme Court is entitled to the deliberative process privilege and "cannot waive the confidentiality of certain portions" of the Opinions.

The Resolution also pointed out that the attendance of court officials and employees in the impeachment trial should be excused "if the intent only is for them to identify and certify to the existence and genuineness of documents within their custody or control that are not otherwise confidential or privileged." 

SC Justices, officials, employees not compelled to testify on 'adjudicatory' incidents

In its Resolution, the High Court held that "Philippine laws, rules and jurisprudence prohibit the disclosure of confidential or privileged information under well-defined rules" and stressed that "Justices and judges may not be subject to any compulsory process in relation to the performance of their adjudicatory functions."

"Under the law... the Members of the Court may not be compelled to testify in the impeachment proceedings against the Chief Justice or other Members (Justices) of the Court about information they acquired in the performance of their official function of adjudication, such as information on how deliberations were conducted or the material inputs that the Justices used in decision-making, because the end-result would be the disclosure of confidential information that could subject them to criminal prosecution.

"Such act violates judicial privilege (or the equivalent of executive privilege) as it pertains to the exercise of the constitutional mandate of adjudication," the Resolution read.

The independence of the Judiciary, separation of powers

The High Court stressed that the doctrine of separation of powers "is an essential component of our democratic and republican system of government" and system of checks and balances.

The High Court maintained that its mandate, "in so far as these constitutional principles are concerned, is to keep the different branches within the exercise of their respective powers and prerogatives through the Rule of Law."

Principle of comity

Inter-branch and inter-departmental comity was also stressed as the High Court held that while voluntary, is established practice, for each branch to perform its assigned constitutional duties.

"The Judiciary applies the principle of comity at the first instance in its interpretation and application of laws... the courts tread carefully; they exercise restraint and intervene only when the grave abuse of discretion is clear and even then must act with carefully calibrated steps, safely and surely made within constitutional bounds," the Resolution read.

The High Court recognized that the trial on matters of impeachment "has been specifically assigned by the Constitution to the Senate," however, it also held that "where doubt exists in an impeachment case, a standard that should not be forgotten is the need to preserve the structure of a democratic and republican government, particularly the check and balance that should prevail."