SC junks petition challenging Ombudsman’s SALN restrictions

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 01 2021 11:14 AM

MANILA — The Supreme Court has dismissed a petition questioning Ombudsman Samuel Martires' memorandum circular limiting access to statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) of public officials.

In a resolution dated February 2 but made public only on Wednesday, the SC en banc denied the petition filed by a certain Louis Biraogo on procedural grounds, saying there was no actual case and that he filed the wrong petition at the wrong court.

Biraogo had sought to secure Vice President Leni Robredo's SALN supposedly to study her office’s use of a mansion in Quezon City which was allegedly paid for using taxpayer’s money.

After receiving no response to his request, he allegedly called the Ombudsman’s office and was verbally told they could not grant his request due to Martires’ memorandum circular.

In September last year, Martires released a memorandum requiring prior written and duly notarized consent of the public official who filed the SALN before it is released to a requesting party.

Biraogo questioned the Ombudsman’s memorandum before the Supreme Court claiming that this violates his constitutional right to information.

But the high court rejected his petition, saying he failed to present an actual case or controversy because there was only an alleged verbal refusal on the part of the Ombudsman to accommodate his request, which it described as a “bare, self-serving and unsubstantiated allegation.”

An actual case or controversy is among the requirements before the Supreme Court exercises its power of judicial review. 

It means there must be an “active antagonistic assertion of a legal right, on the one hand, and a denial thereof on the other; that is, it must concern a real and not merely a theoretical question or issue.”

The high court explained that the mere existence or effectivity of a memorandum circular is not enough.

Another reason cited by the high court is the doctrine of hierarchy of courts, which means that Biraogo could not go directly to SC when there are other courts who could take on the case, despite his claim that his case is of transcendental importance. 

“The rule is now well-settled that litigants do not have unfettered discretion to invoke the Court’s original jurisdiction in the issuance of extraordinary writs, which it concurrently shares with the Regional Trial Courts and the Court of Appeals,” it said.

The court added that a petition for mandamus is not the right remedy as the release of SALN is not merely a ministerial function as the custodian of SALNs can deny any request.

“[W]hile the right of access to information to a public official’s SALN is provided under the Constitution and RA 6713, the same is not an absolute vested right. 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,” it said.

“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 laws, is far from being merely ministerial,” it added.

The high court pointed out that the SC, as custodian of the SALNs of justices and judges, has issued guidelines in requesting to gain access to SALNS and has denied requests due to improper motives or those that amount to a fishing expedition.

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The SC, in September last year, unanimously blocked the attempts of lawyer Lorenzo Gadon and the Office of the Solicitor General to secure the SALN of SC Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, supposedly for the purpose of preparing a quo warranto petition.

The plan to file a quo warranto petition against Leonen did not prosper but an impeachment complaint against the justice was filed before the House of Representatives, alleging, among others, his supposed non-filing of SALNs for 15 years when he was teaching at the University of the Philippines.

The House Justice committee in May junked the complaint as lawyers, judges, rights advocates and even retired Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio came to Leonen’s defense, insisting the impeachment complaint was baseless.

The Biraogo petition junked by the Supreme Court is the first known challenge to Martires' rule imposing restrictions on access to SALNs. 

Martires had defended his rule saying SALNs are unnecessary in corruption probes and could be used as a weapon against public officials.

But a former magistrate, retired SC Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza, rejected this idea, calling the SALN a “simple” constitutional requirement.

“Kung ayaw mo mahalungkat SALN mo, 'wag ka mag-gobyerno. What is so difficult about it? And then it is weaponizing? Eh 'di mag-file ka,” he earlier told ANC.

(If you don't want people to dig up your SALN, then don't join government. What is so difficult about it? And then it is weaponizing? Then file.)

Robredo herself also opposed Martires’ new rule, saying it sends the wrong signals.

But last month, Robredo released her own SALN.