Secrecy in the Supreme Court: good or bad?

Some lawyers say it could weaken the institution; others argue it's hypocritical

JUSTICE SERENO: Was it right of her to disclose all?

MANILA, Philippines – Independence has been repeatedly invoked in the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona.

His alleged lack of it was, in fact, one of the reasons why he was impeached by the House of Representatives in 2011. But in proving the independence (or again, the alleged lack of it) of a single Justice, could the independence of the Supreme Court as an institution be affected?

This question particularly becomes relevant as the prosecution makes its plea that Justice Lourdes Sereno — whose dissenting opinion was used to prove Corona’s alleged bias for former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo — should voluntarily testify in the impeachment trial. 

To show that Corona “distorted” a resolution allowing his former superior, now Pampanga Rep Arroyo, to leave the country on November 15, the prosecution presented Justice Secretary Leila de Lima as a witness on Wednesday, February 22.

De Lima, who barred Arroyo from leaving the country, read generously from Sereno’s dissenting opinion.

TRO conditions

In the said dissenting opinion promulgated on Dec 13, 2011, Sereno detailed the Supreme Court’s deliberations. It was revealed that the SC voted 7-6 on Nov 18, 2011 suspending the issuance of the TRO — after Arroyo failed to comply with one of the conditions attached to it.

The TRO was issued on November 15 and specified the following conditions: the Arroyos were directed to post a P2-M bond, assign a legal representative, and report to the Philippine consulate in the countries they were intending to go to. 

The special power of attorney submitted by the legal counsel for the Arroyo camp, Ferdinand Topacio, did not say that he would receive documents for her.

Without this, the SC, by a vote of 7-6, ruled that the TRO is suspended. But by another vote of 7-6, the SC decided that there is no need to categorically state that all conditions have to be met first before the TRO is considered to have taken effect.

The resolution on November 18, however, did not reflect this. Neither did another resolution on November 22, which was supposed to clarify how the justices voted on November 18. Justice Antonio Carpio said this resolution was Corona’s version. 

Distortion

Prosecutor Raul Daza said that Corona’s alleged “distortion” of the resolution — as revealed in the en banc deliberations — should be enough reason to remove Corona.

What he did, prosecutor and Rep Neri Colmenares said, smacked of his partiality toward Arroyo, who appointed him as an SC justice and served as his boss before he joined the Court. Corona was Arroyo’s former chief of staff, spokesman, and presidential legal counsel. 

The internal discussions of the Court on that fateful en banc meeting on Nov 18, 2011 was, according to the prosecution, sufficient proof that Corona lacked independence, one of the qualities expected of a member of the judiciary, along with competence and integrity.

Vulnerable court

But some lawyers believe that in disclosing what transpired in the en banc session, the SC itself could have been rendered vulnerable.

A legal expert who asked not to be named said deliberations are made confidential for a reason: so that justices would be able to freely express themselves and cast their vote without fear of being criticized. 

He added that Sereno destroyed in one dissent a hundred-year-old tradition of keeping internal deliberations confidential.

Another lawyer, Ernest Maceda of the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, said that the “secrecy of the deliberations” is one of the “pillars of the independence of the institution.”  

He added that a member of the Court could only make the internal deliberations of the SC public with the consent of the whole SC. “That is the nature of a collegial body,” he stressed.

Maceda said that revealing the inner discussions of the SC would weaken the fiber of the institution.

Hypocrisy

Amado Valdez, dean of the University of the East saw the value of keeping the SC deliberations confidential, so that justices would not be pressured to speak or act only in favor of the one who appointed them.

But he disagreed that Sereno’s decision to disclose how the justices decided with regard to the TRO would weaken the independence of the SC. 

He said that Sereno may have disclosed the internal deliberations of the SC because she saw “the hypocrisy of the whole thing…that the motivations are not really of the interest of justice.”  

Valdez also said that the real meaning of judicial independence should be taken into consideration. “You should not be independent for the sake of being independent,” he said. 

“You should be independent for the sake of truth.” – Rappler.com 

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.