Former Solicitor General: Failure to file SALNs is laziness, not lack of integrity

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 14) — The failure to file statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALNs) may constitute laziness — but it is not an indicator of integrity, former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay said on Monday.

"I'd say failure to file SALN is laziness, not necessarily (lack of) integrity," Hilbay told CNN Philippines' The Source.

"Someone who's not able to file SALN, whether repeatedly or not, is a lazy person... but at the same time, (could) be a person of integrity," he added. "Someone who doesn't accept bribes, somebody who decides cases fairly, can at the same time be lazy with certain administrative matters."

His comment comes after the Supreme Court in a landmark case voted 8-6 to void the appointment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. In a 153-page decision, Associate Justice Noel Tijam wrote that Sereno's failure to submit a complete record of her SALNs constituted "a lack of integrity."

Under Article 8, Section 7 of the Constitution, "a member of the Judiciary must be a person of proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence." Other constitutional requirements provide that a judge must be at least 40 years of age, a natural-born citizen, and a law practitioner for 15 years or more.

Hilbay maintains integrity is one of the "subjective" requirements to being a judge, and is therefore flexible as determined by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC). In 2012, the JBC included Sereno in the shortlist for Chief Justice candidates despite the supposed missing SALNs.

Her camp previously said they recovered and submitted about 11 SALNs to the Supreme Court, but admitted that the rest were lost.

The high court granting the quo warranto petition is highly contested, as senators and many in the legal community maintain that impeachment is the only way to unseat a Chief Justice. An impeachment was underway in Congress, but it is now considered moot after the decision.

The former Solicitor General said that the Senate had a very important role to play, as it was one of the "biggest victims of this decision."

Hilbay added that senators he had spoken to were mulling on what to do after the ouster, but the effects of Senate action had yet to be seen.

"They can file a resolution, they can express their opinion with respect to the decision of the Supreme Court," he said. "What weight will that have with respect to the decision of the motion for reconsideration and down the line, we really don't know."

Several senators — including those from the majority coalition, like Senate President Koko Pimentel — have questioned the decision and voiced out the necessity for an impeachment trial.

Sereno's camp is planning to file a motion for reconsideration.

Hilbay noted that the vote was a lot closer than expected, and could still be overturned.

"There are cases where the Supreme Court has changed its mind more than three times in one particular case. Given the closeness of the voting here, I think there will be attempts to either retain the vote or change (it)," said Hilbay.

When asked about the possibility of justices changing their mind, Hilbay said, "For very close cases you always have that... Sometimes justices decide on the day of the voting itself."

The former solicitor general previously appealed "not to demonize" the justices who voted in favor of the decision, as a turnaround was still on the horizon.

Pending a motion for reconsideration, the Supreme Court decision was "immediately executory."

Even then, Hilbay surmised that the former Chief Justice could still make a comeback. Sereno, who is one of the youngest top judges in history, was expected to hold her post until 2030.

"That means that theoretically, with the new President, she can file for the Supreme Court," said Hilbay. "If the President recognizes her status as still the Chief Justice, then you have another live case."

Watch the full interview with Hilbay here.