Why we care how much they’re worth
The trend, however, is for greater openness and transparency even in officials’ private lives following the dictum that public office is a private trust. The President and members of her Cabinet routinely make their SALs available to the public. So do members of Congress; in fact, a listing of the richest to the poorest legislators is a yearly media ritual. Public knowledge of how rich or how poor they are has not, we would like to believe, affected their performance.
SC spokesman Ismael Khan, in justifying the Supreme Court policy of non-disclosure, said information about a justice’s wealth might be used by litigants to destroy his personal credibility and that of the judiciary as an institution.
But the same can be said about members of the Executive and the Legislative departments. Except for suspiciously acquired assets, however, wealth or lack of it has not been used to destroy the integrity of an official or of the institution to which he belongs.
Who, for example, has the lowest credibility among our officials? No doubt Gloria Arroyo, closely followed by Speaker Jose de Venecia.
There were questions over the Arroyo couple’s ownership of a real estate property in California a few years back. But her loss of credibility is due largely to the allegations of habitual lying, cheating and thieving under her administration. De Venecia? He made his pile as an overseas contractor, but that’s not the reason for his low trust ratings. It’s the perception that he is a "trapo" through and through that makes for his reputation.
Now let’s go to the actual use of SALs in pinning down grafters in government. The SAL, as the name implies, lists the assets and liabilities of the filer. It serves as a quick check for hidden – and presumably illegally acquired – wealth. For this purpose, the value of the SAL is multiplied many times over if it is made public. A nosy neighbor, a disgruntled subordinate or a personal enemy can go over the publicly available document and quickly ascertain if a house and lot, a condominium unit or a business enterprise dealing with government is listed.
Perhaps the 15 members of the high court are beyond suspicion. But how about the scores of appellate justices and the tens of thousands of lower court judges? The Supreme Court itself is aware of the problem posed by hoodlums in robes.
No, the members of the judiciary should not assert a privilege waived by the Executive and the Legislature. Secrecy and confidentiality only spawn suspicion and distrust. The judiciary is the least equipped among the three branches to wage a war to gain the people’s trust. Openness, not secrecy, is its first line of defense against assaults on its credibility.