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MANILA, Philippines – What was supposed to be a budget hearing turned into a rare exchange in Congress between legislators and justices on a case pending before the highest court of the land.
Senate President Franklin Drilon turned the tables on Supreme Court (SC) justices, asking them about the temporary restraining order (TRO) the tribunal issued on the release of the pork barrel for the rest of 2013.
Supreme Court associate justices Diosdado Peralta and Marvic Leonen attended the budget hearing of the judiciary at the Senate on Wednesday, September 11, but Drilon took the chance to ask them questions about the TRO.
Drilon, a former justice secretary, asked the two when the High Court will be able to issue a decision on the case.
“I am just pointing out that if you don’t decide by December 31, the budget item will expire. You will impound on the budget, which only the President can do,” Drilon said.
“It is the role of the executive to release or not to release [the budget]. The Supreme Court, if it decides by December 31, exercises the power of the executive not to release [it],” he added.
Leonen and Peralta though repeatedly refused to answer Drilon’s questions, saying the hearing was not the proper venue and they could not speak on behalf of the 14 justices handling the case.
“We assure the Senate and the public that we are aware of the importance of the case, and the conceptual issues, which also includes the concept of impoundment and the power of judicial review,” Leonen said.
“A TRO is a TRO. It is effective as of the moment and therefore what happens after several months or years is something the court will address in due time,” he added.
The justices said they could not say when the court can issue a decision, only that it will take time. Oral arguments are set for October 8.
Drilon though asked what will happen if Congress passes a budget including the pork barrel and the court subsequently rules that the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) is unconstitutional.
“If you declare PDAF as unconstitutional and make your TRO permanent, that means PDAF for 2014 is invalid,” Drilon said.
Leonen responded, “Any act declared as unconstitutional by the court, that unconstitutionality serves ab initio which means from the very beginning.”
“The good senator asks us what will be the value of the decision we will come out with. With prudence, it’s better for us not to respond to the question. I am sure we already have an answer to some of your questions but we want to give time for comments and memoranda to be filed,” added the justice, former government peace panel chief and former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law.
Drilon said he was asking questions because he has yet to receive and read the TRO, which the court issued on Tuesday. He assured the justices that the Senate will comply with whatever ruling they will issue.
The SC stopped the release of the remaining PDAF in the 2013 budget and the Malampaya Funds.
The decision was based on petitions asking the court to declare the PDAF unconstitutional following the pork barrel scam. In the scam, lawmakers allegedly endorsed bogus NGOs as recipients of their PDAF in exchange for kickbacks.
Drilon himself has been dragged into the controversy after photos of him and his wife partying with the family of alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles circulated.
Traditionally cloistered, justices speak through their decisions. They are only seen making public statements in oral arguments at the Supreme Court.
Can President realign budget?
Drilon also pressed the justices on whether or not the President can realign portions of the budget while the TRO is in effect.
“As we speak now, nakapila ang mga tao, humihingi ng medical assistance, pang-dialysis. The question asked of me is ‘Puwede pa ba o hindi na?’” (Thousands of people fall in line asking for medical assistance. They ask if we can still release the PDAF or not.)
Leonen answered Drilon’s question by reading the TRO. The Senate chief then interrupted him. “Unfortunately, I am the one asking questions. This is not a court session.”
The justice replied, “While it is easy for us to give an answer now, it’s best there is a motion filed before the court so all 14 [justices] can deliberate on it. I hope your honor can understand there are constitutional boundaries at this point.”
Drilon said, “As a politician who nearly went to the judiciary, I am asking these questions.”
Leonen stood his ground, saying he and Peralta alone cannot answer the questions.
Realigning PDAF to SC?
At this point, Drilon changed tack and instead asked the justices if Congress will be allowed to realign the PDAF to source the funds that the judiciary needs. Leonen said he cannot answer a theoretical and speculative question.
Drilon said: “I am not asking a theoretical, speculative question. You presented a [budgetary requirement] of P1.47 billion [for personal services]. We are asking your help. We cannot increase the budget. If we are to accede to your request, we can only do that by realigning certain items in the budget. Can we realign the PDAF to the personal services of the judiciary?”
Leonen said the Supreme Court can only advise the Senate but the decision is left to Congress.
Upon persistent questions from Drilon, the justice said, “Again, your honor. Rep ipsa loquitur. The order speaks for itself.”
He added, “There is a proper way to ask the court and that is for your lawyers to file a motion to clarify.”
After much back and forth, Drilon finally moved to approve the P18.4 billion budget of the judiciary. He explained why he was bent on asking questions.
“I did not want to miss the opportunity to turn the tables. These questions are not asked for anything but we need guidance. You are the gods of Padre Faura. We need to know what we will do, therefore we ask your guidance,” Drilon said.
Leonen later replied, “The Supreme Court is not a court that only stays in Padre Faura. We are fully aware of the PDAF as implemented, the circumstances of the case.”
The two shook hands and laughed after the hearing but Drilon could not help but end the hearing with just one more question.
“Can the President realign the budget?” Laughter was the only answer he got. – Rappler.com