MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno declined an invitation by the House of Representatives to a public hearing on the disputed Judiciary Development Fund (JDF), calling it “premature.”
Sereno wrote to House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr and informed him that the matter will be discussed in the SC’s en banc session on Tuesday, August 5. By conducting this hearing, the House seems not to recognize that a “healthy relationship” should exist between the legislature and the judiciary, she told Belmonte.
“… my view of the manner, timing and context in which a Committee of the House is proposing to inquire into the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF), as indicated in its letter, is that they leave much to be desired, and at this point, do not seem to be fully cognizant of the kind of healthy relationship that should exist between, on one hand, the House of Representatives, and on the other, the Supreme Court,” according to the 3-page letter sent to the House on August 4.
The House hearing on bills filed in relation to the JDF was scheduled on August 5. For this hearing, the House asked Sereno to appear before a committee to provide her “views, comments and recommendations” on the bills, the Chief Justice said in her letter. This seems “premature,” Sereno noted, and “inapprorpiate,” considering the venue, which is the House of Representatives.
The House invitation comes a month after the SC declared unconstitutional key acts under the administration’s controversial stimulus spending program. The Disbursement Acceleration Program is a spending scheme initiated by the Aquino administration to pump-prime the economy by transferring alleged government savings from slow-disbursing projects, activities and programs to fast-disbursing ones. (READ: Where did DAP funds go?)
Last year, the Court also abolished and declared as unconstitutional the lawmakers’ pork barrel known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund, in the wake of a huge corruption scandal about its misuse.
President Benigno Aquino III questioned the High Court’s verdict on the DAP in a July 14 televised address where he castigated the justices for not considering the DAP’s benefits to Filipinos, particularly the poor. The President’s speech was seen by some sectors as an attack an judiciary and prompted a protest rally by court employees.
On the day of his speech, an Aquino ally, Iloilo Representative Iloilo Representative Niel Tupas Jr of the ruling Liberal Party, filed a bill seeking to abolish the JDF. Ilocos Norte Representative Rodolfo Fariñas of the Nacionalista Party also filed a similar proposal.
Tupas’ House Bill 4738, or “The Act Creating the Judicial Support Fund (JSF) under the National Treasury, repealing for the purpose Presidential Decree No. 1949,” seeks to transfer the power to allocate JDF to Congress. Fariñas’ House Bill 4690 also mandates the SC to remit the collection to the National Treasury.
Lack of transparency
The fund, which is sourced from various legal fees collected by courts nationwide, amounts to about P1 billion ($23 million)* every year. The SC is supposed to use the money for the cost of living allowances of employees (80%) and improvement of the courts (20%).
The current situation gives the SC full control of the fund – based on the constitutional principle of the separation of the government’s equal branches.
It is the SC Chief Justice who has the sole power to authorize disbursements and expenditures of the JDF to guarantee the independence of the judiciary. Created via Presidential Decree No. 1949 and signed by former president Ferdinand Marcos in 1984, the fund was meant “to help ensure and guarantee the independence of the Judiciary as mandated by the Constitution and public policy” and to aid the “impartial administration of justice.”
The JDF has been subject to previous House investigations and a constant source of irritant between the lawmakers and SC justices.
Various sectors have questioned the lack of transparency over the use of the JDF. It has been cited as grounds for impeachment of 2 former chief justices – Hilario Davide Jr in 2003 and Renato Corona in 2012.
Response Letter Dated August 4, 2014
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