Wednesday, August 6, 2014

House probes judiciary fund despite SC snub

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MANILA, Philippines – The House of Representatives opened its probe into the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF) despite the refusal of the Supreme Court (SC) to send any representative to a hearing on Tuesday, August 5.
The absence of SC representatives, however, did not stop allies of President Benigno Aquino III from firing the initial salvo against the JDF, which they said they would study to either keep, amend, or altogether abolish.
Iloilo Representative Niel Tupas Jr, who chairs the House justice committee, cited findings by state auditors that indicated alleged questionable use or handling of the JDF, over which the Chief Justice has sole discretion.
In a letter sent to Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno described the hearing scheduled Tuesday as "premature" and "inappropriate." Invoking the principle of separation of powers between co-equal branches of government, Sereno declined the invitation to appear before the House committee on justice.
Other Supreme Court employees who were invited to the hearing – including Court Administrator Midas Marquez, Deputy Court Administrator Raul Villanueva, and Deputy Clerk of Court and Chief of Office Corazon Ferrer-Flores – did not show up either.
The House committee on justice is, however, giving the Chief Justice a chance to reconsider her decision.
Tupas said there is no reason for the Supreme Court to snub the hearing. "Of course, there's separation of powers. But in the past, the judiciary has cooperated. When we tackled amendments to the Sandiganbayan law, the justices came here. There is no reason for them not to cooperate when it is now the fund of the judiciary in question."
'Valid concerns' acknowledged
Tupas is the author of the bill seeking to abolish the JDF, replacing it with the Judiciary Support Fund, a scheme where the power to allocate judiciary funds will be transferred to Congress.
Another bill, authored by Ilocos Norte Representative Rodolfo Fariñas, seeks to amend Presidential Decree 1949, which created the JDF. Like Tupas' bill, Fariñas' proposal want the fund collected by the lower courts to be transmitted to the treasury instead of going straight to the high court.
The bills were filed in the aftermath of the SC's back-to-back decisions declaring unconstitutional lawmakers' Priority Development Assistance Fundand Malacañang's controversial spending program that benefitted lawmakers. (READ: Where did DAP funds go?)
A motion for reconsideration on the Disbursement Acceleration Program is still pending before the high court.
In her letter to Belmonte, Sereno said: "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."
But the Supreme Court is not closing its doors. In her letter, Sereno asked for more time to consult her colleagues "on how best the Judiciary can meaningfully participate in the valid concerns of the House without sacrificing judicial independence."
COA findings
Only representatives of the Commission on Audit (COA) and the Department of Budget and Management attended the hearing.
Under Presidential Decree 1949, the Chief Justice has the "sole exclusive power" to allocate the JDF and authorize its disbursements and expenditures.
An average of P1 billion ($23 million) is collected for the JDF from docket fees in lower courts and other sources. The SC is supposed to use 80% of the money for the cost of living allowances of employees and 20% for the improvement of courts.
Opening salvo
In response to questions made by Cavite Representative Elpidio Barzaga, COA admitted that it had only conducted an annual audit of the JDF – with validation on a monthly basis, instead of quarterly as prescribed by law.
The committee asked COA to turn over all existing audit records since 1999 – the year when the SC "expanded" the source of the JDF to include other fees.
PD 1949 only intended to source JDF from mandated increases in legal fees, Fariñas said, but the SC released a circular in 1999 "effectively amending the decree" to expand sources of the JDF.
Fariñas also questioned the wisdom of giving the Chief Justice sole discretion over the JDF.
"It is the Chief Justice that collects, allocates, and disburses the JDF. All functions that were supposed to be separate were brought together," Fariñas said.
Tupas, meanwhile, questioned the very nature and relevance of the JDF itself, a Marcos-era law that has remained unamended for 30 years.
"When we file cases, part of it goes to the JDF. If we seek justice, part of the money goes to the JDF?" Tupas said. "Instead of encouraging the court to provide free services, does it not encourage an increase in legal fees?
Citing the 2012 Commission on Audit report on the JDF, Tupas raised the following questions, among others, on the judiciary fund:
  • Why was P300 million from the JDF deposited to a high-yield investment in Land Bank?
  • Why was the JDF used to provide loans? The COA report showed allocations for loans on motorcycles, computers, and hand guns.
  • Is it true that the unfilled position savings of the SC in 2003 is P3 billion? Is it true that the amount became allowances and bonuses? Why should this be declared as allowances when halls of justice in other areas are damaged or nonexistent?
  • Based on the COA report, bail bonds have amounted to P2.7 billion. How much of this was confiscated, and did that amount go to the JDF?
  • Based on the COA report, the cumulative balance of the JDF was P1.3 billion as of June 2014. Where did the money go, given that the average collection for the JDF is P1 billion per year?
Proposals from Congress to amend or abolish the JDF has been criticized by some sectors for being unconstitutional because it would usurp the high court's fiscal autonomy.
But Fariñas said the House proposals do not mean to attack this principle.
"Fiscal autonomy is clearly defined by the Constitution. The fiscal autonomy of the Supreme Court means they can't get new appropriation that is lower than last year's and the release is automatic and regular," he said.
To shed light on the matter, constitutional experts will be invited to the next hearing.
Umali, for his part, said the SC must also practice self-evaluation.
"The Supreme Court ruled in the case of the DAP that the executive branch usurped the power of the purse of Congress. Why can't they see what they're doing through the JDF and declare JDF as unconstitutional? This is a practice of double standard that should not be allowed in this government," Umali said.
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