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Not for the first time when he had the country’s highest magistrates as his captive audience, President Benigno Aquino III on Friday took the occasion to take the justices to task for taking on cases that he said delayed critical infrastructure projects and promulgating rulings that he described as “judicial legislation.”
While stressing that his administration supports the judiciary and its reform programs with increased funding, the President firmly asserted his authority, pointing out the cost to the country of slow litigation, citing in particular an expressway project that has apparently stalled because of court proceedings.
“What our bosses expect from us public servants is simple: Instead of “just tiis (being patient), let’s promote genuine justice. That’s why I will take this opportunity to raise some issues with you,” he said in remarks that were a mixture of English and Filipino at the groundbreaking ceremonies for the new Supreme Court complex in Taguig City.
Mr. Aquino even quoted the Constitution to drive home his point. He said Article VIII, Section 15 (1) mandates that the high court resolve “all cases or matters” within 24 months, or two years from the day of filing.
A new chapter
He challenged the magistrates to complement the modernity and quality of the new Supreme Court facility—funded by Malacañang—that will rise on the site where he was speaking.
“The complex that will be built will be modern and of high quality, with new equipment. But for me, the most important part of it is the people who will work there,” Mr. Aquino said.
He said the facility was proof that “a new chapter” has begun in the relations among the three branches of government, noting the expected doubling of the budget allocation for the judiciary, from P12.66 billion in 2010 to P25.89 billion in 2016.
“All the new equipment in your new building will help you fulfill your mandate, but it’s still up to you if you will uphold what is right and just,” he told the high court magistrates.
The President, who has had tense brushes with the Supreme Court justices in the past, said government infrastructure projects should be spared from the delaying effect of a temporary restraining order.
“Just look at the situation of one of our expressways, where the project was delayed because the court did not immediately issue a writ of possession. When I think about it, because court hearings delay a project, it’s just like being under a TRO,” Mr. Aquino said.
The President was apparently referring to the expressway project at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, which has been delayed by right-of-way issues.
“To you who know the law better, isn’t there a law that says when it comes to a project involving government infrastructure, there should be a deposit for the amortization of land to be expropriated? And when that has been done, the court has to issue a writ of possession saying government has the right to use that land and proceed with its project,” Mr. Aquino said.
He said Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson had reported that despite compliance with the deposit requirement, the court hearing the case has yet to issue the writ, thus delaying the project.
Mr. Aquino also mentioned instances where “projects are delayed because of the need (for the court) to determine just compensation.” He did not cite the specific project.
“I hope you give due attention to coming up with decisions on issues like these. The law is clear on the right of the government to proceed with a project even when the court has yet to resolve the matter of just compensation,” he said.
He cited how such obstacles derail the delivery of services and benefits for the public, and multiply costs for the government.
“Because of such delays, costs also increase. And the additional funds could have been used for other services. We are all serving our bosses. We should focus on nothing else but those that will be for the good of the nation,” he said.
The President also cited cases where he felt certain magistrates took “confounding” positions or made a sudden turnaround.
“You are the experts in law, and my appeal is this: Go back to the major and controversial issues that the judiciary faced, such as the times when one or several justices took confounding positions (on a case), when the court suddenly changed its view on important issues, or when it seemed there was judicial legislation,” he said.
Mr. Aquino did not cite a specific case or issue, but his statement brought to mind the recent Supreme Court ruling granting the bail petition of Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, who was released from detention on humanitarian grounds despite being on trial on the nonbailable charge of plunder.
The Aug. 18 ruling has been criticized as a rewriting of the restrictions on granting bail for an accused facing nonbailable charges, which does not include humanitarian considerations as a ground for granting an exemption.
“As among those expected to uphold the interest of the Filipino, let us ask ourselves: Am I able to do right by the people or am I just doing something to say I am fulfilling my duties? Will this be good for my bosses, and will it truly deliver justice?” Mr. Aquino said.
In the audience were the same justices who last year invalidated the President’s Disbursement Acceleration Program, a spending reform mechanism to speed up public expenditure and boost economic growth. The high court declared the DAP unconstitutional because in carrying out its high-impact programs and projects, it used funds that were not programmed in the budget passed by Congress or that were obtained from illegally declared savings.
The DAP ruling angered the President who twice went on television to defend the program, issuing a not-so-subtle threat against a coequal branch of government. Not since he instigated the removal of Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2011 and 2012 did Mr. Aquino speak so strongly against the Supreme Court.
But attempting to introduce a note of levity on Friday, the President quoted a joke that his lawyers apparently like to tell. He said his lawyers were told in their introduction to law class that there are only two kinds of lawyers: “those who know the law” and “those who know the judge.”
CJ for a national discussion
In an interview after walking the President out of the venue, Sereno said she would look into the expressway case that Mr. Aquino had raised.
“I didn’t know there was an issue on infrastructure… especially about the Naia Expressway, and I will have to look into these matters,” she told reporters.
In response to the President’s call for speedy judicial proceedings on cases involving government expropriation, Sereno said there should be a national discussion on “what kind of periods are allowable for due process.”
“Ultimately, you have to make sure that property owners are not unduly deprived. So we are going actually in that direction and we are already convening several small committees to discuss these problems,” she said.
She said the current legal framework “is no longer capable of addressing all these issues.”
On the matter of judicial legislation, Sereno said the court has also been careful to avoid overstepping its powers.
“In every en banc session, we continue to debate on whether what we’re doing is already legislation or if it is still within the bounds of what we can do. But, ultimately, it will redound to a question of what the final vote will be. So it’s an evolving thing, but we are mindful of that need to maintain that line,” she said.
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