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MANILA, Philippines - In 2014 the Supreme Court (SC) again asserted its supremacy over a co-equal branch of government, with no less than President Aquino on the receiving end.
After striking down the pork barrel funds of lawmakers, the SC declared unconstitutional certain acts and practices under the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) last July.
The SC justices unanimously held in a 92-page decision that the DAP violated the constitutional provision on the separation of powers and prohibition on inter-branch transfer of appropriations.
The court held that while recipients cannot be held liable for benefiting from programs, activities and projects done in good faith under the DAP, the proponents and those who implement it could not be instantly cleared of culpabilities.
The ruling angered the President, who even issued an indirect threat of impeachment against the justices. Aquino’s allies in the House also initiated moves to abolish the Judicial Development Fund.
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, however, stressed judicial independence in her public engagements. “I don’t serve presidents,” she told foreign correspondents in one forum.
Apart from the DAP, Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act and RA 10354 or the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act went through scrutiny of the SC.
Last February, the SC watered down the Cybercrime Law when it voided some provisions for being unconstitutional.
The high court also voided section 7 of the law, which allows prosecution of online libel and child pornography under RA 10175 and the Revised Penal Code, saying it violates the constitutional right against double jeopardy.
The SC also struck down as unconstitutional three other provisions of the law – Section 4 (c) (3), which penalizes unsolicited commercial communication; Section 12, authorizing the collection or recording of traffic data in real time; and Section 19, authorizing the Department of Justice to restrict or block access to suspected computer data.
In its summer session in Baguio City last April, the SC settled the debate on the legality of RH Law when it voted unanimously to uphold most of the provisions in the law.
Eight provisions and its implementing rules and regulations were, however, declared unconstitutional, including penalizing health workers who fail or refuse to disseminate information on RH programs regardless of religious beliefs, healthcare providers who refuse to refer non-emergency patients to another facility regardless of religious beliefs, health workers who require parental consent from minors in non-emergency cases, and public officials who refuse to support RH programs regardless of religion.
The high court also voided provisions that require private hospitals owned by religious groups to refer patients to other health facilities and allow minors who suffered miscarriage to access modern family planning methods without the consent of parents.
Last April, the High Court stopped the Bureau of Internal Revenue from implementing Regulation 4-2014, which requires self-employed professionals to submit affidavit indicating their rates and register their official appointment books.
In September, the SC stopped the government from requiring companies to disclose the names and tax records of their shareholders.
Another temporary restraining order stopped the submission of the tax identification number of the shareholders of companies with their complete names and corresponding amounts of income and withholding tax.
Relocation of oil depots
The oil sector also had its share of the SC’s cracking the whip when it voted 10-2 in November, ordering the Manila city government to implement the relocation of the oil depot in Pandacan within six months.
The SC ruled as unconstitutional a Manila city ordinance that reclassified the area as a heavy industrial zone.
The SC also weighed in on cases involving relations between the Philippines and the United States.
It heard in two-part oral arguments petitions assailing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
Petitioners led by former senators Rene Saguisag and Wigberto Tañada said the EDCA is a treaty, which requires legislative concurrence for entry of foreign troops and facilities in the country.
The SC justices dismissed a writ of Kalikasan petition for the review of the Visiting Forces Agreement over the grounding of US Navy minesweeper USS Guardian on Tubbataha Reef in January last year.
The SC also denied the plea of groups led by Puerto Princesa, Palawan Bishop Pedro Arigo for higher penalties against the US government and criminal prosecution of US Navy officials liable for the incident.
The SC applied the principle of state immunity from suit in junking the petition against US Seventh Fleet commander Scott Swift, Guardian commanding officer Mark Rice and US Marine Corps Forces head for Pacific region Lt. Gen. Terry Robling.
The high tribunal dealt with cases involving the judiciary, among them the dismissal of Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Gregory Ong over alleged links with suspected pork barrel fund mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles.
The high court found Ong guilty of gross misconduct, dishonesty and impropriety, making him the first justice of the anti-graft court to be dismissed.
The administrative case against Ong involved the sale of 500 Kevlar helmets to the Philippine Marines in 1998. The Sandiganbayan’s Fourth Division handled the case, where Ong sat as member.
The SC cited the finding that Ong met with Napoles twice at her office after the anti-graft court division acquitted her in the case.
In November, the SC granted the request of BIR Commissioner Kim Henares for the certified copies of the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of justices of the anti-graft court.
The BIR requested copies of the SALNs for 2003 to 2012, but the high court allowed the bureau to only get copies for the last three years.
The SC also released the SALNs of its justices last July, which showed that Associate Justice Mariano Del Castillo is the richest magistrate with a net worth of over P122.21 million, up by over P12 million from P109.74 million in the previous year.
Associate Justice Marvic Leonen had the smallest net worth at P1.81 million last year, slightly up from his P1.67 million in 2012.
Last July, the SC ordered an investigation of four regional trial court judges implicated in the controversy involving alleged case fixing and influence peddling in the judiciary by a certain “Ma’am Arlene.”
It was The STAR that broke the story, describing “Ma’am Arlene” as judiciary’s version of Napoles.
Investigated were Judge Rommel Baybay of Makati City of RTC Branch 132; Judge Ralph Lee, Quezon City RTC Branch 83; Judge Marino Rubia of Biñan, Laguna RTC Branch 24, and Judge Lyliha Aquino of Manila RTC Branch 24.
The high court had initially traced the source of the reports to a supposed smear campaign in the electoral contest in the Philippine Judges Association, whose officers had denied involvement in the controversy.
Voting 7-4 last August, the justices reversed the decision of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) to exclude Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza as a nominee to the high tribunal due to alleged “integrity issues.”
The JBC excluded Jardeleza in the shortlist for the vacancy left by the retirement of Associate Justice Roberto Abad even if he garnered enough votes to make it to the shortlist.
Reports attributed the exclusion to a rivalry between Jardeleza and Sereno, who belonged to opposing blocs in the University of the Philippines College of Law.
The year that passed also witnessed the SC working to institute lasting reforms in the judiciary, including speeding up the resolution of cases in the high tribunal.
“Before promulgation, we make sure our decisions are consistent with previous rulings of the court,” Sereno told The STAR.
In the new system, the justices would check a decision in relation to previous rulings to determine if there are inconsistencies.
The SC also implemented new programs this year to speed up court processes through electronic systems, including the e-subpoena system launched last April.
Two Quezon City trial courts are now using automated hearings system where orders and resolutions are issued in real time and on the same day.
The Court also launched the continuous trial system in 24 pilot courts.
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