A clash between the legislative and judiciary looms after the Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday snubbed a hearing set by the House on Representatives that aimed to scrutinize the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF), which some lawmakers tagged as the judiciary’s “pork barrel.”
Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno and Supreme Court justices did not show up at the hearing scheduled weeks ago by the House justice committee.
Sereno’s decision to skip the hearing riled lawmakers, especially after they read the chief magistrate’s letter invoking judicial independence and lecturing the House that the SC is a co-equal branch of Congress.
Representatives Niel Tupas of Iloilo, Elpidio Barzaga of Cavite and Rodel Batocabe of Ako Bicol party-list, all members of the panel, said Sereno should have cooperated with Congress in the review of the JDF.
“The tone [of her letter]is inappropriate. They always attend whenever there are bills concerning them so I am surprised they did not attend now. We always invite the head of agencies when we hear bills and she is the sole administrator of the JDF. She is the one collecting, allocating and disbursing it. The acts of the legislative and the executive are vested in one person,” Tupas, chairman of the justice panel, said in an interview.
“There is really a need to review the JDF. They have no reason not to cooperate,” he added.
Barzaga and Batocabe underscored that the refusal of the Supreme Court to come clean on the use of the JDF is “unfortunate” as they claimed that employees of the judiciary are not aware of how the judiciary spends the fund.
“The committee hearing on the bills of Rep. [Rodolfo] Fariñas [of Ilocos Norte]and Niel Tupas [of Iloilo]would be a good venue for the Supreme Court to explain its disposition of the JDF. We invite the stakeholders in hearing the bills in compliance with our mandate to hear their side. That is their right to due process. Their absence could be considered as a waiver of their right,” Barzaga said.
“It seems that the Supreme Court is not bent on helping us in passing this bill,” Batocabe said.
Barzaga and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. clarified that the JDF bills are not meant to scrap the fund but reform the system.
But Sereno, in explaining her absence, said her appearance at the committee hearing is “premature” because the House is not the proper venue for such investigation.
In her letter dated August 4, the Chief Justice told Belmonte and Tupas that the Supreme Court is a co-equal branch of government.
“As Speaker of the House, you would appreciate my position that asking the head of a co-equal branch of government to provide her ‘views, comments and recommendations’ on the two bills at this stage might be premature and considering the venue at which it is being proposed to be heard, inappropriate,” Sereno said.
“As an additional matter, I am certain you are also contemplating the policy ramifications of the committee’s request on judicial independence,” she added.
The Chief Justice said the JDF is “a special purpose fund established in 1984 under Presidential Decree 1949 for the benefit of the members and personnel of the judiciary to help ensure and guarantee the independence of the judiciary as mandated by the Constitution and public policy and required by the impartial administration of justice.”
“JDF is not discretionary as the law also requires that 80 percent of the fund “shall be used for cost of living allowances” while not more than 20 percent “shall be used for office equipment and facilities of the courts,” she added.
Sereno’s position was supported by the Commission on Audit (COA).
COA chief Gracia Pulido-Tan told Tupas that there is no need for the agency to hold a special audit on the P1.7 billion JDF being administered by the SC.
In a letter to Tupas, Tan said audit reports are furnished the House of Representatives as soon as they are transmitted to the Supreme Court, and are also posted on the COA’s website.
The House hearing was held to conduct “initial deliberations” on two bills—one designed to “reform the administration” of the JDF and another to create a Judicial Support Fund (JSF).
No fiscal autonomy
But Fariñas said the SC cannot invoke fiscal autonomy in refusing to relinquish the Chief Justice’s discretion on the JDF because the JDF is not appropriated by Congress.
The vice chairman of the House Committee on Justice, said the Constitution, in defining fiscal autonomy, provides that appropriations for the judiciary may not be reduced by the legislature below the amount appropriated for the previous year and, after approval, will be automatically and regularly released.
“The JDF is not included in the GAA as its proceeds do not go to the Treasury but kept and disbursed by the Supreme Court,” Fariñas pointed out, referring to the
General Appropriations Act or the Budget law.
The JDF is sourced from docket and other legal fees paid by party litigants, among other sources, to finance the cost of living allowance of court employees (80 percent) and purchase of office equipment and other facilities (20 percent). The JDF disbursement rests solely with the Chief Justice.
Congress, on other hand, has the sole power of the purse and thus, appropriate funds under the Constitution.
“They cannot invoke fiscal autonomy here in JDF, and they have said it themselves in their ruling on the DAP wherein they stated that no government money should be paid out without appropriation by Congress,” Fariñas said, referring to the Disbursement Acceleration Program, which was recently outlawed by the Supreme Court.
The DAP is a spending initiative that allowed the executive to realign unused budget of agencies to fund the priority programs of the Aquino administration.
Rep. Reynaldo Umali of Oriental Mindoro, a lawyer like Fariñas, noted that the JDF is clearly a judicial pork barrel that should also be discontinued in accordance with the adverse High Court decisions on the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel and the DAP.
“How can they invoke fiscal autonomy on this when the JDF is not even appropriated by Congress? We should not allow the Supreme Court to keep their judicial pork barrel,” Umali said.
In the end, members of the House justice panel agreed to subpoena the JDF disbursement records from 1999 to the present.