Cha-cha to clip SC powers? No comment, Court says

MANILA, Philippines – The Supreme Court (SC) refused to comment on statements made by President Benigno Aquino III that he may move to revise the Constitution to clip the powers of the judiciary.

During the briefing for the proposed 2015 budget at the House of Representatives Thursday, August 14, Deputy Court Administrator Raul Villanueva begged off from answering any questions on whether they agreed with the President's sentiments that recent court decisions made by the Judiciary have destroyed the balance among the 3 branches of government. 

Villanueva also refrained from answering questions on proposals to abolish or amend the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF), citing a letter sent by Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno to Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr on Wednesday, August 13. 

Sereno sent the letter to Belmonte in response to a fresh invitation made by the House committee on justice for court officials to attend hearings on bills concerning the JDF. (READ: House probes judiciary fund despite SC snub)

In her letter, Sereno – seeking to "preserve judicial independence" – asked the House not to invite any members, officials or employees of the Judiciary to attend the hearings until the motions for reconsideration related to the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) have been resolved. 

Villanueva repeatedly cited this letter when asked to comment on judicial restraint and the JDF.  

The JDF which is sourced from various legal fees collected by courts nationwide, amounts to about P1 billion ($23 million)* every year and goes straight to the Supreme Court. The SC is supposed to use the money for the cost of living allowances of employees (80%) and improvement of the courts (20%).

Asked by ACT Teachers Representative Antonio Tinio whether it was true that the High Court abused its judicial restraint, Villanueva said, "Pardon me if I can't answer that." 

Asked by Kabataan Representative Terry Ridon for his comment on remarks that the JDF is the "last bastion of pork in the bureaucracy today" after the Court declared lawmakers' discretionary funds unconstitutional and specific acts under DAP unconstitutional, Villanueva again refused to respond. The DAP, a controversial government spending program intended to pump-prime the economy, was implemented from 2011 to 2013. 

"I beg your indulgence and your understanding but our Chief Justice already wrote a letter to our Speaker pertaining to matters involving the DAP and I hope you can understand if I can't comment on that," Villanueva said. 

Balance of power

The deputy court administrator made a bit of an exception to his "no comment stance" when asked to respond to accusations that the Judiciary's recent decisions have destroyed the balance among the 3 branches of government.

"The Constitution has provided all the powers and authorities of each branch so I don't see why one could come up with a conclusion otherwise," Villanueva said. 

As earlier announced, Sereno did not attend the budget hearing. Aside from Villanueva, SC spokesperson Theodore Te, Justice Diosdado Peralta and Justice Bienvenido L. Reyes represented the High Court.

 

The Presiding Justices of the Sandiganbayan and the Court of Tax Appeals also attended the budget hearing, as well as Court of Appeals Justice Remedios Salazar-Fernando representing CA Presiding Justice Andres Reyes.  

 

The relationship among the judiciary, the executive, and the legislative branches of government was thrust under the spotlight after the SC ruled the entire lawmakers' discretionary Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) unconstitutional and parts of the DAP unconstitutional. 

The PDAF scam, more commonly known as the pork barrel scam, involved lawmakers who were accused of plundering public funds by channeling them to fake non-governmental organizations controlled by businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles. Three senators are facing plunder and graft charges in connection with the scam. 

2015 budget

For 2015, the executive branch wants to give the Judiciary a budget of P20.28 billion, 30% less than the P32.6 billion that the High Court originally asked for.  

The proposed P20.28 billion budget for the Judiciary, however, represents an increase of 5% from last year. 

Villanueva said the increase is only enough to "cover inflation" as he noted that the national budget this year increased by 15%.  

During the budget briefing, the Supreme Court also revealed plans to transfer the Supreme Court from Padre Faura to Fort Bonifacio. 

In preparation, the Court has presented to the Department of Budget and Management plans to purchase a  21,000 square meter-lot in Fort Bonifacio worth P1.28 billion, payable in 10 years, with an annual amortization of P128 million. – Rappler.com

*$1=P43.69