JDF hearings on hold as House scrutinizes budget

MANILA, Philippines – The House of Representatives has postponed hearing bills seeking to amend the law governing the Judiciary Development Fund in favor of other priorities.  

"We have put it on hold at the moment because we are tackling the budget. We are also about to tackle the Bangsamoro," Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr said in an interview on ANC's Headstart Friday, August 29.

Sereno had earlier begged off from the JDF hearings and refused to allow any SC official to participate pending the resolution of the motion for reconsideration on the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), a controversial government spending program meant to boost the economy. 

Belmonte's comments came a day after Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, in her second media briefing since assuming her post, decried the low share of the judiciary in the proposed national budget. (WATCH: #AskCJ)

The P20.28 billion proposed budget for the judiciary in 2015, although 5% higher than the previous year to cover inflation, is 30% less than what the Supreme Court (SC) asked for.

Sereno said said the proposed 2015 budget is "terribly imbalanced" against a government branch that is co-equal with the executive and the legislative. 

This tug-of-war between the judiciary, as well as the executive and the legislative, during budget considerations is nothing new. The Supreme Court enjoys fiscal autonomy, which means that Congress cannot reduce the alloted budget for the High Court in the succeeding years. This makes Congress cautious of giving huge increases to the SC. 

Tensions between the 3 branches of government have been magnified in recent months over the SC decisions declaring lawmakers's discretionary funds as unconstitutional, and certain execution actions under the  government's savings spending program as unconstitutional. 

Creation of halls of justice

One of the items in the SC budget currently under consideration in Congress is the budget for the construction of halls of justices across the country.

For 2015, the Supreme Court is asking Congress to allot P3 billion ($68.6 million*) for the construction of the Manila Hall of Justice. 

Malacañang only allotted P100 million ($2.29 million) for the project and the fund was placed under the Department of Justice (DOJ), which is in charge of overseeing the construction of halls of justice. 

In 2000, the DOJ and the SC entered into a memorandum of agreement under the Justice System Infrastructure Program (JUSIP) to give the responsibility of constructing halls of justices to the DOJ and the maintenance of the buildings to the SC . 

During the DOJ budget briefing before the House committee on appropriations on Thursday, August 29, Misamis Occidental 2nd district Representative Henry Oaminal asked Justice Secretary Leila de Lima whether she was in favor of allowing the SC to take over the implementation of the JUSIP program.  

De Lima said she would have to consult the judiciary first before making any definitive position on the issue. 

But De Lima called on Congress to consider the Supreme Court's fiscal autonomy.

"One of the reasons why the SC and DOJ then in 2000 entered into the MOA was so that they would not get be constricted because of that. When you start giving substantial increases to the judiciary, you have to at least maintain that irrespective of whether you need that or not," De Lima said. 

Belmonte has the same sentiments.  

"Let me point out – the budget of the SC, if they have an X amount, it cannot be reduced in the future because they have fiscal autonomy. So, if we're not going to build court houses, we don't want to put that in the budget of the Supreme Court," he to told ANC.

He added: "I think it can be done. But now we're getting finicky about money crossing to other departments, to the SC, to the Congress. There's a solution – we can pass a law authorizing a certain amount for the construction of so many court houses. But you don't want it appropriated every year because we can't reduce the budget of the Supreme Court."

The JUSIP recently became another point of conflict between the SC and Malacañang. 

In a July 23 speech, Aquino accused the Supreme Court of requesting for cross-border transfers, an act which the court had declared as illegal under DAP. 

Aquino said Sereno had requested for P100 million ($2.29 million) to be taken out from the DOJ for the construction of the Malabon Hall of Justice.

In a resolution, the high court denied the accusation and said it was only requesting for a one-year extension of appropriations. The SC ended up withdrawing its request for the extension.

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad later informed the SC that a portion of the pooled savings was available for use and asked what the High Court would like to do it. The SC declined the offer. – Rappler.com

*$1 = P43.6