Sereno impeachment: RCAO, JDO, and Midas Marquez

MANILA, Philippines – "RCAO" and "JDO" were repeatedly mentioned in the "unprecedented" testimony on Wednesday, November 29, of Supreme Court (SC) Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro before the House justice committee.

De Castro testified on Larry Gadon’s accusation that Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno committed culpable violation of the Constitution when she allegedly falsified a resolution of the SC en banc.

By creating a more permanent and new court office called the Judiciary Decentralized Office or JDO, Sereno effectively later removed supervision by the court administrator, Midas Marquez, over RCAO [or Regional Court Administrator's Office] – contrary to what the en banc had agreed upon.

But what exactly are RCAO and JDO, and how did Marquez figure in the controversy that these court offices generated?

Decentralization

RCAO is short for Regional Court Administrator's Office. It is an effort of the Supreme Court to decentralize its functions. Simply put, it is an attempt to set up an autonomous Supreme Court regional branch to make processes more efficient.

For example, when a trial court in the Visayas needs approval for its supplies budget, it can go directly to the RCAO without having to pass the Supreme Court in Padre Faura, Manila. 

The RCAO was supposed to be pilot-tested in Region 7, with its base in Cebu. It was part of the reforms under former chief justice Hilario Davide Jr, who is from Cebu.

In 2006, under then chief justice Artemio Panganiban, the en banc approved the pilot RCAO in Region 7 (RCAO-7) through A.M. No. 06-11-09-SC.

A key feature of the 2006 en banc resolution was the designation of the court administrator as the implementation head of the pilot project. The court administrator was also tasked to issue the implementing guidelines, oversee the installation, recommend to the court the funding setup, and develop and implement staffing. 

Midas Marquez at the time was not yet court administrator.

Resistance

“Many in the Supreme Court, including past Chief Justices Reynato Puno and Renato Corona, resisted decentralizing some of its functions,” wrote Rappler editor at large Marites Vitug in her Thought Leaders piece in 2012. Vitug has written 3 books on the Supreme Court and the judiciary.

A centralized Supreme Court “means control, which is a source of power, for Manila functionaries. They have control over the bureaucracy at the expense of efficiency,” Vitug wrote.

The 2006 resolution would go through numerous assessments through the years. In 2008, they fine-tuned the pilot through A.M. No. 06-12-06-SC. In this administrative memorandum, the regional court administrator was to be under the direction and supervision of the court administrator.

The memorandum also provided for the court administrator overseeing the computation of how much the RCAO's share from the Supreme Court budget will be. They also established a Judicial Autonomy Fund which would be the “depository of all funds accruing to the pilot judicial region.”

“In 2008, the Court began designating officials to that RCAO-7 and they were holding office at the Halls of Justice in Lapu-Lapu City,” Marquez said, but added it was “solely for administration and financial management.”

The officials were “designated in a temporary capacity,” Marquez said.

But the temporary office encountered many problems with “numbers” and computations which translated to delays in salaries, which in turn, prompted black armband protests among court employees in Cebu.

Marquez, who was then Puno's chief of staff, said they had to stop the administrative and financial operations in the regional office “because of the series of errors.”

What they decentralized then was supplies, and Marquez said they began training judges to set up regional bids and awards committees.

Marquez claimed in his testimony in the House that Puno and his successor Renato Corona worked to set these up until Sereno came along. They had to cease what they were doing because they needed to wait for further instructions from the new chief justice.

At that point, RCAO-7 had not fully taken off yet.

Court administrator

Midas Marquez was appointed court administrator in 2010.

In November 2012, the “further instruction” from Sereno came in the form of Administrative Order (AO) 175-2012, which designated a head of the pilot office pursuant to the en banc’s 2006 resolution on the RCAO.

But Sereno chose not to use the name RCAO, but JDO instead.

Jojo Lacanilao, Sereno's spokesperson, said RCAO and JDO "are one and the same."

"They are different only by name. An office is defined by its duties, functions and purposes rather than the person assigned to lead it or by the name which it carries," Lacanilao said.

A comparison of the 2006 SC resolution and Sereno’s 2012 AO, however, shows that key responsibilities were transferred from the court administrator (Marquez) to Sereno's designated JDO head, Geraldine Faith Econg, now associate justice of the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan.

Econg, instead of Marquez, was to be in charge of staffing, with the approval of Sereno. Nothing in Sereno’s AO mentions who would be in charge of budget computations. 

The en banc then issued A.M. No. 12-11-9 SC entitled, “Opening of the Regional Court Administrative Office (RCAO) in Region 7,” which ratified Sereno’s AO and appointed Econg officer-in-charge of RCAO-7 for a trial period of two months.

De Castro said A.M. No. 12-11-9 SC did not contain what was discussed in the en banc deliberations. (READ: De Castro testimony exposes division in the Supreme Court)

De Castro pointed to this as proof of Sereno's deception. De Castro said Sereno made it appear she was reviving RCAO when she was actually creating a different office which she called JDO.

"She deliberately omitted in the entire Administrative Order 175-2012 any reference to the Office of Court Administrator. Kaya hindi niya tinawag na RCAO (That’s why she didn’t call it RCAO),” De Castro said.

The Supreme Court en banc eventually recalled Sereno’s order.

Why not Marquez?

When asked after the House hearing why he thinks Sereno wrested control over RCAO from him, Marquez declined to comment.

Sources close to the Court said there were "trust" issues between the two.

When Sereno was still associate justice, she was vocal in her criticism of Corona’s management decisions. She also once criticized Marquez for supposedly misinterpreting a court decision. Marquez stood as court spokesman during Corona’s time.

Marquez has also been nominated to be Supreme Court justice under the Duterte administration, but has yet to make the shortlist.

In 2012, when Sereno's AO generated controversy, Senator Francis Pangilinan said in a statement that then chief justice Corona "suspended the decentralization of courts during his helm", contrary to what Marquez claimed in his testimony.

"I cannot help but ask if this controversy stems from the OCA refusing to give up the powers it had enjoyed under former Chief Justice Renato Corona. Former Chief Justices Hilario Davide Jr. and Reynato Puno both implemented the decentralization. Why was it right then and wrong now?" Pangilinan said in a statement then.

De Castro said during the hearing that she was not “opposed to the RCAO per se” but that she just wanted implementation done right. 

Sereno on her own created a judiciary office, a power she did not have, according to De Castro. "The Chief Justice cannot create an office…It’s a legislative power…It appears that she created a permanent office," De Castro said.

The issue appears to be a deep-seated and complex one in the Supreme Court. It is however relevant to the impeachment proceeding only insofar as it reflects a violation by Sereno of the Constitution.

Asked for her opinion, De Castro smiled first, looked at Marquez and said: “I decline to answer that question.” – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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