House panel invites CJ to fund hearing

By Paolo Romero, The Philippine Star

Posted at Jul 26 2014 09:17 AM | Updated as of Jul 26 2014 05:17 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Lawmakers will invite Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno to answer allegations that the Supreme Court had misused the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF).

Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas, chairman of the justice committee of the House of Representatives, yesterday said they would send the invitation to Sereno to start the inquiry into the reported misuse of the JDF.

“We will invite her, but she can send her duly-authorized representatives,” Tupas said.

The Supreme Court (SC) deferred responding to the reported invitation.

“We will wait for the invite to be sent,” SC spokesman Theodore Te said.

The House justice committee will be working on separate bills filed by Tupas and Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas seeking to scrap or amend the JDF, which was created by virtue of Presidential Decree 1949 signed in 1984.

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. has called on the high court to publicly disclose its JDF disbursements or face congressional investigation.

“The Supreme Court should voluntarily disclose its receipts and expenditures, and not wait for any congressional inquiry,” he said.

The congressional investigation as well as the move of President Aquino’s allies to rush the passage of a bill abolishing the JDF bolstered public perception that the administration is bent on getting back at the SC for declaring the P177-billion Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) as illegal and unconstitutional, and its other unfavorable rulings.

Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr. scored the SC for overspending its JDF in 2012 by P73 million.

Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali, vice chairman of the panel and who has been seeking the impeachment of several SC justices since last year, accused the magistrates of having a double standard in thumbing down the DAP and the P25-billion Priority Development Assistance Fund of lawmakers yet preventing any inquiry into the JDF.

Umali said he is deciding whether to file impeachment complaints against SC justices.

President Aquino said the high tribunal itself committed the same act of transferring funds a la DAP, which it declared unconstitutional.

Malacañang revealed a March 5, 2013 resolution of the Supreme Court showed the high tribunal requested a cross-border transfer of funds to the judiciary for a project under the executive branch or the Department of Justice (DOJ).

“Wherefore, the court hereby requests the Department of Budget and Management to approve the transfer of the amount of one hundred million pesos which was included in the Department of Justice-Justice Infrastructure Program (JUSIP) for fiscal year 2012 budget for the Manila Hall of Justice to the budget of the judiciary, subject to existing budgeting policies and procedures, to be used for the construction of the Malabon Hall of Justice,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte quoted part of the SC resolution.

Valte said she could not find the entire text of the SC resolution but explained the P100 million cited was clearly part of the DOJ budget.

She said construction of buildings was a function of the executive branch.

“Once the land is bought, once the title is fixed, the building is constructed, (it is then) turned over to the Supreme Court for their administration. But it’s the executive that constructs such buildings that’s why in the DOJ budget for 2012, you can see this item. Civil works and construction design for the Manila Hall of Justice in the amount of P100 million,” Valte said.

On Thursday, Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. quoted the DOJ as saying “the appropriation for courthouses and offices for prosecutors, public attorney’s office, probation office was placed under DOJ because of Section 3, Article 8 of the Constitution, which states that ‘appropriations for the judiciary may not be reduced by the legislature below the amount appropriated for the previous year.’”

“Thus, Congress’ hands will be tied with the amount of appropriations even after courthouses have been built. What is to be appropriated to the judiciary should only be the maintenance of these offices,” Coloma pointed out.

In August 2012, then acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio led the groundbreaking ceremony for the P1.83-billion Manila City Hall of Justice along A. Villegas Street in Manila, near the Manila City Hall.

There had been at least eight groundbreaking rites for the Manila Hall of Justice, but construction never pushed through either because there was no lot for the construction or funding yet.

Carpio assured the structure would finally rise on the 10,818-square meter lot, saying the title was now under the SC and that it had enough savings to pursue construction.

The money to be used in constructing the hall of justice was part of around P2.5 billion savings of the high court, intended for building not only a hall of justice in Manila but also court houses in Cebu and Cagayan de Oro City, Carpio said.

Malacañang said the SC was allocating the savings of the judiciary for projects that were supposed to be done by the executive branch.

In its ruling on the DAP last July 1, the high court specifically declared as illegal the cross-border transfer of pooled savings of the executive to augment funds of agencies outside the department.

Counterproductive

A high court official warned the move of the executive department to use the proposed Manila hall of justice project to pin down the SC in its adverse ruling on the DAP will likely boomerang.

This is because the seemingly complicated funding of the state-of-the-art facility only highlights how judiciary’s fiscal autonomy is being violated by its coequal branches, according to the member of the court.

The court official, who requested anonymity, revealed to The STAR the high court has no fiscal authority over the infrastructure projects for its courts.

The funding under the General Appropriations Act through all these years for the construction of the halls of justices and courts in the country was given to the DOJ, which is under the executive branch, the official pointed out, even if there is a provision in the Constitution requiring fiscal autonomy of the judiciary as well as the constitutional commissions and the Ombudsman office.

The official said this has been the case of the Manila hall of justice project, a P3-billion proposal, which was funded with only P100 million under the DOJ’s Justice System Infrastructure Program (JUSIP) in the national budget.

“It was for the construction of courts, which are the basic facility of the judiciary, but it was given to the DOJ,” the court official said.

When asked if this constitutes violation of the Constitution, the official begged not to respond.

The same official stressed the Constitution provides for fiscal autonomy of the judiciary as well as the constitutional commissions and the Ombudsman office as “a guarantee of separation of powers and of independence from political agencies.”

But the official admitted this scheme by the executive, which was approved by Congress in passing the national budget, was somehow “tolerated” by the high court, especially when it comes to big-ticket projects like the Manila courthouse.

“The law prohibits significant cut in the budget of judiciary. This Manila hall of justice costs about P3 billion. When you add that to the budget of the SC this year and completes the project before next year, then there will be a P3-billion cut in the budget, which is too much to be allowed by law,” the court official explained.

The official further pointed out the project has not been implemented yet anyway with the P1.865-billion funding from the SC’s savings still intact.

The official, however, refused to comment on the allegations that the high court also committed cross-border transfer of funds on the Manila and Malabon courthouse projects, citing sub judice since they have yet to rule on the issue also raised by the Office of the Solicitor General in its appeal of the DAP ruling.

In his speech during the commemoration of the 150th birth anniversary of hero Apolinario Mabini in Batangas last Wednesday, the President cited the SC’s own DAP-like cross-border fund transfers involving P1.865 billion for projects of the executive branch.

It was the same argument used by the solicitor general in appealing the SC ruling last week.

A July 17, 2012 resolution of the high tribunal however showed the P1.865-billion funding for the construction of the Manila hall of justice housing 120 courts came “from existing savings of the Court.”

The SC had also allocated P266.95 million and P251.27 million from its savings for construction costs of buildings for Cebu Court of Appeals and Cagayan de Oro Court of Appeals, respectively. –Edu Punay, Aurea Calica, Danny Dangcalan