MANILA - Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno is not likely to appear before the House investigation on the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF), a Supreme Court (SC) official said yesterday.
SC spokesman Theodore Te said Sereno is not required to attend the hearing of the House committee on justice to personally explain how the JDF has been spent despite an invitation from Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr., chairman of the committee.
Te said the SC could simply send its officials privy to the handling of the JDF just as it did in explaining the funds during annual budget hearings, also in Congress.
“I’m sure Rep. Tupas knows better than to expect that the CJ will attend their hearing,” Te told The STAR.
The House committee is set to probe the SC’s use of JDF in line with separate bills filed by Tupas and Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas seeking to scrap or amend the JDF, which was created through 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 investigation as well as the move of President Aquino’s allies to rush passage of a bill abolishing the JDF bolstered public perception that the administration is bent on getting back at the SC for declaring the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) as unconstitutional, and its other unfavorable rulings.
Last December, Sereno explained that the JDF is not the same as the controversial pork barrel fund of the lawmakers.
The SC chief said JDF is “a special purpose fund established in 1984 under Presidential Decree No. 1949 for the benefit of 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.”
She stressed that unlike the pork barrel, 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.”
The SC chief revealed that 80 percent of the fund is released monthly to employees as cost of living allowances.
The remaining 20 percent component, on the other hand, has an accumulated balance of P1.435 billion as of last Nov. 30, according to a report by the SC’s office of fiscal management and budget office.
Of this amount, P732.5 million has been earmarked for the construction of Court of Appeals buildings in Cebu and Cagayan de Oro and consultancy services for the electrical system of the high court in Manila.
Another P620.7 million has been certified as available for various capital outlays of the court, including the procurement of computer sets, and construction and repair of court houses.
Sereno lamented that the 20 percent component of JDF, which amounts to P200 million per annum, is “barely enough for the court to source its budget for renovations, repairs and construction of halls of justice and for the various equipment needed for court operations.”
The JDF reports were also submitted to the House committee on appropriations and Senate finance committee during budget deliberations in September last year for the passage of the 2014 budget.
Judges and court employees have already started their “Black and Red Monday” silent protest against the recent attacks on the judiciary.
They are set to continue with the protest today coinciding with the fifth State of the Nation Address of President Aquino.
Chief Justice Sereno is expected to attend the SONA.
Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III defended yesterday the JDF.
Pimentel, a lawyer, noted that the JDF boosts the compensation of the members of the judiciary.
But the public should also expect more from the judiciary regarding the need to speed up the dispensation of cases.
“It helps in the compensation of the members of the judiciary. But we should expect that they level up the quality of their work by speeding up resolution of cases,” Pimentel said in a radio interview.
Pimentel, who chairs the Senate committee on justice and human rights, finds legitimacy on the need to determine whether the JDF should be transferred to the National Treasury now that budget deliberations are just around the corner.
He had directed his staff members to also look into the issue even if there is no pending resolution on the JDF at the Senate.
“It’s just a general review (of the JDF). We don’t have any intent to amend or repeal it,” the senator said. – With Christina Mendez