(UPDATED) Supreme Court Associate Justice Teresita De Castro on Wednesday told lawmakers that she questioned Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno's order creating the Judiciary Decentralized Office for Central Visayas in 2012 since it appeared the chief magistrate was creating a permanent office.
Speaking before the House justice panel, De Castro said the SC en banc had adopted in 2006 two measures seeking to create a pilot Regional Court Administration Office in its decentralization efforts.
The RCAO is a project aimed at decentralizing the Office of the Court Administrator, which exercises administrative supervision over the lower courts and assists the high courts in coming up with and implementing administrative policies over lower courts. Lawyer Midas Marquez is the current court administrator.
In her testimony, De Castro said SC justices revoked the Nov. 27 Resolution issued by Sereno reviving RCAO-7 and appointing Geraldine Faith Econg, Deputy Clerk of Court and Judicial Reform Program Administrator, as its Officer-in-charge.
De Castro said Sereno's order did not conform to the en banc decision of the high court to create a pilot RCAO.
"Both of these documents are en banc resolutions, which according to the Chief Justice she would like to implement, but when I compared the administrative order issued by the Chief Justice, it did not conform to the provisions of this administrative matter adopted by the court en banc," she told lawmakers in the hearing of the House justice committee.
Lawyer Lorenzo Gadon, in his impeachment complaint, is accusing Sereno of culpable violation of the Constitution when she falsified Supreme Court resolutions, including one which revived RCAO-7.
The RCAO, which was pilot-tested in 2008, was never dissolved, said Marquez.
He said in 2011, he issued a directive to "wind up the financial and administrative functions" in the local unit in Central Visayas "because it was not functioning properly."
"We proceeded with another devolution which is the procurement process in the different regions, also part of RCAO," he told lawmakers.
When Sereno took office, Marquez said they "halted" for a while "to take instructions," upon discussion with her predecessors, Reynato Puno and Renato Corona.
"No resolution was issued for that purpose because as I've said we never scrapped RCAO anyway. It was part of the implementation of RCAO," he said.
A PERMANENT OFFICE?
De Castro noted that the en banc resolution created the Regional Court Administration Office in the seventh judicial region, but Sereno's administrative order created the Judiciary Decentralized Office for the same region.
"The Chief Justice cannot create an office…It’s a legislative power…It appears that she created a permanent office," she said.
She explained the RCAO is "not a permanent office" and will then "not come within the exclusive legislative power" because it is a pilot project that was supposed to last a year.
While the RCAO was a pilot decentralized unit, Sereno's order said the office created therein was "effective immediately until revoked by the Chief Justice," said De Castro.
"There is a kind of permanency and it is up to the Chief Justice to decide until when this JDO will exist," she said.
De Castro said another difference was that in Sereno's order, it was the Chief Justice who would designate the head of the judiciary unit, and not an official of the Office of the Court Administrator.
"This again would show that there is no connection between this Judiciary Decentralized Office created by the Chief Justice and the Office of the Court Administrator," she said.
De Castro said she started investigating the matter after she and the other associate justices received an invitation from Sereno's office to attend the reopening of RCAO in Central Visayas on November 29, 2012.
"I was taken aback because we are invited only to a launching of the Regional Court Administration Office in Region 7, and we were not at all consulted and made to participate in this decision to reopen the Regional Court Administration Office," she said.
She found then that Sereno had issued Administrative Order No. 175-2012, "designating the head for Judiciary Decentralization Office in the seventh judicial region."
"Even the heading of this administrative order shows that this is not meant to implement the RCAO as approved by the court en banc unanimously," she said.
She said she wrote to a memorandum to Sereno but the top magistrate "did not reply at all."
"Even during the deliberation, she did not explain why she issued that administrative order."
She said the issue was taken up again on December 11 where the court reiterated that there should be a study committee. But this time, instead of Econg, it will be an associate justice who will head the group.
SC BACKED DE CASTRO
De Castro said she wrote a memorandum to the justices and to the Chief Justice asking that the issue be scheduled for deliberation during the en banc session.
She said justices supported her opposition to Sereno's order during the meeting.
One of the justices, whom she did not name, also questioned Sereno's appointment of Econg, the court’s head of the program management office, as the officer-in-charge of RCAO-7, when Econg had previously protested the RCAO’s creation.
She added, another unnamed justice also questioned Econg's designation when "she does not belong to the Office of the Court Administrator" and "has no business in this decentralized judiciary office."
"So as not to embarrass the chief justice, the justices decided to make her the head of a study group to look into the feasibility or wisdom of the RCAO," said De Castro.
De Castro said Sereno told her colleagues after this en banc session that she will make changes in the administrative order.
When De Castro asked for a copy of the amended adminstrative order from Enriqueta Vidal, then clerk of court, she was told that Sereno did not amend it because the chief justice said justices ratified it.
"I am not after putting her (Sereno) down. I just want to correct what has been done to put things in proper order as decided by the court in previous resolutions," said De Castro.