Chief Justice Sereno skips JDF probe

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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

MANILA (Updated) -- Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno turned down the invitation of the House of Representatives to appear on Tuesday's hearing on two bills seeking to repeal the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF) amid transparency and accountability issues.

Sereno said Monday she has to consult with other justices of the Supreme Court (SC) in their regular session Tuesday on "how best the judiciary can meaningfully participate in the valid legislative concerns of the House of Representatives without sacrificing judicial independence and fiscal autonomy."

"I shall be conveying the thoughts of the Court on this matter as soon it is able to arrive at such a position," Sereno said in her letter to Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr.

She also found it "premature" for the House to invite her, being the head of a co-equal branch of government, to provide "views, comments and recommendations" on the proposed measures (House Bills 4738 and 4690) before an "inappropriate" venue, which is the Batasang Pambansa.

Still, the chief magistrate said the SC welcomes any legislation that will "strengthen the rule of law."

The House justice committee had said Sereno can send a representative to explain the disbursement of the JDF, which is being used to augment the salaries of justices, judges and employees, purchase office equipment and maintain court facilities.

However, Deputy Court Administrator Raul Villanueva and SC Fiscal Management and Budget Office chief Corazon Ferrer-Flores also declined to attend pending the Court's "guidance" on the matter.

"My view of the manner, timing and context in which a committee of the House is proposing to inquire into the that they leave much to be desired and at this point, do not seem to be fully cognizant of the kind of healthy relationship that should exist between, on the one hand, the House of Representatives, and on the other, the Supreme Court," Sereno said.

House justice committee chairman Niel Tupas Jr. earlier said the hearing will be impartial as he downplayed criticisms that the inquiry is an attempt to get back at the SC for declaring the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) unconstitutional.

Tupas said the panel will certainly invite again Sereno to the hearing.

"We are still hoping that she will attend. We will invite her again. We will have her in another investigation. It is healthy for the democracy kasi pumupunta naman talaga sila dito," Tupas said.

The lawmaker said it was the first time in four years that the judiciary snubbed a congressional hearing despite being invited.

"Nagtataka lang talaga ako ngayon ayaw na nila kapag pondo na ang pinag uusapan. Tingin ko patas-patas lang tayo when it comes to public accountability. So I'm really expecting her (Sereno) or her representative to attend the next hearing," said Tupas.

Administration lawmakers have released statements slamming the SC's use of the JDF, saying it was not transparent, thus the need for a law to repeal the Marcos-era Presidential Decree 1949.

Sereno shot down this claim as she reminded Belmonte that the JDF is subject to quarterly audit of the Commission on Audit (COA), whose chairperson, Grace Pulido-Tan, assured the chief justice that they have been furnishing Congress copies of their audits on the JDF.

The fund, which is taken from docket and other legal fees paid by litigants, has a balance of P1.38 billion as of March this year.

In Tuesday's hearing, the justice committee tackled two proposed measures.

Tupas' bill seeks for the permanent abolition of the so-called JDF and replacing it with Judicial Support Fund (JSF) to help improve the technical capabilities of the judiciary, upgrade the existing facilities and as well as increase the benefits of the members and personnel of the court.

Another proposal filed by Ilocos Norte Representative Rodolfo Fariñas seeks to emphasize that the constitutional grant of the fiscal autonomy cannot and should not be used to frustrate the overriding constitutional principles of transparency, accountability and good governance.

In their sponsorship speeches, both Tupas and Fariñas questioned the P1.3-billion remaining balance of bonds as of 2014.

Tupas also questioned the P10.1 million in 2012 based on Commission on Audit (COA) report that was lent to court employees through loans such as motorcycle and computer loans as well as the P1.1 million hand gun loan.

"Bakit ginagawang loan ang JDF? Wala sa batas na pwede [ito] ipautang," he asked.

He added that around P17 million worth of JDF allotment was released by the Supreme Court to various local government units as a form of assistance.

Meanwhile, Fariñas said the SC cannot generate their own funds via the doctrine of separation of powers since only Congress can decide based on the General Appropriations Act where to allot the government savings.

He said that under his proposed measure, all the collection fees made by the judiciary will be place under the National Treasury.

Tupas said that they hoped that the SC will understand that they are just doing their job, "being elected by the people, since in the name public accountability and transparency, no one should here is untouchable." (With John Carlo Cahinhinan/Sunnex)

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