A new steward at the helm
When Justice Roman G. del Rosario was appointed by President Aquino last March 14 as the new presiding justice of the Court of Tax Appeals, the court he was tasked to lead was very much different from the CTA that he learned about when he was a student at the University of the Philippines College of Law.
The CTA was created on June 16, 1954, by Republic Act 1125. Composed of only one presiding judge and two judges, the court was thought to be sufficiently capable to deal with appeals by taxpayers from the commissioner of internal revenue, the commissioner of customs, and the local assessors.
The emphasis on its being the venue for appeals from administrative actions overshadowed, in the public mind, its true judicial function; it is being remembered more for its handling of “appeals” from tax collectors rather than for its being a “court” that ruled on the rights and duties of competing parties. Consequently, it was mistakenly seen to be primarily an adjunct to the tax collection machinery of the government. Such was the common understanding of the CTA when Del Rosario was taking his law.
Fifty years had to elapse since the CTA’s beginnings before, pursuant to RA 9282 passed on April 23, 2004, it would mature into a full-fledged court. Its members became six instead of three: a presiding justice and five associate justices, sitting en banc and in two divisions. The new title “Justice” instead of the previous “Judge” heralded the paradigm shift: The body was indeed a true court, collegial in nature and in fact equal in rank to the Court of Appeals.
RA 9282 significantly expanded the extent and scope of the cases that the CTA was tasked to hear and adjudicate. In lawyers’ lingo, its jurisdiction was enlarged. The expansion matched with the corresponding broadening that the law, like the National Internal Revenue Code, was effecting on the powers of the collection agencies. For instance, it could hear complaints not only against certain decisions and actions of the internal revenue commissioner, but also gripes against the commissioner’s not deciding or not acting.
Furthermore, decisions resolving local tax disputes that began in the regular courts, like the Regional Trial Court, and decisions of certain officials in the executive branch, like the finance secretary and the trade secretary, could also now be appealed to the CTA.
And most notably, it was given jurisdiction to try criminal offenses provided in the National Internal Revenue Code, the Tariff and Customs Code, the local tax code, and other special laws enforced by the local governments. This authority used to be the exclusive domain of the regular courts.
With this load of civil and criminal cases on the CTA’s shoulders, it was only natural for it to be given the same powers of a regular court to safeguard the sanctity of its proceedings. Thus, RA 9282 empowered the CTA to “administer oaths, receive evidence, summon witnesses by subpoena duces tecum, subject in all respects to the same restrictions and qualifications as applied in judicial proceedings of a similar nature.” And to ensure respect, it, like any other court, had “the power to punish for contempt for the same
causes, under the same procedure and with the same penalties provided” in the Rules of Court.
RA 9503, which was enacted on June 12, 2008, was icing on the cake. The CTA’s jurisdiction was not altered, but starting on July 5, 2008, it became a judicial body composed of nine, instead of six, justices. It remains headed by a presiding justice who, together with eight associate justices, hold sessions at times en banc and at others in divisions of three justices each.
Justice Del Rosario heads a court that sees its mission, on account of its legislative provenance, as that of “a specialized tax court that is impartial, competent, transparent, and worthy of public trust and confidence, ensuring faithful compliance with tax laws.” To achieve such a vision, the court is committed to be guided by the following principles: fair and speedy collection of taxes by the government; adequate judicial remedies to taxpayers against unreasonable/unjust tax assessments and refund of excessive/erroneous taxes collected; proper interpretation of tax statutes; adherence to the independence of the judiciary; and utmost deference for public trust and confidence in the judiciary.
Undoubtedly at the top of his list of challenges is the court’s docket of criminal cases. Just the tip of the iceberg: According to the CTA website, 30 criminal cases were filed in the court from January to April of this year. As of April 25, only two of these 30 cases have been decided, and both cases involved respondents who were at large. The rest are still pending. Similarly, for the whole of 2012, 54 cases were filed; only 17 have been decided.
We, tax practitioners and taxpayers as well, wish the new presiding justice all the best.
Ricardo J. Romulo is a senior partner of Romulo Mabanta Buenaventura Sayoc & De Los Angeles.