A pittance for justice
The Philippines is a republican state, thus provides its Constitution. A principle characteristic of this republican form of government is “checks and balances,” and this is played out among and between its “Three Great Branches,”—the executive, legislative and judicial.
The interplay of the principle of checks and balances is palpable in the passage and implementation of a law. The legislative branch enacts a law, which the president approves or vetoes. If approved, the president implements it. The Supreme Court may declare it unconstitutional as passed by the legislature or can interpret the law as implemented by the executive. In the exercise of its constitutional power of judicial review, the Supreme Court may declare void an act of the government or any of its agencies and instrumentalities if such act is attended by grave abuse of discretion.
The legislature exercises disciplinary jurisdiction over members of the Supreme Court through impeachment, while the president holds the power of appointment to seats in the Supreme Court. The House of Representatives determines whether an impeachment complaint should be lodged against a member of the Supreme Court before the Senate can conduct the trial and determine the guilt or innocence of the respondent magistrate.
Another facet of governance where checks and balances are palpable is public finance. The executive proposes the national expenditure program, and the legislature appropriates the fund for the program. Once approved into law, the national budget is implemented by the executive, and the Supreme Court will resolve any challenge to the legality or constitutionality of the use of public funds.
In recent past, the Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional the so-called Disbursement Acceleration Program concocted by the previous administration as well as the implementation of the now-infamous Priority Development Assistance Fund, or pork barrel, of the legislators. Not necessarily interrelated, the former president openly denounced a sitting chief justice, which led to his impeachment by the president’s party-mates who dominated the House of Representatives. The Senate, likewise dominated by the president’s allies, eventually handed down a guilty verdict against the respondent chief justice and unseated him.
It has been said that of the Three Great Branches of government, the judiciary is the weakest. While the legislature holds the purse, and the president holds the sword, the Supreme Court just holds the pen. In the dark ages of Philippine history, the judiciary was even derisively said to hold the umbrella—a pejorative reference to an act of chivalry of the then chief justice who held out an umbrella for the then first lady to shield her from sunlight. The judicial pen though could be lethal again if the capital punishment would be restored, because that pen could someday write a citizen’s death warrant.
It is not only in the allocation of powers that the judiciary appears disadvantaged. It seems so as well in the allocation of resources or funds. Over the years, the judiciary is allotted only a little more than 1 percent of the annual national budget.
A retired American lawyer of the Asian Development Bank, who teaches US constitutional law at the Graduate School of Law of San Beda College in Manila, laments the fact that the Philippines has 103 million population with only around 3,000 judges. He says that the country should have 10,000 judges. About two-thirds of the proposed ideal number of judges would be reasonable; this means that the budgetary allocation for the judiciary should at least be doubled.
Society expects a lot from the judiciary in terms of efficient administration of justice. Yet from whom so much work is expected, so little budget is given. The investment of the government over the years in the judicial service of the nation has been nothing more than a pittance for justice.
Frank E. Lobrigo practiced law for 20 years. He is a law lecturer and JSD student at San Beda College Graduate School of Law in Manila.
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