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House warring against Supreme Court? (2)

• The guarantee of judicial fiscal autonomy in the Constitution is explicit.

• The legislative oversight function of Congress is only an implicit power and is only over executive and administrative agencies.

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Last week I wrote that one weapon the legislature could use against the Court was impeachment. It was successfully used against Chief Justice Renato Corona.  In recent weeks some elements in the House have come up with another possible weapon: investigation of the Court’s handling of its finances.

In all of this, of course, the value involved is judicial independence or autonomy. The importance of judicial independence cannot be denied. But recall that neither the 1935 nor the 1973 Constitution explicitly provided for fiscal autonomy of the judiciary. President Ferdinand Marcos, aware of the importance of independence of the judiciary, promulgated Presidential Decree No. 1949 creating the Judicial Development Fund. The Fund was meant to bolster the independence of the judiciary through, among others, improving compensation and working conditions.

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Theoretically, since the Fund was created by the president and could even be terminated by the president in the exercise of the legislative power he possessed then, it stood to reason that the president could interfere with its use. To his credit, I don’t recall that Marcos ever did.

Now some elements of the House want to look into how it is being used. But, whoever wants to now will be confronted by Article VIII, Section 3 of the 1987 Constitution, which says:  “The Judiciary shall enjoy fiscal autonomy. Appropriations for the Judiciary may not be reduced by the legislature below the amount appropriated for the previous year and, after approval, shall be automatically and regularly released.” Is this an impenetrable wall?

There are two sentences in the provision.  The first is the heart of the provision: a guarantee of fiscal autonomy. The second sentence bolsters the first by ensuring that money will go to the judiciary regularly and automatically.

The guarantee of fiscal autonomy is given by the Constitution not only to the judiciary but also to the Constitutional Commissions and to the Ombudsman. The language used in the grant of the guarantee is almost identical for all three units. The Supreme Court jealously guards fiscal autonomy.

The authorized uses of the Judicial Development Fund as specified in PD 1949 still hold. As to money coming through appropriation, the fiscal autonomy of the judiciary is the same as the fiscal autonomy of the Constitutional Commissions and the Ombudsman. They are free to specify the uses of the amount within the general purpose for which it was granted. Some reporting may be required. Article VIII, Section 16 says: “The Supreme Court shall, within thirty days from the opening of each regular session of the Congress, submit to the President and the Congress an annual report on the operations and activities of the Judiciary.” The purpose here is not control but to inform Congress and the executive about the financial and other needs of the judiciary. But as a 1993 Supreme Court Resolution said: “The Supreme Court may submit to the Department of Budget and Management reports of operation and income, current plantilla of personnel, work and financial plans and similar reports only for recording purposes.” Related to all this is the issue of impoundment, that is, not spending available funds. It was first used by Thomas Jefferson. There is no provision in the Constitution on the subject. The concept has come up in local jurisprudence but the Supreme Court has heretofore refrained from passing judgment on its constitutionality.

Recently a claim was made that Congress may look into the finances of the judiciary as part of the congressional oversight function. What can be said about this?

Congressional oversight is not one of the enumerated powers of Congress. But even as early as the Constitutional Convention of 1789 and in the Federalist Papers it has been recognized as a necessary implied power of Congress. It means the power of Congress to continually review how effectively the executive branch carries out the laws passed by Congress. Jurisprudence recognizes the existence of the power. It gives the opportunity to Congress to correct executive deviations either by passing new laws or narrowing regulatory powers of executive agencies. However, nowhere in jurisprudence is there recognition of congressional oversight power over the judiciary.  What we have is the explicit guarantee of judicial fiscal autonomy. Should there be a conflict between an explicit power and an implicit power, which must prevail?

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In the final analysis, the meaning of all these, including the meaning of fiscal autonomy of the judiciary, will be determined by the Supreme Court and not by the executive department or legislative department.

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