The tiff between lawmakers and Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno is heating up. Both sides should temper the rhetoric lest they lock themselves into unreasonable positions that betray the spirit of the law they purport to uphold. We all lose when the constitutional fabric is frayed and sacrosanct principles are cheapened in the harsh exchange. The lawmakers have been counseled thus. The same counsel should be extended to Sereno.
The Constitution gives ammunition to the Chief Justice, who is waving the banner of “fiscal autonomy” and “judicial independence.” Indeed, the 1987 Constitution deliberately insulates the courts from politics, but since Congress holds the power of the purse, the drafters knew painfully well that all these will be meaningless if the courts have to appear each year before Congress with their begging bowls. Thus, for extra measure, the drafters provided that the courts’ yearly budget “may not be reduced … below the [last year’s] amount” and, once approved, shall be automatically released.
But while the Supreme Court must safeguard its independence, it mustn’t cry “wolf!” each time Congress, the Commission on Audit, or the Department of Budget and Management tries to inspect how it spends its money. That’s public money it’s spending, and no government entity is exempt from the COA’s power “to examine, audit and settle all accounts” in government agencies, or Congress’ power to inquire in aid of legislation.
Sadly, the Court has been at it for a while, expansively reading the rules in its favor. In 2006, the DBM applied its “no report, no release” policy to all “fiscal autonomy” agencies (including the Court). The Court struck it down as unconstitutional, saying that its reporting duty to the DBM was merely optional (“may submit reports … for record purposes only”). The “automatic release” guarantee prevails.
The Court sat as judge in a case in which its own interest was at stake; lesser mortals would be called out for “conflict of interest.” Yet this was not an isolated moment, and all of a piece with self-aggrandizement. Who will guard the guardians?
That is why when the Chief Justice snubs Speaker Sonny Belmonte’s invitation to a hearing on the Judiciary Development Fund, and chastises him for not being “fully cognizant of the kind of healthy relationship that should exist” between them, it is an institutional slap on a coequal branch.
The Court must not lose sight of the lessons of history. One, how can the Chief Justice speak as though Congress has nothing to do with its JDF? The Court has historically relied on legislative enactment to find new sources of funds. The JDF was created by a Marcos-era law, Presidential Decree No. 1949, issued in July 1984. Marcos had consolidated control over the courts through the Judiciary Reorganization Act of 1981, but the anti-Marcos protests went into high gear with the murder of Ninoy Aquino in August 1983. The JDF was a peace offering to an erstwhile but vacillating prop of the dictatorship. (The Special Allowances for Judges was also created by law, Republic Act No. 9227.)
Two, this is not the first time Congress will look into the Chief Justice’s vast personal discretion over the JDF. Filipinos have a notoriously short memory and may not remember that, in 2003, Congress mustered enough votes to impeach then Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. on precisely these issues, and had former president Cory Aquino not mobilized popular support to nullify the impeachment vote, then President Gloria Arroyo would have thrown him under the bus.
Sereno is obviously riding high on the public anger against Congress over the pork barrel and against President Aquino for the DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program). But she must note that the anger is against the notion of a discretionary fund, of public funds becoming someone’s piggy bank. The Chief Justice holds the “sole exclusive power” to spend the JDF, but for the clause that it should be spent “for the benefit of the members and personnel of the Judiciary.”
Third, the Court has wrapped itself in the cloak of its legal judgments. This is the same Court that thrice ruled that the pork barrel was constitutional and good for Philippine democracy, until the people got angry and it was forced to read the writing on the wall. The time for a reverential attitude toward the Court’s decisions is long past. When the Court courts public opinion, as it has in its many decisions, it genuflects before the real boss in a democracy.
“I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts,” Judge Learned Hand said famously. “These are false hopes… Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women… While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.”
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