Chief Justice’s ‘pork barrel’

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014


WORLD economic leaders are one in acknowledging the robust growth of the Philippine economy. The latest recognition came from no less than World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, who boldly predicted that the Philippines would be the next Asian miracle. President Aquino must be doing well as a leader.

Among those that he has done was to pool money from “savings” into one huge account which he labeled as the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP). From the DAP, he drew billions of pesos to finance public works projects and pump prime the country’s economy.

Obviously, the money was used for the purpose for which it was intended. Even more obviously, none had gone to the President’s personal bank account.

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The trouble, however, is that the practice, which by the way is not Aquino’s invention, of impounding the savings stood on shaky legal grounds. The fact that other presidents before him had availed of the DAP under various names did not make it any less constitutionally repugnant.

Little wonder, all the 13 justices who participated in the deliberations on the petitions that challenged the DAP’s constitutionality, including the President’s own appointees, voted to strike it down.

The decision cannot but be only disappointing to any honest and well-intentioned president. I therefore could not blame Aquino if he felt let down but I did not expect him to express his disappointment in such a belligerent manner.

I can understand why he got mad. I was not prepared to see him go on the warpath.

Aquino said he found it difficult to accept the decision because he knew he was right.

The President was acting like any losing litigant but, unlike the latter, only he could and did warn the Court – and not just any ordinary court but no less than the highest one – of dire consequences for such a standoff between his branch and the judiciary that could require the intervention of another branch of government.

There is only one other branch of government aside from the executive and the judiciary and that is the legislature. So when a congressman, who belongs to the President’s political party, files a bill, the day after the President strongly expressed his displeasure with the Supreme Court, that seeks control over judicially-generated funds, can you blame those who conclude that this was the retaliation that Aquino hinted?

But for its rotten timing, an inquiry into the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF) would have been welcome. The JDF is a creation of Ferdinand Marcos through Presidential Decree No. 1949 which he issued two years before he was ousted by People Power.

Marcos said the JDF was meant to assure the independence of the judiciary by allowing it to raise funds from the increase in the filing fees. I am not saying that there is a connection between the two but from the time PD 1949 was signed, the filing fees had been “adjusted” in such a way that it now costs roughly P30,000 for every million that you claim in your complaint.

Eighty percent of this is to be allocated to cost of living allowances for justices, judges and court employees, according to the decree, with the remaining 20 percent going to equipment, furniture and the like.

Subject only to the above restriction, the power of the Chief Justice to disburse the JDF is absolute and unlimited. This is why congressmen, who are smarting from the loss of their PDAF, claim that the Chief Justice has her own pork barrel. And they ask: if our and the President’s pork barrel is unconstitutional, what about yours?

It is a legitimate question. But in the light of what the President said on Monday, can it be legitimately asked at this time?

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on July 17, 2014.

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