Supreme Court’s unease

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014


IT'S a noble cause that we should all support. Shielding the judiciary from any unnecessary incursion by the two other branches of government is a duty that all citizens, not just lawyers, should faithfully perform for the survival of the Republic. The judiciary must remain co-equal with, and independent of, the legislature and the executive and, like the two, supreme within its own sphere.

“There is no doubt,” the eminent constitutionalist, Justice Isagani Cruz wrote, “that the success of the Republic will depend, in the last analysis, upon the effectiveness of the courts in upholding the majesty of justice and the principle that ours is a government of laws and not of men.

“Lacking this capacity, judges become no more than lackeys of the political departments cowed to do their bidding or instruments of their own interests scheming for self-aggrandizement. Without independence and integrity, courts will lose that popular trust so essential to the maintenance of their vigor as champions of justice.”

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But does the attempt to revisit the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF) really impair the judiciary’s independence? Does treating the JDF like any other public fund and subjecting it to the same control measures violate the fiscal autonomy that the Constitution says the judiciary should enjoy?

Justice Cruz cited the case of Bengzon vs. Drilon in explaining the concept.

“Fiscal autonomy means freedom from outside control. If the Supreme Court says it needs 100 typewriters but DBM rules we need only 10 typewriters and sends its recommendations to Congress without even informing us, the autonomy given by the Constitution becomes an empty and illusory platitude.”

That autonomy, the Court said, “recognizes the power and authority to levy, assess and collect fees” and to “disburse such sums as may be provided by law or prescribed by them in the course of the performance of their functions.”

Written by Justice Hugo Gutierrez, the decision was rendered on April 15, 1992 under the 1987 constitution. Incidentally, I did not read any provision guaranteeing fiscal autonomy of the judiciary in the 1973 Constitution of Ferdinand Marcos.

It was Marcos who issued in 1984 Presidential Decree No. 1949 establishing the JDF to be derived from, among others, the increase in the filing fees. At that time he was the executive and the legislative departments rolled into one.

Section 2 of PD 1949 provides: The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court shall administer and allocate the Fund and shall have the sole exclusive power and duty to approve the authorized disbursements and expenditures of the Fund in accordance with the guidelines set forth in the decree and its implementing rules and regulations.

Significantly, there are no guidelines set forth in the decree other than that which says that 80 percent of the JDF should be used for cost of living allowances and that no more than 20 percent shall be used for equipment and facilities.

It now seems that insofar as the Supreme Court is concerned, PD 1949 has become surplusage and no longer necessary to allow them to maintain the JDF. This is apparent from their decision in the Bengzon case where they said that they have the power to
“levy, assess and collect fees.”

So why the fuss over the bill of Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas to abolish the JDF and replace it with the Judiciary Support Fund or JSF? They can always declare the law as unconstitutional for violating the guarantee of fiscal autonomy as interpreted by them in Bengzon.

The judiciary is an indispensable department of every democratic government, Justice Cruz said. He did not say that it is a republic unto itself. They know this and that could explain their unease.

(frank.otherside@yahoo.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on July 24, 2014.

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