Congress to scrutinize SC 'pork'
MANILA, Philippines – It seems there is no mending the relationship between Congress and the Supreme Court. In a move that will shift the lens from Congress back to the High Court, the House of Representatives is preparing to scrutinize in 2014 the lumpsum funds of the judiciary.
Cavite Representative Elpidio Barzaga Jr is predicting the House probe could result in impeachment complaints against the justices. "It could be an impeachable offense, most especially if there would be evidence showing graft," said Barzaga of the National Unity Party (NUP), one of the prosecutors of dismissed Chief Justice Renato Corona.
House committee on justice chairman Iloilo Representative Niel Tupas Jr of the administration's Liberal Party (LP) recently announced the probe on the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF), a move that has been seen as the legislative chamber's revenge after the High Court declared the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel unconstitutional. Lawmakers have also tagged the JDF as another "pork barrel."
"In spite of the fact that the SC decision hurts most of our constituents, we gladly accepted it. In the same vein, if we shall conduct an investigation pursuant to our constitutional duty as provided for under the Constitution, I think the Supreme Court as the final interpreter of the Constitution, must also respect our mandate in making legislation," Barzaga said.
SC: It's not pork
The SC did not wait for the House probe to answer the allegations. On Monday, December 23, it issued a statement explaining how the fund is used.
"The JDF is not a pork barrel fund. It's a special purpose fund for the benefit of the members and personnel of the Judiciary to help ensure and guarantee the independence of the Judiciary," the SC said.
The SC said it also submitted to the House committee on appropriations and Senate finance committee during the September budget deliberations a report on the uses of and the total of what's remaining in the JDF.
The Court got the support of opposition lawmaker Navotas City Rep Toby Tiangco, who said the move of administraiton allies against the SC is meant to pressure the Tribunal to rule in favor of Malacañang's controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP). The House probe will likely coincide with the SC oral arguments on DAP next year.
Malacañang, through the Office of the Solicitor General, had asked the Court to dismiss petitions against DAP. In his reply to the petitions, Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza argued that DAP is a program, and not a fund, countering criticism that DAP is a "budget within a budget."
Jardeleza also maintained that the Court has no jurisidiction to resolve the controversy.
If the ruling party decides to go after the SC justices this time around, a key ally would be the Nationalist People's Coalition (NPC). It is the second biggest political party in the House of Representatives. Together, the LP, NPC and NUP backed the impeachment complaint against Corona in 2011. (The House of Representatives has the exclusive power to impeach justices.)
NPC spokesperson Mark Enverga said NPC has not discussed it. Barzaga's NUP is also an ally of the LP in the House.
"The JDF inquiry is an outcrop of the public's expectations for Congress to perform its oversight functions. The JDF is a fund that is off budget and no report on its use is made to Congress. It erodes the power of the purse of Congress if such a fund does not go through its scrutiny," said LP spokesperson Marikina Rep Romero "Miro" Quimbo.
Quimbo said the LP has "no formal discussions" on impeaching justices over the JDF use.
The JDF is sourced from the docket and legal fees paid by party litigants. Under the Marcos-issued Presidential Decree 1949, at least 80% of the fund shall be given to employees of the judiciary by way of Cost of Living Allowances (COLA) and not more than 20% of the JDF shall be used for office equipment and other facilities.
The lawmakers and the justices have repeatedly clashed over the JDF.
The failure and refusal of Corona to account for the use of the JDF and the Special Allowances for Judges (SAJ) was one of the charges in the impeachment complaint against him.
The use of the JDF fund was also the main point in the impeachment complaint against another former chief justice, Hilario Davide, in 2003.
Following the dismissal of Corona, however, the Court decided to give the public access to reports on its special funds as well as Commission on Audit (COA) reports on the judiciary. (READ: SC discloses special funds, audit reports)
The SC started to publish audit reports by COA on its website on June 8. Other reports that have been posted include financial reports on the JDF, SAJ, and the Presidential Electoral Tribunal.
Barzaga said the JDF has not been spent according to the law. Court employees continue to lack computers and other supplies, he said.
But the SC said the fund is not enough to cover the needs of its employees.
Another LP member, Oriental Mindoro Rep Rey Umali, recently threatened to impeach certain justices over a decision clipping the powers of the legislative chamber to decide poll protests against its members. (READ: Poll protests: Is the SC clipping HRET's powers?) – Rappler.com