Court employees hit Aquino's 'rampage' vs judiciary
MANILA, Philippines - 42-year-old Benedict* (not his real name) has worked at the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan for 16 years now.
He started out as a security guard, and for the next few years applied for every possible promotion he could get.
He now serves as a court bailiff, preserving orderly conduct during court proceedings. From time to time Benedict would "patch up" for his co-employees when they are absent, preparing notices for the signature of the justices and drafting the daily court calendar for the division he is at.
Since becoming regular court employees, Benedict and the 379 other employees and officers of the Sandiganbayan have been receiving varying portions of the Judicial Development Fund (JDF).
The JDF is a special fund created via Presidential Decree No. 1949, signed by former president Ferdinand Marcos in 1984, “to help ensure and guarantee the independence of the Judiciary as mandated by the Constitution and public policy” and to aid the "impartial administration of justice." Among others, the fund is sourced from legal fees collected from the courts. It is used to augment allowances of members and personnel of the judiciary and to finance the purchase, maintenance and repair of office equipment and facilities.
At least 80% of the JDF is used for the allowances of court employees, with amounts set relative to their salaries. Not more than 20% goes to judiciary facilities. It is the Supreme Court Chief Justice who has the sole power to authorize disbursements and expenditures of the JDF to guarantee the independence of the judiciary.
The lowest-earning employees get the highest amount from the JDF, while justices or the highest-earning officials of the court get the lowest. The monthly JDF ranges from 2,200-2,000.
The JDF is especially important and already a substantial help for the rank-and-file employees like Benedict, who has two dependents and a salary that helps him get by from one pay to the next.
Being fiscally autonomous, the judiciary is ideally not beholden to the legislative branch for its budget.
As explained by SC Justice Marvic Leonen in his separate but concurring opinion on the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP): "... the constitutional protection granted to the judiciary is such that its budget cannot be diminished below the amount appropriated during the previous year."
Proposals to have the JDF remitted to the national treasury instead of directly to the judiciary, however, have surfaced in Congress.
This has prompted a number of court employees to view the new proposals as lustful vengeance against the SC's ruling on the DAP.
"The President and his henchman responsible for DAP should instead account for DAP. The people, including the government employees, deserve to know how the P177 billion was spent, what projects and who benefited from the projects, lay down the supporting documents and present the actual result of the expenditures," said Association of Court of Appeals Employees (ACEA) president Amiel de Vera.
DAP is a spending program initiated by the administration of President Benigno Aquino III to pump-prime the economy by transferring alleged savings from slow-disbursing projects, programs, and activities to fast-disbursing ones. Critics have called it the discretionary fund of the President, a claim the Palace has vehemently denied.
Key acts under the DAP were declared unconstitutional by the SC on July 1. Aquino slammed the SC in return in a July 14 speech.
In their statement, Monday, July 21, members of the Judiciary Employees Association of the Philippines (Judea-Courage) branded Aquino's speech as a "rampage against the judiciary."
Judiciary benefits to be taxed
Wearing black and red shirts, Judea-Courage members protested against the proposal to withhold the JDF from the judiciary and to grant the lump sum instead through an appropriation by Congress.
They likewise slammed what they deemed unreasonable taxation recently implemented under the Aquino administration.
During a June 25 en banc session of the SC, the High Court approved cuts on the Special Allowance for the Judiciary (SAJ). A notice on the court resolution was furnished courts. The cuts were based on a revenue regulation approved by Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) Commissioner Kim Henares.
BIR Memorandum 23-2014 effectively taxed previously non-taxable items that judiciary officers and personnel have been receiving from government.
A bigger chunk of the SAJ goes to the justices and lawyers of the Court. Whatever is left is distributed to the rank-and-file employees, an amount they call mere "barya-barya" (spare change).
"Kakapiranggot na nga lang, kukuhanan pa (They're deducting from the little we have)," said Maurino "Mar" Aguilar, vice president of Judea-Courage.
Some P5,000 was also deducted as taxation from the annual anniversary bonus, which has since been known as the Employee Development Assistance (EDA), of rank-and-file court employees.
Calling the BIR Commissioner "Sakim Henares," a play of the Filipino word "greed" and the actual name of the commissioner, the court employees denounced the taxation on EDA.
Judea-Courage is set to file on Thursday, July 24, a petition for certiorari before the SC likewise asking for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the BIR regulation.
Bloodline of the courts
The anger of court employees against the Aquino administration was palpable during their Monday protest and subsequent press conference.
"Nakakadismaya lang na ang binu-bully mo ang hudikatura (We are dismayed that you are bullying the judiciary)," said Aguilar during the press conference, addressing Aquino.
Aguilar added in jest that court employees have started to forget the password for their ATM cards, given how long it's been since the last time they had used their cards.
Few will argue their anger is misguided, as court employees are collectively indispensible to the workings of the judiciary.
There are at least 2,700 rank-and-file employees in the SC and at least 650 in the Court of Appeals. Of the 380 Sandiganbayan employees, about 84% or 320 are rank-and-file employees. Collectively, there are 30,000 rank-and-file court employees across the country.
Luckily, for Sandiganbayan personnel like Benedict, there is a chance what they lost through the additional taxes will be gained through a separate set of incentives.
Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang was assured by no less than SC Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno that incentives may be granted instead through a collective negotiating agreement with the employees, Sandiganbayan Employees Association (SEA) president Rodolfo Cadelina said.
Either way, the Philippine courts will literally be disabled without the 30,000-strong protesters working for the institutions that supposedly deliver justice without fear or favor. – Rappler.com