Sereno no-show at House JDF hearing | Inquirer News

Sereno no-show at House JDF hearing

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno: Premature and inappropriate. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines–Reminding Congress of the judiciary’s independence, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno declined the House of Representatives committee on justice’s invitation to Tuesday’s inquiry into the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF), saying summoning the head of a coequal branch “might be premature” and “inappropriate” at this time.

Speaking to her equal through a letter dated Aug. 4, Sereno asked Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. that the high court be given the “courtesy of time” to decide on how to “meaningfully participate” in the legislative process “without sacrificing judicial independence and fiscal autonomy.”


Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr., chair of the justice committee, had asked Sereno to appear during Tuesday’s hearing which sought to tackle two bills pertaining to the JDF, which he called the judiciary’s pork.


‘Personal perks’

During the hearing, Tupas cited a COA report that noted the conversion of allocated funds for the hiring of new staff into personal perks of the judiciary.

Tupas also questioned why the Supreme Court invested part of the JDF in money market instruments to generate additional profits for the judiciary using funds from legal fees and bail bonds collected by the courts.

Ako Bicol Rep. Rodel Batocabe said the COA itself admitted during the hearing that it could not disallow the use of JDF funds for personal benefits because the Supreme Court, as the final interpreter of the law, could always declare it aboveboard.

Tupas and Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas, justice committee vice chair, have filed separate bills calling for the repeal of Presidential Decree No. 1949 that created the JDF in 1984 and pushing for more transparency on how the JDF was spent.

Sereno received the July 30 invitation only on Aug. 4. She sent her response to Belmonte on the same day.


“From the phrase ‘initial deliberation,’ I take it that the meeting contemplated [Aug. 5], appears to be a public hearing on the two pending bills. As Speaker of the House, you would appreciate my position that asking the head of a coequal branch of government to provide her ‘view, comments and recommendations’ on the two bills at this stage might be premature and, considering the venue at which it is being proposed to be heard, inappropriate,” Sereno said.


“As an additional matter, I am certain you are also contemplating the policy ramifications of the committee’s request on judicial independence,” the Chief Justice told Belmonte in a letter, a copy of which the Supreme Court released to media on Tuesday.

Tupas, an administration ally, set an inquiry into the JDF just as cracks showed between Malacañang and the Supreme Court over the latter’s ruling that struck down the Palace’s Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) as unconstitutional.

The lawmaker, who is calling for the abolition of the JDF, has defended the probe, saying it was not aimed at exacting revenge over the high court’s decisions that thumbed down the DAP and Congress’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), a pork barrel.

Not discretionary

The high court has repeatedly said the JDF was not a discretionary fund.

Sereno said last December that the JDF was “for the benefit of the members and personnel of the judiciary to help ensure and guarantee the independence of the judiciary as mandated by the Constitution and public policy, and required by the impartial administration of justice.”

Moves to scrap the fund have spurred protests among court employees.

Probe’s timing curious

While deferring to Congress’ role in legislation, Sereno found the timing of Tupas’ probe curious and contrary to the spirit of keeping it friendly between equals.

“…[M]y view of the manner, timing and context in which a committee of the House is proposing to inquire into the JDF as indicated in the letter, is that they leave much to be desired, and at this point, do not seem to be fully cognizant of the kind of healthy relationship that should exist between, on the one hand, the House of Representatives, and on the other, the Supreme Court,” Sereno said.

She also noted how Tupas’ committee additionally called on two of her staff, Deputy Court Administration Raul Villanueva and Corazon Ferrer-Flores, head of the Supreme Court’s Fiscal Management and Budget Office, “despite the invitation extended to the Chief Justice or her “duly authorized representative.”

“I am not certain if the committee has considered the implication of inviting both the head of an office or her representative, and separately inviting her subordinates. Both (Villanueva and Flores) have sought the permission and guidance of the Chief Justice and the court en banc,” Sereno said.

Tupas’ invitation to Sereno and the two court officials was tackled at Tuesday’s en banc session, said Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te. The discussion has not been made public, however.

Special audit rejected

The high court also released a copy of Commission on Audit (COA) Chair Grace Pulido-Tan’s letter to Tupas rejecting his request for a special audit of the JDF.

In her letter dated Aug. 4, Tan told Tupas that the COA was regularly auditing the JDF, results of which are forwarded to Congress and posted on the audit agency’s website.

“Premises considered, it may not be necessary therefore to conduct a special audit of the JDF,” Tan said in her letter.

Another invitation

Undeterred by Sereno’s nonappearance at the hearing, Tupas said the House would send another invitation to the Supreme Court, hoping that Sereno and the other justices would be more open to explaining how they spend their money.

“As much as possible, we do not want to issue compulsory process to compel the attendance of the officials of the judiciary. We will extend every courtesy to the officials of a coequal branch. We hope they help us in this hearing,” said Tupas, who expected to hold the next hearing in two weeks.

Fariñas said: “If the judiciary decides to snub the invitation of the committee in the hearing of our bills regarding the JDF, that is its call. We can proceed with our constitutional duty if the judiciary chooses to waive its right to be heard on the matter.”

Waiver on right to be heard

Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr. said House members were optimistic that the justices would accept their invitation.

“I think it’s not yet a snub. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that they will attend next time,” Barzaga said.

He said the justices’ continued absence would mean their “waiver” on their right to be heard at the JDF hearings.

Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said that Sereno was probably asking for more time to get the consent of her fellow magistrates for her to speak on behalf of the court en banc.

Rodriguez said that Sereno could also opt to send a representative during the hearing.


Chief Justice Sereno snubs ‘unhealthy’ House probe into Judiciary Development Fund

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House already got COA report on JDF audit last March—Pulido

TAGS: Congress, Supreme Court

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