First time: Supreme Court chief hits Palace, Congress
A rift sparked by the recall of a final decision on the basis of a letter by lawyer Estelito Mendoza widened on Thursday as Chief Justice Renato Corona blasted Malacañang and Congress for “disrespect and lack of civility.”
Corona’s blast was unprecedented.
“I say to them: Enough is enough!” Corona declared to thunderous applause from a packed audience during the annual convention of the Philippine Judges Association at the New World Hotel.
“Let not those who pervert democracy and the Constitution for their selfish political ends mistake our judicial decorum, wisdom of silence and sense of dignity as signs of weakness, for nothing can be farther from the truth.”
Shedding his usual soft-spoken character, Corona also slammed moves by the Palace and its majority allies in Congress to slash P2 billion from the judiciary’s budget for 2012 and put the amount in a special fund for vacant government posts.
Though Congress has already agreed to release funds for unfilled positions in the courts, the Chief Justice still reminded Malacañang and the lawmakers that the judiciary’s fiscal autonomy is enshrined in the Constitution.
“I mince no words and I speak of nothing else but the insidious attempts to undermine, destroy even, the independence of the judiciary through such means as forcing us to beg for the funds guaranteed to us by the Constitution,” he said.
‘Not since martial law’
Corona’s tough-guy stance followed the recall of a “final” ruling calling for the reinstatement of 1,400 members of the Flight Attendants and Stewards Association of the Philippines (Fasap) who were sacked following a strike at the Philippine Airlines (PAL) in 1998.
The recall of the ruling came after Mendoza, PAL’s counsel and solicitor general during the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, wrote letters to the magistrates pointing out a purported technical defect, saying it should have been handled by the court’s Special Third Division, which had been hearing the case, and not the Second Division.
Fasap has protested the court’s turnabout after a 13-year legal battle, saying the Constitution provides that “no decision shall be rendered by any court without expressing therein clearly and distinctly the facts and the law on which it is based.”
Corona also denounced “the repeated threats of impeachment based on a distorted and power-tripping interpretation of ‘breach of public trust.’”
While the executive branch has the “power of the sword” and the legislature has the “power of the purse,” he said, the judiciary—being a coequal branch of government—“will not hesitate to use the power of the pen to strike down what is illegal, unconstitutional and patently immoral.”
“Never before has the entire judiciary, even in the days of martial law, been subjected to so much disrespect and lack of civility from sectors we sincerely consider to be our partners in nation-building,” he said.
Question of credibility
Corona, a so-called “midnight appointee” as Chief Justice in the final days of the reviled Arroyo administration, vowed to defend the integrity and independence of the high court amid allegations of incompetence and corruption.
“As long as I am the head of the judiciary, the third and coequal branch of government, I will perform the duty that the Almighty and the Constitution have entrusted to me, without fear and without vacillation,” he said.
“Right is right. Wrong is wrong. In the Supreme Court, under my watch, right will always find a sanctuary and wrong will never find refuge.”
Reacting to the tirade, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda accused Corona of using the budget cuts for the judiciary to “sidestep” the Fasap controversy.
“The Supreme Court brought it upon themselves—if there is an attack on their credibility because of the Fasap case. We did not do anything here,” Lacierda said.
Lacierda pointed out that Congress had already freed the judiciary’s allocation for salaries for unfilled posts from the President’s Mutual Personnel Benefit Fund.
Lacierda also distanced Malacañang from the impeachment complaint in the House of Representatives against Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo for alleged plagiarism in a decision on “comfort women.”
“I don’t know where this idea of being impeached is coming from. But certainly you do not hear that from the executive branch. Now, again, we have democratic space,” Lacierda said.
Senator Panfilo Lacson said Corona should “take the necessary measures to correct whatever bad perception and image problem, valid or not, that the court is suffering from right now.”
“The judiciary is not above the law and must be able to grin and bear criticisms thrown its way,” Senator Francis Pangilinan said. “If they can’t take the heat, they should get out of the kitchen.”
On fiscal autonomy, Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III pointed out the judiciary continued to enjoy this, but only after Congress, which has the power of the purse, had passed the budget.
“On the miscellaneous personnel benefits fund, we can have a logical and constitutional compromise after the national budget is passed,” he said. With reports from Norman Bordadora and Christian V. Esguerra
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