Agony over Jelac

MANILA, Philippines—The Supreme Court must have agonized over its participation in the Judiciary, Executive and Legislative Advisory and Consultative Council. Jelac is obscured by penumbras of unconstitutionality and impropriety.

Past reform efforts. Some 15 years ago, a similar tripartite council to undertake judicial reforms was proposed. Citing constitutional grounds, then Chief Justice Andres R. Narvasa refused membership. Instead, he dispatched a deputy court administrator to attend the meetings merely as an observer, not as a member. The venture faded into inutility.

To start reforms, CJ Narvasa called for a judiciary-wide dialogue. Funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the 18-month consultation produced a Blueprint of Action for the Judiciary. His successor, Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide Jr., enlarged the scope of the Blueprint and instituted the much broader Action Program for Judicial Reforms (APJR).

The Philippine government and major international developmental institutions like the UNDP, World Bank and Asian Development Bank supported the APJR. It also merited assistance from Australia, United Kingdom, Canada, European Union, Japan, the Netherlands and the United States. It was hailed by the World Bank as a model for all developing countries.

During my term, I continued the APJR with focus on what I called the four ACID problems that corrode justice: (1) Access to justice by the poor; (2) Corruption; (3) Incompetence of some judges; and (4) Delay in the resolution of cases. I stressed four Ins: Independence, Integrity, Industry and Intelligence. As ultimate goals, I envisioned the safeguarding of liberty and the nurturance of prosperity under the rule of law.

Some achievements of these past reform efforts include the doubling of judicial compensation through Republic Act 9227; computerization of the Sandiganbayan and selected trial courts; construction of model court houses in Angeles and Lapu Lapu cities; operation of the unique electronic library and the mobile courts; funding (by Japan) of the Philippine Judicial Academy Center in Tagaytay, and about a hundred other projects.

Fiscal independence. There was however one common frustration: while the Constitution bars the reduction of the judiciary’s budget, it does not provide for its increase. The Supreme Court must still depend on the president and Congress for new money.

To achieve full fiscal autonomy, I believe that (1) a fixed percentage (say, one percent) of the national budget should be allocated for the judiciary and the Supreme Court should be authorized to chop it up for its specific needs, and (2) the judiciary should be exempted from the Salary Standardization Law. In this way, the judiciary’s budget would be automatically increased as the entire budget is increased. Also, with SSL exemption, the Court can fix salaries to attract the best and the brightest judges. However, this plea has fallen on deaf ears.

At present, the Court still has to beg literally from the president and Congress for new funds. Many years ago, I headed a delegation of justices to a budget hearing of the House of Representatives. To our dismay, the congressmen used the occasion to chastise us on why certain cases have allegedly been delayed, why some others had been decided in a way not palatable to them, or why certain judges have not been sanctioned despite complaints. No questions were asked on our budget needs. We felt diminished by the experience. “Never again,” we vowed.

I understand that the Court looks to Jelac as the alternative for this annual budgetary grilling. It limited Jelac’s “mandate” only to the: “(1) budget of the judiciary; (2) infrastructure requirements; (3) creation of new courts, and transfer of existing courts; (4) filling up of vacancies in the judiciary; (5) career development in the judiciary; (6) compensation of judicial officials and (7) security of judicial personnel; and (8) other related matters.”

Need to reexamine Jelac. However, the signed Memorandum of Agreement, finalized by Solicitor General Agnes Devanadera, authorized Jelac “to undertake measures on matters affecting the primacy of the rule of law, to identify the problems and issues, and to implement the same.” Decidedly, this deviation demeans not only separation of powers, but more so, judicial independence.

The power to “implement” measures on the “primacy of the rule of law” belongs solely to the president. On the other hand, to “formulate solutions” (or judgments) on “problems and issues” is the sole prerogative of the judiciary. To share it with the president and Congress is to assault judicial independence.

The mantra to justify these insidious incursions is allegedly to obtain funds and hasten judicial reforms. On the goal of reforms, there is no debate. The debate is on the legality and propriety of the means to achieve the goal.

It is said that the judiciary must not only be fair but must be perceived to be fair. Considering the many pending suits challenging the limits of presidential and legislative prerogatives, can the Supreme Court justify the ethical propriety of hobnobbing with high profile litigants? Can it overcome public suspicions that Jelac is being convened at this time to influence the Court in legitimizing and deodorizing unconstitutional adventures?

I firmly believe that maintaining public trust in the Supreme Court’s independence and integrity is by far the most important judicial reform. What does it profit the Court to gain all the money it desires if it loses its credibility?

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