By Alex Magno
The Philippine Star

Supreme-Court-8The judiciary, by constitutional dictate, is the third co-equal branch of government. It does not control the army and does not control the purse. It only has the majesty of the law in its armory.

Historically, the two other branches of government consistently tried to gain leverage over the judiciary by controlling the resources that flow to it. For instance, the judiciary last year asked Congress for funds to add one legal researcher per trial court. Presumably of the adverse ruling on the constitutionality of the PDAF, Congress killed that item.

Historically, too, the judiciary’s share of the national budget was slightly less than 1%. This year, under an administration undecided on whether to coopt or coerce an independent branch, the judiciary’s share of the budget fell to only 0.8%.

This should be the most telling indictment of our pork barrel state: the budgetary share of the judiciary was even less than the absolute amounts of pork legislators appropriated for themselves last year.

Each courtroom in the country has a maintenance and operating budget of P100,000 per month. By comparison, each office in the executive branch with the same staff complement has operating expenses of P4 million each month. Even the idlest congressman runs his legislative and district offices with an even higher operating costs.

The salaries of our judges and justices are pitifully low. Considering everything, including the hazards the go with doing their jobs, it is a wonder anyone wants to serve at the bench.

In our pork barrel state, getting a share of the national budget requires political play. Agencies will have to lobby for more funds, demonstrate factional loyalty to get releases.

The magistrates, however, are not cut out for that sort of political play. They have strict ethical codes to abide by. They cannot horse-trade like the politicians do. What will they trade with, judicial decisions?

Our long history of pork barrel politics put the judicial institutions at a disadvantage. That reflects in their share of the national budget. The consequences are injurious to our nationhood: overflowing court dockets, miserable courtrooms, long trial periods and suspects who linger in overcrowded detention facilities for years only to be acquitted.

Some remedial measures were instituted to mitigate the judiciary’s financial plight. A Judiciary Development Fund (JDF) was established. It collected the fees from court filings and used these for physically improving the courtrooms, supplementing the incomes of employees, pay for professional training and as reserve fund for contingencies.

If you think we have a classroom shortage, visit the courtrooms. The judiciary is often so hard-pressed for funds, it begs from the DOJ to rehabilitate courtrooms. Trial courts rely on the generosity of local governments to maintain their facilities. This creates conflicts-of-interest all around.

At just over a billion, the JDF is not a large fund. Compare that to the P6.5 billion or more passed on to legislators through the DAP just for the heck of it.

The entire superstructure of the rule of law in this country rests on the independence and integrity of our courts. If our courts are compromised, the law itself will lose its majesty. Justice becomes a matter of chance — or connection.

The independence and integrity of the judiciary, in turn, rests on its fiscal autonomy (currently, but maybe not for long, guaranteed by law).

The past few weeks, it became clear the Aquino administration released its dogs of war upon the judiciary. One fanatical legislator now seeks to curtail the JDF, believing he has found the Achilles’ heel by which the Supreme Court might be cowed into submission.

As they penalized the entire judicial branch last year when they rejected a minor request for more funding to afford a legal researcher per courtroom, both the executive and legislative branches could impoverish their coequal branch even more next year.

Both Congress and the Presidency were presumably hurt by the successive adverse rulings of the High Court on the matter or the PDAF and then DAP. Given the mindless vengefulness that has characterized this unfortunate period in our political history, expect the entire judiciary to be penalized.

During budget hearings, legislators often extort projects from the executive branch in exchange for their vote of approval. That is the norm.

During the Corona impeachment, the executive basically signaled wavering legislators: give me your vote and I will give you DAP. This was an impeachment, as the evidence now suggests, that was bought using funds from a war chest assembled by faking “savings” and packaging the whole loot as economic stimulus.

Now, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decisive ruling on the constitutionality of the DAP, Congress and the Presidency are ganging up on the judiciary. They are playing their usual games of carrot-and-stick, threats and the dangling of rewards, on a branch of government forbidden by the canon of judicial ethics from participating in these games. Our politicians, unfortunately, know only too well how to play the usual immoral games.

Since it will be truly in bad form for the magistrates themselves to engage in political scrimmages with the two more philistine branches of government, it is for the regular employees of the court to pick up the cudgels and show their support for judicial independence.

Starting yesterday, employees of the judicial branch of government started quiet protest actions. Called Black Mondays, court employees will don red and black ribbons as the start of each week to announce their sentiments. They did the same thing when the two other branches pulled out all the stops to impeach a chief justice.

One Response. Have your say.

  1. Pons says:

    The last bastion of Filipino decency and humanity is being attacked. I hope they stand firm and withstand the torrents of evil from the Presidency and the Congress.

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *