The old man had dared to stand up to the bosses of political gangland. Now he is being taught a lesson by the young heirs of those who have always imagined themselves to be the real lords of this little corner of the world. The “elected” representatives of the people will not brook any display of pride by the “unelected.” The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is being put in his place and shown how to defer to real power.
In the culture of gangland, Hilario Davide Jr. is a negative example of the public servant. He does not know how to grovel. He is clearsighted and uncompromising, and is not fearful about losing his job. Although unelected, he projects not timidity but self-assurance. As presiding officer of the impeachment court that tried President Joseph Estrada, he taught the nation what rule of law meant, contrasting it sharply against the ways of patronage politics. Rising above utang na loob that should have bound him to the man who appointed him the highest magistrate of the land, he stuck to the law and ruled with impartiality.
Hilario Davide Jr. has defied the culture of gangland so often he has become a big threat to the bosses who habitually buy and muzzle their way to power. His Court ruled fearlessly on controversial cases that others avoided touching because they involved influential personalities who had kept their power and connections through successive regimes. Many more such cases are pending in his Court.
The complaint against Davide revolves around the utilization of the Judiciary Development Fund, a special fund created by a Marcos presidential decree to augment the incomes of judiciary personnel and to supplement the budget for equipment and facilities of the various courts. The law gives the Chief Justice sole authority to disburse this fund, which is collected from court fees.
The impeachment case alleges several instances of illegal utilization of the fund. The law reserves at least 80% of the fund for the allowances of personnel from the various courts of the country. The complaint says the true amount of the fund has not been reported, which is why rank-and-file court personnel have not been getting their full share of the fund. It mentions fund juggling and unauthorized purchases of expensive curtains and furniture. It also questions the disbursement of funds from the JDF to buy cars and to build vacation cottages for the SC justices. The luxury of the high court bought at the expense of the basic needs of ordinary employees — the cause is compelling, but it is baseless.
The case stems from an investigation, in aid of legislation, conducted by Cong. Felix William “Wimpy” Fuentebella for the House Committee on Justice. In May 2003, the committee invited the Chief Justice to shed light on the use of the JDF. Davide declined the invitation citing previous commitments and expressing doubts about the legality of summoning the Court to a congressional inquiry. The auditing of the fund, and indeed of all public expenditures, is a function of the Commission on Audit (COA). And COA, which is in possession of all the vouchers and papers relating to the fund, has already issued a report finding the JDF collections and expenditures in order.
But Fuentebella was persistent. He summoned the COA officers assigned to the Supreme Court and the SC’s Fiscal Management and Budget Office, and asked them to submit reports of JDF remittances, collections, expenditures, and vouchers. Chief Justice Davide received a similar request on Sept. 30, prompting him to write to Speaker Jose de Venecia. He told him of his apprehensions over this “direct assault on the independence of the Judiciary,” violation of its fiscal autonomy, and breach of the doctrine of separation of powers. Davide nevertheless explained to the Speaker the nature, necessity, and legal basis of the expenditures that Cong. Fuentebella had questioned. He said that COA has all the records. Because the issue concerned the basic separation of powers, Davide furnished President Macapagal a copy of his letter.
The matter should have been laid to rest at this point if leadership rather than personal agenda had guided the behavior of the Speaker and the President. But neither of the two politicians, both top officials of the ruling Lakas party, lifted a finger to arrest the gathering storm. The pique that Cong. Wimpy Fuentebella felt at being repeatedly rebuffed by the Chief Justice was allowed to smolder, and soon it was fanned by the party of young warlords at the House.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court obliged the warlike stance of the young congressmen by unwisely issuing a provocative “status quo order” enjoining both chambers of Congress from doing anything about the case while it hears the petitions on the constitutionality of the complaint. Today the whole House is being mobilized to defend its integrity against a perceived enemy. Even so, we are far from a breakdown of the constitutional order. Whether the impeachment proceeds or not, there is still much leeway for constitutionally acceptable responses at every point.
The real crisis we face today as a nation arises from our growing inability to respect and admire our leaders. This loss of esteem for the country’s leaders has led, over the years, to a corrosive indifference toward our institutions and loss of affection for the nation itself. A vicious culture seems to devour everyone who enters public service. The few, like Justice Davide, who remain whole, are seldom spared by media’s tendency to believe the worst about our civil servants.
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