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Yearender: SC embarks on House cleaning

After issuing a series of controversial and landmark decisions, the Supreme Court finds itself trying to keep its house in order.

Charges of influence peddling and big-time fixing involving justices and judges prompted the high tribunal to look into its internal affairs, with Associate Justice Marvic Leonen tasked to do the housecleaning.

Leonen has promised to come up with results not later than April next year before more damage could be inflicted on the high tribunal.

Foremost among the cases is that of an alleged influence peddling in the judiciary pepetrated by a certain “Ma’am Arlene”, also called as the “Napoles of of the Judiciary,” an allusion to the alleged brains of the pork barrel scam.

Talk of “Ma’m Arlene” spread around the legal circle sometime in September before the hotly contested elections in the Philippine Judges Association.

Arlene allegedly hosted accommodations and provided expensive gifts to judges during their conventions.

The SC had traced the source of the reports to a supposed smear campaign in the electoral contest in the PJA.

Three judges who vied for the top post in the PJA denied involvement in the controversy.

PJA president-elect and Quezon City regional trial court Judge Ralph Lee and his rivals Makati City RTC Judge Rommel Baybay and Marikina City RTC Judge Felix Reyes all said they had nothing to do with allegations of influence peddling.

Still, the controversy was so alarming that the high court had to pursue an investigation into the matter.

Several names had cropped up during investigation, which the SC opted to do behind closed doors. Among them was Arlene Lerma, a former Manila City Hall employee reportedly linked to Vice Mayor Isko Moreno who had left the country last October and has not returned since.

But despite the attacks on the judiciary, 2013 saw the high court deciding on more important cases in favor of public interest.

A case in point was the recent temporary retraining order it imposed against the record-high power rate increase of Manila Electric Co. (Meralco). The SC issued the TRO amid public outrage against the rate hike at a time the nation had just been devastated by a strong earthquake and Super Typhoon Yolanda.

The high court’s performance could bebest gauged by its rising public approval rating.

In the Social Weather Station survey conducted from September 20 to 23, the SC surpassed the public satisfaction of both the Senate and the House.

The high court’s rating stayed good, up by four points to +41 (60% satisfied, 18% dissatisfied) from the +37 it recorded last June. Its satisfaction remained good since August last year.

In contrast, the Senates satisfaction rating declined to good from very good with net satisfaction ratings dropping by 18 points to +36 (59% satisfied, 23% dissatisfied from +54 in June 2013.

Public satisfaction with the House of Representatives also fell to moderate from good. Net satisfaction was +27 (50% satisfied, 23% dissatisfied), down 10 points from the previous quarters +37.

For the executive department as a whole, net satisfaction hardly moved, staying as moderate at +27 (48% satisfied, 21% dissatisfied) from the previous quarter of +28. It has been moderated since September 2010, except in August 2012 when it was a good +33.

Chief Justice Sereno’s ratings also increased by 4 points to +17 (39% satisfied and 22% dissatisfied) from +13 in the previous quarter. Her latest rating was the highest since she was first rated in the last quarter of 2012 after her appointment as Chief Justice in August 2012.

Serenos satisfaction was also the highest for a head of the judiciary since Retired Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide, Jr. notched a +13 in Sept. 2005.

The coming year brings to the halls of the high court more challenges with the SC expected to apply its power of review over the executive branch this time.

Justices are expected to rule this year on other controversial cases like the Disbursement Acceleration Program of President Aquino, Cyber Crime Prevention Act and the highly debated Reproductive Health law.

The high court already heard last Nov.19 oral arguments on petitions filed by former Iloilo Rep. Augusto Syjuco Jr.; lawyers Jose Malvar Villegas Jr. and Manuelito Luna; Philippine Constitution Association (Philconsa); Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP); the militant Bayan Muna, Kabataan and Gabriela party-list groups; Christian sects led by losing senatorial candidate Greco Belgica; Confederation for Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (Courage); and the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption.

The second debate where the office of the solicitor general is supposed to defend the legality of President Aquinos discretionary funds was supposed to be held last Dec. 10, but the SC postponed it to January 28.

The postponement was made upon the request of the Senate and House of Representatives, which wanted to get their own lawyers separate from the solicitor general to represent them in this case.

It came, however, after Rep. Reynaldo Umali a member of President Aquino’s Liberal Party - raised the threat of impeachment proceedings against the justices over their rulings in the pork barrel (PDAF) and in a House member who the SC disqualified for being an American citizen.

The opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) believed that the threat of impeachment is a ploy of the administration and the Liberal Party (LP) to blackmail the SC justices into declaring DAP as legal.

The DAP became controversial after Senator Jinggoy Estrada revealed that P50 million in funds allegedly from DAP were released by the Palace to lawmakers as “incentives” for the impeachment of Renato Corona.

Corona claimed vindication in Estrada’s revelations, but he said he would leave it to God whatever the outcome of the unfolding events.

He said Estradas claim that Budget Secretary Butch Abad sent letters to senator-judges offering additional pork barrel should they vote for conviction only confirmed what he had long believed that the Palace had used its resources to oust him.

Its been, however, over a year since Corona was removed from his post now occupied by Aquino-appointed Chief Justice Sereno.

Corona’s impeachment had led to transparency in the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of justices.

For the second time last July, the “Gods of Padre Faura” released their SALNs for 2012.

Associate Justice Mariano Del Castillo, the magistrate who earlier faced impeachment proceedings in Congress over a plagiarism charge, remained the richest magistrate.

Justice Del Castillos net worth for last year was P109,743,118.28, or an increase by some P840,000 from P108,904,519.37 in 2011. He had P110,127,634.66 in total assets and P384,516.38 in total liabilities.

Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, the most junior member of the high court who was appointed by President Aquino in Nov. last year, had the least net worth for 2012 with P1,674,623.22. He had P2,333,679.22 in total assets and P659,056 in liabilities. His SALN showed he had no real properties.

The biggest gainers were Associate Justice Lucas Bersamin, whose net worth of P18,811,447.87 in 2011 grew to P26,119,275.39 last year, and Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta, whose net worth of P22,642,264.73 in the previous year grew to P29,382,037.60 in 2012.

Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Serenos SALN showed she had P18,143,104.01 in net worth last year, with P19,155,024.90 in assets and P1,011,920.89 in liabilities. In 2011, she had P18,029,575.51.

Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio is the second richest with P83,885,614.57 in net worth for 2012, or an increase of around P4 million from his P79,895,025.57 in 2011.

Associate Justice Bienvenido Reyes had P76,542,167.31 in net worth last year. In 2011, he had P75,146,199.

Another appointee of President Aquino, Associate Justice Estela Perlas Bernabe had P73,827,435 in net worth in 2012, or an increase of over P5 million from her P67,101,327 net worth in 2011.

In the latest SALNs, Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr. had net worth of P8,679,740.49, Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro with P8,941,000, Justice Arturo Brion with P11,908,742, Justice Roberto Abad with P43.4 million, Justice Martin Villarama Jr. with P21,911,495.36, Justice Jose Mendoza with P29,982,165.66, and Justice Jose Perez with P11.76 million.

The SC has approved the public release of SALNs of justices for 2012 in their session last June 18 through requests of several media outfits.

The SALNs of the justices were released for the first time after 20 years in August 2012 following the impeachment of Corona, who was removed from the top judicial post by the Senate last May 29 after he was found guilty of culpable violation of the constitution and betrayal of public trust after impeachment trial showed he did not declare millions worth of properties in his SALN.



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