Threats to Judicial Independence in the Philippines

The executive and legislative branches of the Government considerably influence administrative and operational facets of the judicial system. The president has the power to appoint justices and judges. Through the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), the president determines financial resources available to the Judiciary through budgetary allocation and release, and Congress determines the number of courts and their jurisdiction, the permanent assignment of judges, and the Judiciary’s annual budget. A senator and house representative sit as members of the Judicial and Bar Council, the body tasked to select and nominate prospective appointees to the bench. Under these conditions, political influence and patronage impinging on the processes of selection and appointment of judicial officials is the biggest threat to judicial independence.

Accusations have been rife in the media that the presidential power to appoint Supreme Court justices has been exercised for political ends and to benefit political allies. The quality of judicial appointments, especially in lower courts, has also been put to question due to alleged interference of Congress members and local government executives in the choice of appointees. Despite clear constitutional fiat, judicial fiscal autonomy remains illusory, as automatic release of its budgetary allocations and full control over their disbursements have not been implemented. The president, through DBM, treats the Judiciary like any other executive department or agency and retains control of the Judiciary’s budget through obligation, cash, programming, and releasing controls. DBM also approves the realignment of funds, use of savings, and use of funds for specific purposes. Limited fiscal autonomy impacts on judicial independence, as it places the Judiciary and its operations under the control and influence of another branch of the Government.

Without a strong and genuinely independent Judiciary, government accountability in the Philippines remains an unreachable goal – and any statements concerning its attainment, a mere rhetoric.