Court Administrator: Groups formed by Sereno created delay in judges' benefits

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 5) — Dozens of retired justices and judges or their surviving spouses were denied the timely release of their benefits when a special committee and technical working groups (TWG) created by the Chief Justice unduly delayed decision on their pending applications, the Court Administrator told the House panel hearing the Chief Justice's impeachment case on Tuesday.

Court Administrator Midas Marquez said that the Special Committee on Retirement and Civil Service Benefits created in 2015 by Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno with Associate Justices Antonio Carpio and Presbitero Velasco was intended to streamline the processing of pension applications from legitimate spouses who have survived a deceased member of the judiciary.

This came following a law signed in February 2010 by then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, that passed on the benefits and pension of deceased justices and judges to their surviving spouses.

Sereno then created two technical working groups on her own to assist the special committee, Marquez told the House Justice Committee. One TWG screened applications, while the other addressed legal concerns.

Marquez, who has served in the Supreme Court for 25 years, said prior to the special committee, the Office of the Court Administrator would submit its recommendations, which would be immediately raffled off to a justice to deliberate on.

But instead of speeding up the processing of the survivors' pensions, Marquez said it took the committee and the TWGs more than two years before approving 12 of 29 applications.

"In two or three weeks lumalabas ang resolution ng court (the court's resolution appears). (But) after the committee was created and the TWG was organized, umaabot ng dalawang taon (it reached two years)," he said. No pending applications for pension or survivor benefits were acted on from October 2015 to November 2017.

In his presentation to the House Justice Committee, the ages of the surviving spouses of deceased judges ranged from 54 to more than 90 years old.

"Considering that many of them are past 80 years old already, they may no longer be able to avail of the benefits rightly due them," he added.

Marquez said it was only in August 2017 when some of the requests were then referred to the Supreme Court En Banc for decision. This came about a week after complainant Larry Gadon held a press conference on his plans to file an impeachment case against Sereno.

He noted that prior to this, he had written the Chief Justice back in January, a letter to Sereno requesting her to speed up the resolution of the 29 applications. Other spouses and retired Court employees had written her as well. But there was no reply.

"The Office of the Court Administrator has been receiving a number of calls and visits from the surviving spouses and their relatives following up their respective applications the past two months," Marquez said.

Marquez said the Chief Justice has authority over the special committee, and has the power to expedite the deliberations of the TWG so that the applications could be processed more quickly.

Some lawmakers believe this inaction violated the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials.

"Inaction and lack of reply to official request, official documents being sent to offices and you know this may be violation of RA 6713 because under this law, when there is an official communication, this must be responded to within a period of 15 calendar days," House Justice Committee Chairman Reynaldo Umali said.

The house panel was on its fifth day of determining probable cause in the impeachment complaint against the Chief Justice. Complainant Larry Gadon alleges that Sereno committed culpable violation of the Constitution when she delayed the action on petitions for retirement benefits of justices, judges, and their surviving spouses.

Sereno's camp has, however, refuted these claims on Tuesday saying the new system had improved, and not stalled, the application for retirement benefits.

"Under this new system, there has been significant improvement in the speed, efficiency, and consistency in the processing of petitions for retirement benefits," the statement from the Chief Justice's lawyers said.

It also dismissed "delays" as "isolated cases," and said Sereno is not responsible for solely processing petitions for retirement benefits.

"While there may be isolated cases where petitions have not been processed as fast as the others, the 'delay' was always for justifiable reasons, i.e., the pendency of administrative cases against the applicant, or the need for the Supreme Court en banc to resolve policy issues," it said.

Her lawyers also denied that Sereno had made the decision to form the TWGs unilaterally. The special committee she created along with Associate Justices Antonio Carpio and Presbitero Velasco, had requested for the working groups, they added.

"CJ Sereno merely implemented the terms of the Memorandum creating the Special Committee since it is empowered to recommend the creation of sub-committees to discharge its functions,"  it added.