Jovy Salonga: Many paths to greatness
I am saddened to hear of the passing of the quintessential Filipino statesman, Jovito R. Salonga. I first met him when we were both designated by the Supreme Court as amici curiae counsels in a constitutional law case, and it turned out that among the several amici, we were the only ones who agreed on a fine point of law. The other counsels’ views were so different from ours that even at lunch break during the hearings, JRS and I ended up eating by ourselves at a separate table.
That episode proved to be so providential. First, he introduced me to a wonderful person with whom I would eventually work so closely, Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc. On a quiet Saturday morning, JRS and I felt that we had to explain our legal position to the public, not just to the high court. He asked me to draft a statement, and enlisted me as his driver—one of my proud moments—to hand-carry the papers to LJM’s house. As we drove, he passed on a cell phone to me and on the other end was LJM’s soothing voice giving me street directions! I couldn’t have imagined that a few months later, I would be invited to be a Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist, and years later become PDI publisher, and that I would be calling LJM’s landline at home often enough to know when she would go out for her daily walk.
It was providential in yet another way. After his failed 1992 presidential bid, JRS turned his back on electoral politics and organized citizen’s organizations for which the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation would later say he continued his “principled intervention in the affairs of the nation.” He began with Kilosbayan (eventually headed by former Interior Secretary Raffy Alunan), and then set up its legal arm, Bantay Katarungan (eventually headed by his former law partner and Cory Aquino’s first solicitor general, Ambassador Sedfrey Ordoñez). He donated his cash award from the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation to Kilosbayan, Bantay Katarungan and Silliman University, the alma mater of his older brother Ben who helped support his law studies.
Bantay Katarungan was a public interest lawyers’ group that filed test cases in the courts and harnessed bright young law students as legal interns. He later asked me to be its chair. My vice chair then was Florin Hilbay, now solicitor general, and the executive director was Emil Capulong, a respected litigation practitioner.
The Bantay Katarungan interns may not have realized it, but the venerable senator, then in his 80s, considered his weekly meetings with the law students the high point of his week when, to paraphrase him, he felt happiest. When he said that, I realized I was listening not to Salonga the statesman, but Salonga the law professor and former Far Eastern University law dean.
Today’s youth might not be aware of it, but JRS was in his senior year in law school when World War II broke out. He interrupted his law studies to join the guerrilla movement, was arrested and tortured in a succession of prisons: Fort Santiago, then the Old Bilibid in Manila, and finally in the New Bilibid in Muntinlupa. He took the bar exam, and went on to get the highest grades. There are many paths to greatness indeed.
May Jovito R. Salonga inspire the youth to find their own paths, and stay the course with the same honor and fortitude.