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The price the Supreme Court must pay

/ 05:10 AM June 05, 2018

Tasked to give the “inspirational message” to the new lawyers at their oath-taking last Friday, Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza gave a characteristic speech: thoughtful, gracious, instructive.

I followed his address live through the Supreme Court’s excellent Twitter account and then read his speech as posted on the Court’s website; I also checked the chatter on social media. But aside from the usual virtues I associate with Jardeleza’s speeches or opinions, there was something else I sensed in the anecdotally driven, wittily constructed imparting of wisdom he had carefully put together. In parts, it rang hollow.

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It was typically generous: He structured his remarks around lessons he had learned, in the practice of the law, from some of the most eminent practitioners of his time, including “Frank” (Sen. Franklin Drilon), “Edong,” the recently departed former senator Edgardo Angara, and “Raul,” the late senator Raul Roco, who taught yet another lesson in humility.

It was also characteristically succinct. I have always found a laser-like focus in Jardeleza’s writing; he has a gift for zeroing in on the main points. His address to the new lawyers on June 1 offered only two “words of advice.” (He joked that these were mere tips: “Tips lang ha, hindi ito leakage.”)

The first tip: “Stay humble.” This is necessary advice. Even though I am quite certain he did not have the flamboyant mediocrity of Larry Gadon or the mediocre flamboyance of Ferdinand Topacio, who strut around as though they were God’s gifts to the legal profession, in mind, I first understood this word of advice as referring to unseemly lawyers like them.

To be sure, there are other present-day examples of unhumble lawyers: President Duterte, who bragged about planting evidence; Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, who threatened the Supreme Court before the Court learned to bend the knee; or Solicitor General Jose Calida, who once described himself, to the Court of Appeals, as the 16th justice of the Supreme Court. But at a time when the rule of law is being actively politicized (see preceding sentence), all the more we need humble lawyers.

The second tip: “Have empathy.” This is both moral and practical advice. Jardeleza enjoys the reputation of being one of the legal profession’s “good guys”: a decent and generous man. Again, I do not think he had Gadon’s gloating or Topacio’s preening or the Duterte administration’s legal strategy of intimidation in mind, but I first understood his second word of advice as referring to that kind of conduct.

Jardeleza’s own examples of humility dealt with “intellectual prowess”; he meant, Don’t think of yourself as the smartest person or lawyer in the room. His example of empathy comes from another mentor: “Never put down, speak or do ill of, a colleague.”

Together, his two points comprise his principal argument: “It is inevitable that we will make mistakes. A life lived with humility and empathy, however, creates for you a bank, a deep reservoir of goodwill, from which you can draw in the event you stumble and commit mistakes. People will be more forgiving if they know you to be humble and empathetic. They will be more inclined to throw you a lifeline and help you regain your footing.” Call it the argument from goodwill.

In the same way that he posits the possibility that “one, or hopefully some, of you [will] become members of this Court,” I wager that one or more of the new lawyers saw through Jardeleza’s words and found a rationalization for ousting Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. To be sure, it was a much more subtle, a more elegant, rationalization of Sereno’s ouster than Associate Justice Teresita de Castro’s embittered view or Associate Justice Lucas Bersamin’s the-Court-is-under-threat perspective.

Reading the chatter online, I could see some questioning Jardeleza’s basic goodness. For them, and, grievously, for me as well, his words rang hollow — as did De Castro’s and Bersamin’s. This loss of credibility is part of the price the Supreme Court must pay, in unconstitutionally ousting its chief justice.

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Jardeleza’s inspirational message made me reread his impassioned separate opinion in Republic vs Sereno. His concluding words were an attempt to explain his non-recusal and his vote as an act of empathy. I see it now as precisely the opposite. It was a failure of empathy: for the reputation of the Court, for the impersonal — even better, the nonpersonal — majesty of the law.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand

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TAGS: Francis Jardeleza, john Nery, lawyers' oath-taking, Maria Lourdes Sereno, Newsstand, quo warranto petition, Sereno impeachment, Supreme Court
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