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With Due Respect

Why Tony Carpio never became chief justice

Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio will retire “upon reaching” his 70th birthday on Oct. 26. During his 18 years in the Supreme Court, he had five chances to be chief.

The first was on May 17, 2010, upon the retirement of CJ Reynato S. Puno. However, though already the most senior, he declined his nomination due to his keen sense of “delicadeza,” because he voted against the Court’s decision authorizing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, his former client, to appoint the CJ despite the constitutional ban against midnight appointments.

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When I asked why he declined, he quipped, “I do not want to be known as Mr. Midnight Chief Justice.”

His second was on May 29, 2012, when CJ Renato C. Corona was impeached by the House and ousted by the Senate. After the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) nominated him (and some others), then President Benigno Aquino III called him to Malacañang for an interview.

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On his way home from the Palace, he called me, sadly saying, “The President told me that he had no doubts about my qualifications… However, he could not appoint me because some of his key Senate allies and three prominent business leaders opposed my promotion.”

The third chance was after CJ Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno was removed on May 11, 2018. Again, he refused his nomination out of his deep sense of “delicadeza” because he dissented against the ouster decision, opining that the Court had no power to oust its members.

I privately argued with him, saying the rule of law requires all, including dissenters, to obey the majority’s decision. But he was, as usual, adamant in his stand.

The fourth chance came after CJ Teresita J. Leonardo-De Castro retired on Oct. 10, 2018. This time, he accepted his nomination, but President Duterte chose Lucas P. Bersamin, the third most senior justice.

CJ Bersamin reached his mandatory retirement age last Oct 18. Anticipating the vacancy, the JBC considered the five most senior justices, including him, to be automatically nominated.

On this fifth chance, I was told by someone close to the President (Lucio Singh) that the Chief Executive was open to elevating Carpio to serve for at least a day or two before his compulsory retirement. But Carpio preempted the President by again humbly declining the automatic nomination. Had he accepted the nomination and thereafter been appointed, he would have sported the dubious title of “Mr. One-Day Chief Justice.”

At this point in his storied life, titles, honors and testimonials no longer faze him. Neither do they make him better, greater or more exalted. His consuming ambition remains his passionate crusade for the sovereign rights of our country in the West Philippine Sea.

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Ever true to his innate modesty and humility, he declined the traditional ceremony honoring retiring magistrates with a special session at the Court’s hallowed session hall. He preferred a simple dinner with his colleagues and close friends at the Conrad Hotel.

While the Court had no choice but to agree, it nonetheless passed a unanimous resolution (with him taking no part) granting him the retirement benefits of a chief justice.

I think this is the least the Court could do for its longest-serving associate justice — 18 years — second only to the first chief justice, Cayetano Arellano, who served for 19 years from 1901-1920. But then, being the first chief, Arellano never served as an associate justice.

Justice Carpio has acted as chief justice several times for a total of over eight months—longer than some who had been presidentially crowned CJs, like De Castro (who served less than two months), Pedro L. Yap (less than three months) and Jose Abad Santos (less than four months).

As I close this piece, permit me to recall, in part, my toast to him on his 60th birthday, which is still true today: “Justice Carpio is a man of deep convictions and enormous moral courage. He is always guided by basic values like integrity, honor, patriotism and accountability. He hates forked tongues, two-faced Januses, grafters, and schemers. He backs up his conviction with resolute action. He never wavers or compromises his basic principles. To him, it is more important to be correct and to be honor-bound than to be titled grandiosely and to be damned in history.” Mabuhay!

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