Antonio Carpio: Rock, anchor, patriot
In the flurry of words uttered about Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who retires from the Supreme Court today, one of his own declarations resonates loudly: that he is stepping down with no unfinished business in his docket. “It was a very long journey allowing me to write 935 full-blown decisions, 79 dissenting opinions, 30 concurring opinions, 13 separate opinions and four concurring and dissenting opinions, leaving no backlog,” Carpio said in a farewell speech after the flag ceremony at the high court on Monday.
Zero backlog is a virtual miracle in the Philippine judicial system, which is notorious for cases left hanging for years, decades even, so that complainants grow old and die without seeing the dawn, as it were, and injustice lies unresolved and festering.
And this is only part of Carpio’s sterling record in the high court where he served for 18 years, in the latter years constantly within a hair’s breadth of the top post but, by virtue of circumstances and factors including his own profound sense of propriety, ever distant from it. For example, having voted in May 2018 against granting the unprecedented quo warranto petition brought by Solicitor General Jose Calida against then Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, he declined the nomination to fill the post that she was forced to vacate, because he refused to benefit from her ouster.
It was a stance that his colleagues in the high court could not imagine; indeed, a number of the eight justices who voted to oust the chief justice gleefully accepted their nominations, notably Sereno’s successor who did so even if she had only a couple of months to hold the post before mandatory retirement. A scandalized Hilario Davide, himself a former chief justice, pointedly warned that the eight justices could be subject to impeachment charges for not deciding the cases assigned to them within the 2-year period mandated by the 1987 Constitution.
Carpio was bypassed in the three other times that he was nominated, but he served thrice as acting chief justice when the occasion called for it, such as when Lucas Bersamin retired last week with no replacement yet named. It was doubtless for Carpio’s unfailing sense of duty that, in the plaque of recognition awarded to him last week, he was described as “a solid anchor, a firm impenetrable rock, and an immovable tower of strength that holds the Court together when it truly mattered.”
But along with his work in the Supreme Court and his landmark decisions—among others, upholding free speech and religious freedom, and dissenting against the hero’s burial for the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the acquittal of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of plunder, and the grant of bail to former senator Juan Ponce Enrile for plunder charges—is Carpio’s personal advocacy for which this nation will always be indebted: to protect and preserve Philippine territorial and maritime sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea.
In 2010 he began research on the 9-dash line on which rests China’s claim to almost the whole of the South China Sea. “I went to the ancient maps,” he told Esquire. “I found out there was no 9-dash line throughout entire dynasties. It was started only in 1947 … ”
His work contributed hugely to the Philippines’ 2016 victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which declared China’s sweeping claim invalid. He has presented the Philippines’ position in international forums (through a world lecture tour sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2015) and to educate Filipino and Chinese peoples that the 9-dash line has no legal or historical leg to stand on (through the e-book “The South China Sea Dispute: Philippine Sovereign Rights and Jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea”).
He is “the staunchest defender of our country’s maritime rights and entitlements under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” remarked former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, during whose term the definitive arbitral ruling on the Philippine claim was won.
For his continuing advocacy, Carpio has raised the hackles of the Duterte administration, which has not been coy in showing its displeasure. But Carpio’s position cannot be any clearer: “The Philippines is fighting a legal battle not only for itself but also for all mankind. A victory for the Philippines is a victory for all states, coastal and landlocked, that China has shut out of the global commons in the South China Sea.”
Committed. Principled. Consistent. Thus the cliché mouthed by his many admirers: Antonio Carpio is the best chief justice the Philippines never had. A tired turn of phrase, to be sure, but how it rings true.
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