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Carpio’s enduring legacy

/ 04:07 AM November 05, 2019

On Tuesday, Oct. 29, the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication hosted a testimonial dinner in honor of retired Justice Antonio Carpio and his extraordinary two decades in the Supreme Court. I was one of four journalists (the others were Ellen Tordesillas, Vergel Santos and Solita Monsod, the iconic Inquirer columnist known to millions of TV viewers as Mareng Winnie) who gave or read testimonials. Allow me to post mine; I began with an impromptu attempt at what only the generous can describe as topical humor, and then I said the following:

Let me continue, perhaps unwisely, with some comments on a decision of Justice Carpio’s that I disagree with—because even when I think he is making a mistake, it is still an instructive, foundational one.

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Did I just say Justice Carpio made a mistake? I think we can remove any doubt about the lack of wisdom on my part; fools rush in where legal luminaries fear to tread.

But in Knights of Rizal v. DMCI Homes, the Torre de Manila case, Justice Carpio suggested that turning the Rizal Monument around, so that it faces east, with, as he writes, “the blue sky above Manila Bay” as background, would serve the interests, not only of justice, but of history itself.

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It is true that, among the many moving letters Rizal wrote on the eve of his execution, our national hero asked his family to bury him in a simple grave, with only a stone and a cross over it. But having studied Rizal in some depth, to trace his impact on Southeast Asian nationalism, I must say that I am not ready to accept Justice Carpio’s argument that “we would be faithful to Rizal’s dying wish” if we turn the Rizal Monument around, and have him facing east.

In his short life, Rizal faced the choice between personal preference and patriotic duty many times; in the end, he always chose duty. His wish for a simple grave was sincere and consistent with his character; but it cannot be, it could not have been, the last word.

He would have understood the dictates of duty — the same dictates that must have convinced his family, who met him one last time before his execution and must have heard his final instructions, to accept the Rizal Monument in time as a patriotic obligation.

I realize that Justice Carpio’s suggestion is only obiter dictum, but it is an important by-the-way. It seeks to ground the controversy in the larger context of history.

The larger context. That is the sense I get from reading his decisions. Justly renowned for his mastery of the letter of the law, earned during years of highly successful private practice and from service in the highest levels of government, Justice Carpio also and always approaches the cases from a perspective higher than that of the law. Or, to be more precise, he understands the spirit of the law in a broader, larger sense—and it is from this expansive perspective (think of it like the blue sky above Manila Bay) that his decisions are written.

A historically minded lawyer, Oli Reyes, suggested that Justice Carpio’s “enduring legacy” is the landmark ruling he wrote in 2003, Republic v. Sandiganbayan. Reyes wrote: “If catastrophe prevails and we need to rebuild our constitutional democracy,” the Carpio ponencia “will be one of the essential building blocks.”

In it, we find, written with the clinical precision that Justice Carpio is known for, both the powerful restatement of a historical fact, that People Power was in fact a revolution, and the abiding reminder of, again, the larger context: in this case, not merely international law, but the unalterable fact that the Philippines belongs to the community of nations.

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Justice Carpio wrote: “We hold that the Bill of Rights under the 1973 Constitution was not operative during the interregnum [that
is, the period between the revolutionary takeover of government and the promulgation of the Freedom Constitution]. However, we rule that the protection accorded to individuals under the Covenant and the Declaration remained in effect during the interregnum.” He was speaking of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Today, at a time when, out of pique or whimsy or self-indulgence, our government leaders are ready to deny our deepest ties to the international community, or indeed even to a regime of law, his words in Republic v. Sandiganbayan are a balm, the basis of hope, and a blueprint.

To end: Part of today’s larger context is Beijing’s assault on Philippine sovereign rights in the South China Sea—and as Mareng Winnie has reminded us, here Justice Carpio serves us, out of a deep sense of duty, as our country’s champion.

Perhaps there is another reason Rizal is facing west. He is an exemplar for Justice Carpio, standing guard over our Western shores. Like Rizal, Justice Carpio is a sentinel for our age, a patriot for all time.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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