Justice Jose A. R. Melo, 88
On Oct. 18, a beloved retired Supreme Court justice, Jose A. R. Melo, passed to the Great Beyond at age 88. He was the first appointee to the highest court of President Fidel V. Ramos on Aug. 10, 1992. Prior to his elevation, he was a much-admired presiding justice of the Court of Appeals.
Justice Pepe, as he is fondly called, was my first friend in the Court who steadfastly stood by me even before I joined the tribunal and, after I got in, who patiently mentored me on the little-known processes of the Court. He was the principal wedding sponsor of our daughter Marilen on Dec. 20, 1995. Even as we traveled (together with our spouses) attending judicial meetings here and abroad, we still conversed in our native Pampango.
I was fortunate to have been assigned to the same Court Division during seven of the 10 years he served. Because about 85 percent of all decisions were deliberated and promulgated by the Divisions (and only 15 percent by the Banc), I was given the opportunity to observe him closely at work. And even at leisure because we played golf and tennis on the weekends.
In my book “Justice and Faith” (1997), I wrote: Justice Pepe is “[t]he consensus builder of the Court and living barometer of its leanings and positions on various issues. He is respected by his colleagues for his objectivity, fairness, lucidity, and openness to new ideas and contrary views.” (p. 144)
And in another book “Reforming the Judiciary” (2002), I hailed him with four words that I thought aptly described him: mild-mannered, eloquent, loyal, and open.
He was mild-mannered in the sense that he was gentle, good-natured, friendly, and fair, yet not docile, easy-going, or subservient. Quite the contrary, he was firm and resolute in his convictions but tolerant of opposing views, always ready to hear dissents and, whenever necessary, to accept suggestions gracefully and humbly. What is more, he did not have a bloated opinion of himself; in fact, he felt uncomfortable when praised.
Eloquent he was with his actions, not with flowery words or verbal flourishes. No, he did not render people speechless by oratory or drama. More than bare words, it was his body language, facial expression, gesticulation, grin, and smile that communicated how he felt and thought.
Loyal to a fault he was to his loved ones — to our country, to the Court, to his wife Norma, to his children Olivia Anne, Jaime Alberto, and Jorge Alfonso, and to his friends. This is especially true when his friend was on the shorter end of an argument. Indeed, according to him, one did not need a friend when one was right. One needed a friend when one was wrong, to be consoled and empathized with while promising to do better next time.
Open and transparent he was, for, indeed, he could be read like a book. He expressed plainly what was on his mind. He did not embroider his language. Neither did he sweeten his opinions to mislead others nor massage their egos. He loathed high-powered rhetoric and highfalutin words.
Six years after he retired, then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo called him back to public service on March 25, 2008 at age 76 as chair of the Commission on Elections (Comelec)—after the Supreme Court invalidated three contracts entered into by the poll agency to automate the 2004 presidential election. As a result of this invalidation, the 2004 and 2007 polls were conducted manually.
With lessons learned, the Comelec, under his gung-ho leadership, courageously automated the 2010 presidential election. True, some of the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines failed to read the ballots during their test runs. Nonetheless, the 2010 automated election was successful as it installed a new president (Benigno Aquino III) with nary a protest from his opponents.
Thereafter, to give his replacement sufficient time to plan the forthcoming polls, Justice Pepe voluntarily retired from the Comelec on Jan. 16, 2011, well ahead of his six-year term.
Given the many defeats the Comelec suffered at the Supreme Court and the incessant media criticisms of the PCOS machines, I initially thought that Justice Pepe risked too much in accepting the chairmanship. After all, he retired from the Court with an enviable record of performance with no backlog at all.
For daring the odds and succeeding, Justice Pepe, to reiterate my piece on May 26, 2019, should be recognized as the “Father of Automated Elections in the Philippines.”
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