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Looking Back

Blocked from being chief justice

/ 11:24 PM December 15, 2011

There are two statues of seated figures in flowing robes on the wide steps of the Supreme Court building in Manila. I don’t know if they are silent sentinels keeping watch on the entrance to the Court. Perhaps they represent historical figures, former justices who were there to protect the institution. Maybe they are allegories of Justice or merely ornamentals, but they remind me of a thin frail man seated in a wheelchair in front of the National Library on nearby T. M. Kalaw Street. Apolinario Mabini is also found on the ground floor lobby of the Department of Foreign Affairs on Roxas Boulevard because he was a former secretary of foreign affairs. Now that the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court are under siege, perhaps they should remember the hero who has been over-simplified by the strange title “The Sublime Paralytic” because he himself almost became chief justice if not for the objections of Congress (which had the power to name the chief justice) and the intrigue sown by people around Emilio Aguinaldo who, as president, had to confirm the appointment.

On Aug. 23, 1899 Aguinaldo worked for the appointment of Apolinario Mabini as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Before that, Mabini was one of Aguinaldo’s most trusted advisers. As such, he was a lightning rod for political intrigue by the various factions and selfish interests groveling around the president. Mabini was said to be the head of a “camara negra” (black chamber) that exercised their “dark influence” over the president. In our times we had the “Midnight Cabinet” in the Estrada administration, the “cronies” in the Marcos administration, the “Kamag-anak Incorporated,” the insulares and peninsulares in the Cory Aquino administration; then the Samar and Balay factions in the present Aquino administration. Then as now, anyone who appeared to be too close to the president or exercised too much power or influence was cut down to size through intrigue. In Mabini’s case, it was his paralysis from polio that was twisted in the re-telling and led to the malicious historical gossip that Mabini lost the use of his legs due to syphilis!

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In disgust, Mabini resigned from the Aguinaldo government and nursed his wounds literally and figuratively in the hot thermal springs of Balungaw, Pangasinan. Many of his extant letters from mid-1899 were written in Pangasinan, some from the quiet town of Rosales, birthplace of National Artist F. Sionil Jose. It was in his quiet retreat that news reached him regarding his election as chief justice. Without waiting for the actual appointment papers, before he was officially notified, he wrote an article for the newspaper La Independencia, “The Supreme Court of Justice,” where he prematurely revealed his plans for the organization of the judiciary. Naturally, Pedro Paterno and Ambrosio Rianzares Bautista opposed his appointment.

In a letter to a friend dated Aug. 31, 1899 Mabini confided: “In the elections of the 23rd, the President worked hard so that I would come out as President of the Supreme Court and, according to news reports, we have been elected. I do not know yet whether this is true because I have not yet received any official confirmation.

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“Paterno and Rianzares Bautista, the present President of Congress, must be feeling very much vexed as they dislike me thoroughly. They believe that I am forming a political faction, since they accuse me of everything, when, in fact, I am so opposed to political factions. I shall be, yes, a partisan of the people and nothing more.”

In the Sept. 1, 1899 issue of La Independencia, the legality of Mabini’s election was raised by Rianzares Bautista hiding under the pseudonym “Zerzarian.” Could a handicapped person, “a man without feet,” be appointed or elected to such high office? On Sept. 19, Mabini replied in a sharp article, “Reply to a consultation,” maintaining that while a man without feet could be considered an oddity, it would be a greater oddity that a person without feet could discharge the duties of chief justice. Mabini then asked, “Does the job of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court require constant walking? No? Therefore, he can be a man without feet, as long as he possesses the brains and able hands for the office.”

Then Mabini concluded sarcastically by turning the tables on Zerzarian and asked “if [you doubt] the competence of a person to hold office on account of his inability to use his legs, what makes [you] think that his [issues] can be resolved by [me] a paralytic?”

Mabini is one of our underrated, under-appreciated heroes. It was he who ran the government of the First Republic without fear or favor and while he and Antonio Luna did not get along, they were the conscience of the revolution and had to be neutralized at all costs.

Luna was removed from the scene by assassination, Mabini was removed by political intrigue and character assassination. I believe that if Mabini didn’t resign, if he dug in and stayed in office, he would have been assassinated too. Mabini’s life and times have many lessons for our troubled times. Re-reading Mabini’s letters and articles makes me understand why some people think he was a prophet who saw our problems a century ago. But isn’t Mabini painful proof that history does not repeat itself, and it is we who repeat it?

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Comments are welcome in my Facebook Fan Page.

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TAGS: Apolinario Mabini, chief justice, Emilio Aguinaldo, political intrigues, Supreme Court
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