There’s The Rub

Search for justice

Frank Chavez had a most interesting reaction to Antonio Carpio’s bid to become chief justice. Carpio had earlier vowed to introduce much needed reforms into the judiciary if he should become so.

“Too late the hero,” says Chavez. “Carpio has not contributed to the realization of the reforms he is proposing now. Eleven years wasted. One does not have to be Chief Justice to provide the necessary integrity within the judicial system. Each justice of the Supreme Court is a firebrand unto himself to introduce these reforms.


“I would rather that the next Chief Justice come from outside. It would heal the wounds of the institution. It would also be a breather to the infighting within the court.”

I agree.


True enough, you don’t have to be the chief justice to stand for reforms, or create enough impact for them to be carried out in your time. The most dramatic case of it being Marcos’ time when it wasn’t the chief justice that embodied reform—he embodied lackey-ness—it was the dissenters. Chief of them Claudio Teehankee, who often dissented by his lonesome. Though Cecilia Muñoz Palma and Vicente Abad Santos were not far behind.

Indeed, you don’t even have to be a justice to stand for reforms, or stop the march of injustice and oppression, which is pretty much the only reform of any significance in our justice system. The human rights lawyers were so. They were the legal Oskar Schindlers of their time, the people who gave refuge and succor to martial law’s victims, not least of them the political prisoners. They created and defended the space, not unlike Plaza Miranda, that tanks and tyranny could not invade.

After Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Renato Corona in particular, the reforms you need to carry out are not administrative, they are substantive. The reforms you need to carry out are not structural, they are elemental. In fact, the only reform you need to carry out is restoring the public’s trust in the courts and faith in the justice system. Put more negatively and accurately, the only reform you need to carry out is to persuade the public to believe the justices are not for sale and there’s the shadow of a chance the poor might actually get justice in a court of, well, law.

Quite interestingly, while we’ve been busy looking for a chief justice, something has happened across the globe that shows what it means for people to have a reasonable trust in their courts, or at least for people not to see their Supreme Court justices as bought. Last week, in an astonishing reversal of fortune, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts voted for Obamacare, allowing it to win by one vote. Overnight, he became Public Enemy No. 1 of the conservatives, with the Tea Party and other batty extremist groups, which can only remind one of those groups in the Weimar Republic that brought Hitler to power, going on a hate binge, calling him all sorts of things. “Bought” was not one of them.

Here, that would have been the first thing said of him: “Nabili ’yan.”

I’d go beyond saying that we need a chief justice from outside to do away with the cretinous offspring of incestuous relationships and say we need a dramatic break from the past. The depths to which Gloria and Renato have plunged the judiciary call for someone who will, if not bring it to heights of glory, at least pull it to eye-level where it has a chance to be appraised and not found wanting by the public.

It cannot help Carpio’s cause that he does not represent a break, he represents a continuity. He is the public face of a firm that calls itself “The Firm” in celebration of its bigness and power. Forgetting that John Grisham used that term in his novel of the same name to refer to a legal group whose bigness and power came from serving only one master: the Mafia.  Or perhaps perfectly remembering it, boasting as it does all over the place that its “modest” accomplishments include making and keeping three presidents. Its letters to prospective clients carry variations of that theme.


We need a break from more of the same. No, we need a violent rejection of more of the same.

I myself would go for someone like Rene Saguisag, a human rights lawyer who risked life and limb to help the drowning climb the ark (“Schindler’s Ark” was the original title of Thomas Keneally’s book), a former public official who never used his power to abuse or enrich himself (his honesty is legendary), a grieving widower who remains inconsolable to this day but who has slowly pulled himself out of the pit of desolation. If only for the last, I’d find him the most qualified. I have absolutely no sympathy for people who can blithely move on, or call upon others to do so. Which was the mantra of the past regime, which was the law of the past regime. For sheer bravery, honesty and devotion, Rene should be way up there before the others.

Or from truly far afield, I’d go for Raul Pangalangan. Media do not lack for lawyers who like to inflict their opinions of law and life upon the world, but none has done better to establish the connection between the two than Raul. Most attempt only to pass off legal erudition, citing precedents for the way a legal tangle might be interpreted. Raul is the one I know who teaches law in the grand manner, whether teaching in class as ex-dean of UP Law or teaching in writing as Inquirer columnist, his analyses of issues showing an appreciation for the breadth of life as much as for the nuances of law. He does not just supply facts, he provides insight. Something we’ve little gotten from the fraternity of law and lawyers, something we badly need today.

In the end, you can’t go wrong by simply thinking that our search for chief justice boils down to one thing:

A search chiefly for justice.

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