Rina Jimenez-David from Inquirer/Opinion (At Large) October 29, 2006

A short, meaningful term

by Rina Jimenez-David
Inquirer/Opinion (At Large) October 29, 2006

HIS “tour of duty” as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court may be one of the shortest ever, less than a year, in fact: appointed to head the high tribunal on Dec. 21 last year, he retires on Dec. 7, when he turns 70.

But Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban’s term at the helm of the highest court of the land makes up for in significance and accomplishment what it may lack in length of tenure.

Doubtless, the past year or so has been marked by many important and precedent-setting decisions on cases elevated to the Supreme Court. And this is because in the past year, the Arroyo administration launched an extraordinary number of challenges to the political status quo: to the delicate “balance of power” among the three branches of government enshrined in the Constitution; to the Bill of Rights and guarantees and protections granted ordinary citizens; and, indeed, to the Constitution itself.

In what could very well be the final decision issued by “his” Supreme Court, Panganiban himself indicated that his legacy as Chief Justice would most certainly be judged on the vote on the “people’s initiative” to change the Constitution. The Court, he wrote, found itself at a “crossroads of history” and its decision would be remembered “either in shame or pride.”

Indeed, in the wake of the hair-thin majority’s finding that the “people’s initiative” is a “gigantic fraud,” an extraordinary attack has been launched on the Panganiban court. While the President has judiciously steered clear of any direct criticism of the Supreme Court decision, she did declare that the campaign for constitutional reform is still ongoing. But her allies in this effort have not been as circumspect. A lot of criticism has been aired regarding the strong and virulent language used by ponente Justice Antonio Carpio, in declaring the petition illegitimate, with some tracing his verbal assault to disputes and disappointments that members of Carpio’s old law firm have with the Arroyo administration.

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(IN)JUSTICE Secretary Raul Gonzalez, meanwhile, expressed “disappointment” in the Chief Justice’s tie-breaking vote, assailing what he called the “unusual haste” with which the Supreme Court disseminated copies of its decision. He read this action as the Panganiban Court’s way of ensuring that time doesn’t run out on the motion for reconsideration that may be filed before Panganiban’s date of retirement.

“Panganiban wants to make sure that he is still there when SC deliberates on the motion,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez also told reporters that while the Palace allegedly knew beforehand how the Chief Justice would vote on the issue, they were hoping Panganiban would at least abstain from voting. “We’re not happy, but we respect the decision,” Gonzalez added.

Significantly, Panganiban himself conceded that “pressure” had been exerted on him and the entire Court to vote either way on the “people’s initiative” petition, in public pronouncements of officials, including the President’s and Speaker Jose de Venecia’s, and in private.

There is talk, for instance, that a “term sharing” agreement has already been forged between the two most senior Supreme Court justices—Reynato Puno and Leonardo Quisumbing-and Malacañang. While Puno and Quisumbing voted with the minority, we have no way of knowing if their votes were indeed “quid pro quo” or were an honest reflection of their own study of the legal issues involved.

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IF I were Chief Justice Panganiban, I would simply shrug off all the cynical harping and speculation. There’s about a month left before his retirement, and the record of the “Panganiban Court” can stand any amount of scrutiny.

Former Senate President Jovito Salonga, an old law professor of Panganiban’s, assures in his foreword to Panganiban’s final book “Liberty and Prosperity,” that the Chief Justice “is not awed by all sorts of criticisms, whether from friends, well-wishers, skeptics or cynics.”

And while there were all sorts of doubts expressed as to his qualifications for the Supreme Court and his right to head it, Salonga notes that of all the men who have occupied the highest seat in the high tribunal, “no one came from the ranks of the very poor—until Art Panganiban.”

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THE STORY the “CJ” tells in his book (the last of 11 books he has published yearly in the 11 years he has been in the Supreme Court) certainly follows the template of many a “poor boy makes good” tale. Born poor, to a father who could not afford to go to college because he had to work to support not just his wife and four children but also his own seven siblings, Panganiban worked odd jobs as a boy-selling newspapers and cigarettes and shining shoes, and sleeping in the sidewalks of Manila waiting for the papers to be dropped off.

Though he graduated with honors from Mapa High School and given a scholarship in pre-law at the University of the Philippines, Panganiban recalls that he couldn’t go to the State University because his father could not afford even his bus fare from Sampaloc to Diliman. Instead, he obtained his law degree from the Far Eastern University, where he had the great fortune of meeting Salonga who was the dean of the law school, and attending classes given by prominent lawyers, some of whom made it to the Supreme Court. Granted a scholarship to Yale upon Salonga’s recommendation, Panganiban was frustrated once more when his application for a travel grant was denied. “I felt frustrated and defeated,” Panganiban writes.

How he rose from frustration and defeat, to achieving every lawyer’s greatest dream is indeed an inspirational story. But I will hazard a guess that his sense of ‘destiny,’ and how he sought to fulfill this in his years in the Court, arose not just from past experience, but from an inner fire and conviction.

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