A Testimonial to CJ Puno

Delivered by retired Chief Justice Artemio V. Panganiban during the Testimonial Reception sponsored by the Philippine Chapter of the Asean Law Association – ALA-Philippines – in honor of Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno held on July 21, 2008 at 4 Ipil Road, Forbes Park, Makati City

We all love to remember the milestones in our lives. And we count them by the year. Thus, we commemorate a baby’s first birthday, or a daughter’s debut or a silver, a golden or a diamond wedding anniversary. But I have yet to hear of any couple celebrating their 100th wedding anniversary.

So, when the University of the Philippines commemorated its centenary a month ago, I thought it was something definitely special. And it became doubly special when the UP Alumni Association proclaimed its centennial awardees led by our Chairman, Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno as its “Most Distinguished Alumnus” (as well as our members, Supreme Court Justice Conchita Carpio Morales, Court of Appeals Justice Magdangal M. de Leon and Prof. Antonio A. Oposa Jr.). I was so impressed that during our last ALA meeting, I proposed – and you all unanimously agreed – to honor our Chief Justice with today’s testimonial.

Indeed, we all have reason to be joyful when our Chairman was proclaimed the best product of the best institution of learning during the last 100 years. It will take another 100 years for the UP Alumni Association to select someone as its best alumnus in the year 2108. By that time, we would all be in the Great Beyond and would certainly be unable to join the earthly celebration. Moreover, there is no assurance that the awardee in 2108 would be the chair of the ALA Philippine Committee for that year.

In proclaiming him its Most Distinguished Alumnus, the UP Alumni Association cited our Chairman as the “Shakespeare of the Supreme Court.” Indeed, I concur that our Chief Justice can write as grandly, as poetically, as romantically and even as tragically as the English bard. But as a member of the noblest profession on this planet, I dare say that our Chief Justice excels the Englishman. Was it not Shakespeare who wanted to eliminate all of us? Was it not he who wrote, “The first thing we do is to kill all lawyers?”

On the other hand, by being honored as the best UP alumnus, our Chairman proved that law is the greatest, not just the noblest, profession and the lawyer is the greatest professional during the last 100 years? Di gaya ni Shakespeare na gusto’y patayin tayo, sigaw ng UPing todo ay “Mabuhay ang Punong Mahistrado, Mabuhay ang mga abogado.”

Levity aside, ladies and gentlemen, the UP Alumni Association has every good reason to call our Chairman as the “Shakespeare of the Supreme Court.” The UPAA did not provide any proof for this assertion. Let me however fill that void. Witness, ladies and gentlemen, the following selected quotations from the Chief Justice:

“UP taught us – that on crucial issues, a UP alumnus has no right to be wrong. We must never yield the UP spirit for it is the spirit that will lead us to the doorstep of truth.” (Response delivered on June 21, 2008, Araneta Coliseum, on behalf of the UP Centennial Awardees, 2008)

“The Constitution is the refuge not only of the worthy, but also of the worthless; it is the fortress not only of the strong, but also of the weak.” (Opening Remarks delivered during the National Consultative Summit on Extra Judicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances – Searching for Solutions, July 16, 2007, Manila Hotel)

“By providing service to the least, you have been doing the most.” (Speech delivered before the Chamber of Thrift Banks, Shangri-La Hotel, Makati City, July 11, 2007)

“I pledge to do what is expected of me: to espouse no ideology but constitutionalism; to uphold no theology but the rule of law. The Judiciary has but one constituency: the blindfolded lady with a sword unsheathed. She represents justice, fair justice to all, (and) unfairness to none. I hope to be an instrument of this kind of justice.” (Media Statement on his appointment as Chief Justice, December 7, 2006)

One of my favorite quotations was delivered by our honoree in Iloilo on March 30, 2008 when he accepted an honorary doctoral degree from the Central Philippine University. This is a favorite because our Chairman reiterated his adherence to the vision I espoused when I was Chief Justice, and that is, that the judiciary must safeguard the liberty and nurture the prosperity of our people under the rule of law. Let me quote him:

“This country does not belong to the powerful. Nor does it belong to the greedy. It belongs to the Filipino whose spirit calls for honesty, for fairness, for justice, for liberty and for prosperity.” (Speech delivered on March 30, 2008 on the occasion of the conferment of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa by the Central Philippines University, Iloilo City)

Our honoree is not only a Shakespeare; he is also a Balagtas. Thus, on the 146th birthday of Dr. Jose Rizal on June 19, 2008, he declared in Calamba, Laguna:

“ang kapayapaan ay hindi lamang ang kawalan ng dumadagundong na digmaan. Ito rin ay nakasalalay sa pagkakaroon ng katarungan sa lipunan. Ang isang mapayapang bayan ay isang makatarungang bayan. Ang tunay na kapayapaan ay dumarating lamang bilang sariwang samyo na dulot ng katarungan.” (Talumpati noong ika-146 anibersaryo ng kapanganakan ni Dr. Jose Rizal sa Rizal Shrine, Lungsod ng Calamba, Laguna noong Hunyo 19, 2007)

Having provided the compelling proof that the our honoree is not only the Shakespeare but also the Balagtas of the Supreme Court, let me however confess that before 1995, I did not know him personally; I knew him only as a distant star. From afar, I had telescoped him as a jurist, a Department of Justice Undersecretary, Assistant Solicitor General, law professor, law practitioner and during his student days as a scholar and as editor of the “Philippine Collegian.” Before I met him as a colleague for over eleven years in the highest court of the land, we had no personal dealings or close personal friendship to speak about

Since I joined the Supreme Court in 1995 however, I came to know him more intimately. Of him I wrote early on in my book “Justice and Faith” published in 1997:

“Like a trained surgeon, he uses his pen with laser-like precision to separate and excise fabrication from truth and pretension from reality. In the process, he gives life to popular causes and libertarian ideals. Daring, gutsy and erudite, he – like Justice Holmes – oftentimes wages lonely battles against conventional wisdom with his stirring dissents and insightful opinions.”

Since Day One of my magistracy, I had observed him closely and can say without risk of contradiction that he has provoked some of the most memorable intellectual encounters I relished in the Supreme Court. His opinions are always well-researched, impeccably written, logic driven and methodically presented. That is why it is easy to concur in his ponencias but very difficult to dissent from them.

Although respectful of traditions, he is never methodized by analogy or imprisoned by precedents. Sometimes, he roams the unknown to blaze new trails and thereby become an occasional revolutionary. Later on, when joined by admiring colleagues or when his dissents are upheld by subsequent decisions, he becomes mainstream and traditional once more.

During Oral Arguments, he is at once the terror of lawyers but the authority for his colleagues. Always prepared and ready with his questions, he probes with the lenses of the curious and the broom of the diligent. Woe even to the most prepared counsel who cannot study thoroughly enough to answer all the penetrating questions hurled by our honoree.

But alleluia to his colleagues who are enlightened by the sunlight radiated by his scholarship and his ability to find the little details that make the difference between a landmark and a so-so decision.

I believe the greatest accolades to Chief Justice Puno come not from those who always agree with him, but from those who, from time to time, disagree with him honestly and sincerely but are convinced of the nobility of his intentions, the clarity of his thought and the inevitability of his logic.

It is said, and not without reason, that the Supreme Court is the last bulwark of democracy. When people lose faith in the other institutions of our democracy, either because these institutions have been incorrigibly corrupted or have become hopelessly subservient, or both, they turn to the highest court of the land. As we all congratulate ourALA Chairman for his well-deserved recognition, we at the same time trust that the institution he serves will follow his lead in bringing cheers to the desolate, hope to the desperate, bread for the poor and liberty to the captives.

My fellow ALA members, ladies and gentlemen, please raise your glasses and join me in a toast to Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno. Mabuhay po kayo Ginoong Punong Mahistrado. Nawa’y matularan naming kayo at mamunga din kami nang tulad ninyo.

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