It was a joint membership meeting of the Makati Business Club (MBC), the Employers Confederation of the Philippines, the Judicial Reform Initiative, the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines, and the Management Association of the Philippines last Friday, Oct. 18, at the New World Hotel in Makati. The testimonial to Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio was not jubilation for yet another career trophy won, nor was it a sad goodbye, for he will be retiring after 18 years in the Judiciary and eight days as Acting Chief Justice.
Since 2010 when he was most senior and qualified to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Mr. Carpio lost his chance — by his own doing — because he chose dignity and principle in lieu of ambition. It was due to sheer nobility of character that he did not want to be considered, when just before then-President Gloria Arroyo finished her 2004-2010 term, a vacancy was caused by the retirement of Chief Justice Reynato Puno in May. “But Carpio, the constitutionalist, believed that Arroyo should not be allowed to name the new chief justice because Section 15, Article VII of the Constitution prohibited appointments within two months of elections, or what are called midnight appointments. (In a ruling that year, the SC said midnight appointment ban does not cover the judiciary),” Rappler recounted in an Oct. 18 article.
Mr. Carpio again took himself off the list of Chief Justice candidates in 2012 when Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno (who had been the most junior among the 15 Associate Justices of the Supreme Court when she was appointed by President Benigno Simeon “PNoy” Aquino) was ousted as chief justice via quo warranto, a decision to which Mr. Carpio dissented. “I have to be consistent with my position, that the quo warranto is not the proper way to remove a sitting member of the Court. So I don’t want to benefit from the decision to which I disagreed,” he told ANC’s Headstart in 2018.
Few, like Justice Carpio, would have the delicadeza, or, more than that, the honor and right conduct to inhibit themselves from something that was advantageous to them. When Sereno was ousted, Teresita de Castro, one of the more vocal Associate Justices against Sereno in her ouster, was appointed Chief Justice and served for 43 days until her retirement. The next Chief Justice, Lucas Bersamin, another quo warranto assenter, was chosen by President Rodrigo Duterte, as De Castro was. When Bersamin turned 70 and retired on Oct. 18, it was not expected that Carpio would be officially chosen by Duterte as Chief Justice. So he is “Acting” for eight days until his own 70th birthday on Oct. 25.
“(He is) the best chief justice we never had, I agree with that more than a thousand percent,” Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said of Carpio on CNN Philippines’ The Source. The bravado is poignant — Leonen, along with Associate Justices Benjamin Caguioa and Estela Perez Bernabe are marked as having been appointed by President Aquino, and are the “outsiders” in the 15-person Supreme Court, with Carpio, often a dissenter in many issues involving the present governance. By the end of Duterte’s six-year term in 2022, his appointees to the Supreme Court will remain at 13 of 15, from which the succeeding chief justices will presumably be chosen.
Justice Carpio admitted “it is difficult to stay independent since SC justices are appointed by the president and often decide on cases that have colossal impact on the executive branch.” In an interview with Rappler editor-at-large Marites Vitug on Oct. 17, he said it is better if from the very start you take a position and stick to that position if you think it is correct, rather than “play ball” with the powers that be… they will respect you for that. He stressed that independence and consistency are required qualifications in the collegial judiciary.
“The members of the Court look up to someone who is unwavering in adherence to the rule of law,” he said. “If you are consistently defending the Constitution, consistently applying the law, then you earn the respect of everybody,” he added. “A review of the 34 most high-profile en banc decisions in the last 12 years shows that Carpio was tough on the executive and politicians,” Rappler said.
But at the testimonial lunch of leading business organizations for him last Friday, Mr. Carpio, ever the gentleman and professional, made no negative remarks about the government in his stately response, nor on how he has been personally and openly maligned and attacked for his opposing views on current issues. He is most known for writing the decision that upheld the constitutionality of the Baselines Law (which negated China’s revisionist nine-dash line of self-serving stretched boundaries that intruded into Philippine territory in the seas between China and the Philippines). It is for insisting on calling on the decision of the UNCLOS tribunal that the West Philippine Sea is ours, and not China’s — versus the new parameters seemingly allowed by President Duterte to win over China as political ally and major trading partner — that Carpio is loved by grateful Filipinos.
Justice Carpio recalled at his speech how he first brought the idea of formally filing the Philippine claim at the UNCLOS to former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, his “partner in defending the West Philippine Sea.” Their work together — he on the legal/constitutional side and Del Rosario on the diplomatic aspects — earned an unconditional decision in July 2016 that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea (in the South China Sea) and that China’s “nine-dash line” is invalid, according to the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
“I will be retiring from Government service in seven days, and, like my partner Secretary Albert, I too will continue defending the West Philippine Sea. In fact, when I retire I will devote most of my time defending our sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea,” Justice Carpio pledged to the Filipino people. His audience at the testimonial gave him rousing standing ovation.
It is not the end of the fight yet for Justice Antonio Carpio. “I’ve learned to pursue advocacies with more dedication, because if you want your advocacy to bear fruit, you have to press on and continue, despite all the odds,” he said in a CNN Philippines interview that commented how “his (WPS) advocacy has, in more ways than one, also cost him the chief justiceship because he clashed with President Rodrigo Duterte on China policies.” Mr. Carpio told CNN, “What is more important for the nation is that we preserve our sovereignty and sovereign rights because if we lose these, we lose that forever. That’s far more important than any position.”
In May 2017, Justice Carpio published an e-book, The South China Sea Dispute: Philippine Sovereign Rights and Jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea. It collects his over 140 lectures and speeches, including old maps and manuscripts “intended to convince the Chinese people that the nine-dash line has no legal or historical basis.” He declared at his testimonial that he will continue to inform the Filipino people about what rightfully belongs to us in the West Philippine Sea, and work 100% to protect and keep our property and moral rights over our inseparable territory.
Thank you, Justice Antonio Tirol Carpio, for all you have done, and for what you will yet do for our beloved Philippines.
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.