‘Habal-habal’ justice of Visayas tries luck at SC

Lian Buan
(UPDATED) Justice Delos Santos penned the lauded Writ of Kalikasan decision that shut down the controversial Inawayan Landfill in Cebu City

SUPREME COURT APPLICATION. Court of Appeals Justice Edgardo delos Santos applies for a Supreme Court post for the first time. Photo by Lian Buan/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Son of a fisherman born in Palompon, Leyte, Court of Appeals (CA) Justice Edgardo delos Santos has decided this is finally the best time to apply for the highly-coveted spot on the Supreme Court bench.

Delos Santos, 66 years old, has been a Cebu-based CA justice for more than 10 years, with 40 years in the judiciary under his belt.

“I rose from the ranks, I think it’s a fitting note that I will end my government career on a higher level,” Delos Santos told the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) on Wednesday, September 26.

“My father wanted us to finish education, according to him I don’t want you to become a fisherman like me,” said Delos Santos.

The JBC is screening 13 applicants to replace former justice now Ombudsman Samuel Martires.

Humble beginnings 

From being municipal trial court judge in Dumaguete, Delos Santos applied for higher posts on the insistence of his son, lawyer Fritz Bryn Anthony who works at the Supreme Court. Delos Santos said he was content being a municipal judge, but the persistent son was the same child he had dared to pass the Bar Exams in exchange for him trying out for a higher position. 

Delos Santos obtained his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of San Carlos in Cebu. 

From Dumaguete, Delos Santos became Regional Trial Court judge in Bacolod, then Court of Appeals justice in Cebu. His son also encouraged him to give the SC a shot.

“I’m not used facing the cameras,” said Delos Santos, who was still visibly nervous after the panel interview.

Delos Santos came from humble beginnings, being known as the “habal-habal” judge of Dumaguete.

Without a car at the time, Delos Santos would drive 5 kilometers to ferry his family and himself to court using his motorcycle, a Honda Econo Power.

“All of us in one motorcycle, if it rains sorry for me, I have to drive my wife to PNB [Philippine National Bank] using a motorcycle and I’m wearing my barong,” Delos Santos said.

Delos Santos proudly shared that he and his wife had since been able to buy a second-hand non-aircondition L300, and now, a diesel Toyota Fortuner “payable in 5 years.” 

Delos Santos also shared with the JBC how, when his children were in college, he had to resort to asking promissory notes from Silliman University because an education plan crash left them out to dry.

“They didn’t know I was already a justice of the Court of Appeals, it was only after two years being a CA justice that I was able to fully pay their education. I didn’t reveal that I was a justice of the CA not only to protect my profession, for some it’s degrading,” said Delos Santos.

Writ of Kalikasan

Delos Santos, who is called “Edsa” by friends, penned the lauded Writ of Kalikasan decision that shut down the controversial Inawayan Landfill in 2016.

The Supreme Court upheld the appellate court in May this year, in a case that was highly politically charged at least in the local scene as it was challenged by Cebu City Mayor Tommy Osmeña.

Delos Santos said the Writ of Kalikasan case was among the decisions he’s most proud of.

“It was a ticking bomb, anytime it could explode, and will have disastrous effect on the environment. Just like what happened now in Naga, Cebu, that is a tragedy (that resulted from) the degradation of our environment,” Delos Santos told reporters after his interview.

Among the other notable decisions of Delos Santos is his affirmation of a murder conviction of fratmen in 2003, and another affirmation of the rape conviction of a fratman in 2012.

Delos Santos said he is not discouraged by the criticisms being hurled against the Supreme Court following consecutive controversial decisions.

“That is democracy, you can attack the judiciary, and we are public figures, we should not be onion-skinned,” said Delos Santos.

Constitutionalist

Delos Santos was quizzed on the constitutional question of the right to travel, with the example of the recent Supreme Court decision voiding former justice secretary Leila De Lima’s Hold Departure Order (HDO) against some personalities including former president Gloria Arroyo.

Since then, the Supreme Court has created new rules that allow courts to issue a precautionary HDO, but one that Delos Santos said he doesn’t agree with because it’s “ultravires” or beyond the authority of the judiciary. 

“It would be of doubtful legality…It would seem that it’s only the legislature who can do that, it is ultravires on the part of the judiciary, because the right to travel has been enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution,” said Delos Santos.

Associate Justice Marvic Leonen was the lone dissent in that decision, saying the rules are tantamount to judicial legislation. Delos Santos said he agrees with Leonen, adding that the change in the rules was like “amending the Constitution.”

Asked to choose between judicial activism and judicial restraint, Delos Santos offered an answer that shows he is a constitutionalist.

“There’s no need to interpret the law if it is clear. No need of deviating from the judicial interpretation of the law,” said Delos Santos. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.