Carpio's advice to aspiring justices: Independence will earn you respect

MANILA, Philippines – As Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio leaves behind a High Court packed with appointees of President Rodrigo Duterte, he has one advice to aspiring justices: Independence and consistency will earn you respect.

"I think the most important quality is independence because without independence, really, you cannot be an impartial judge and a lot of people are brilliant but it's difficult to be independent in our society.... But if you show that you are independent, they will respect you,"  Carpio said in a Rappler Talk interview with Rappler editor-at-large Marites Vitug.

Rappler sat down with Carpio on Thursday, October 17, a week before he retires on October 26, capping 18 years in the SC.

Carpio admitted it's no walk in the park to stay independent in the midst of political pressure. SC justices are appointed by the president and often decide on cases that have colossal impact on the executive branch.

But better to stay the course than to "play ball" with the powers that be.

"It's not easy but it's not also difficult if, from the very start, you take a position. They will respect you for that. But if you play ball, then they know that you can be persuaded, you can be swayed," he said.

"Better to stick to a position if you think it's correct regardless and they will respect you for that, everybody will respect you for that," Carpio continued.

Court under Duterte's shadow

Duterte has enjoyed an overwhelming winning streak in the High Court, leading critics to question its independence.

The Senate and the House are dominated by allies of Duterte, who continues to enjoy high public approval ratings past midway into his term. Meanwhile, the opposition remains beleaguered, leaving many to fear the lack of a check on his power.

Vitug asked Carpio what kind of leadership the High Court needs in a time of eroding rule of law. 

"The members of the Court look up to someone who is unwavering in adherence to the rule of law," said Carpio.

"If you are consistently defending the Constitution, consistently applying the law then you earn the respect of everybody," he added.

The High Court had sided with the Duterte administration in the hero's burial for dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the arrest and continued detention of Senator Leila de Lima, the constitutionality of martial law in Mindanao, the closure of Boracay, and the quo warranto ouster of Maria Lourdes Sereno.

In all these decisions save for the Boracay closure, Carpio was a dissenter. 

Carpio has also been vocal about his criticism of the Duterte administration's handling of China's claim to the West Philippine Sea, earning him a verbal beating from the President.

The retiring justice shrugged off Duterte's reactions saying "it comes with the territory."

Public can help

But Carpio also said the public can do its part in cultivating a culture of independence in the High Court.

One way is to criticize decisions justices make.

"If, for example, the court comes out with decisions that on the whole will not be acceptable to the people then there are mechanisms. There are lawyers who can write criticism and take on these decisions, there are the faculties of law schools that should also be writing critiques on our decisions," he said.

The Court, he said, would welcome such inputs from the public.

Carpio had been bypassed thrice for the post of chief justice even though, on all times, he was the No. 2, or the most senior after the retiring chief. He had declined his final nomination for the top post, since he was retiring just 8 days after Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin.

Carpio has never once voted in favor of cases of interest to Duterte.

Rappler’s 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.

With his and Bersamin's retirement, 13 justices of the 15-member Supreme Court will be Duterte appointees. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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