Antonio Carpio

[OPINION] Paean to a patriot: Carpio and his selflessness

John Molo

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[OPINION] Paean to a patriot: Carpio and his selflessness
'We owe Justice Carpio more than we realize. A lot of things we enjoy today we owe directly to his efforts.'

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since “the best Chief Justice we never had” – as described by his fellow Supreme Court Justices – stepped down from the High Court.

Justice Antonio T. Carpio spent 18 years presiding over some of the most pivotal cases in recent memory. These were the cases that defined our nation, moved society forward, and at times, stopped what we thought was the inevitable triumph of the unsavory. The Davide and Sereno impeachment cases, the FPJ case, the Grace Poe case, the Mining Act case (void then valid?), the MOA-AD case (Bangsamoro), the PDAF and DAP cases (Napoles scams), and even the Falcis case (gay marriage). 

One year after his retirement, it is worth reflecting on some lesser known facets about this internationally-renowned statesman, as well as the lesson he taught by example: selflessness. 

Justice Carpio’s decisions were almost always short (for which law students are eternally grateful). Ask any of the lawyers who worked for him and they will tell you that he abhors verbosity.

On my first day as his clerk, my first assignment was to read the book Plain English for Lawyers (Wydick). His head executive assistant (a kind but steely lady) firmly told me I was not to do anything else until I finished that book. When I submitted drafts (in a disk), his corrections made it clear that if an argument could not be made in less than 15 pages, then there was no real argument to be made. These were precious lessons which I continue to share with my classes.    

As a person, he is very quiet and soft-spoken. Some people have equated that with weakness, and over the years, there have been attempts by some powerful litigants to intimidate him. One came in the form of a message, a veiled threat to smear his reputation. It didn’t work. Because no one – inside and outside the court – believed the smear campaign. That litigant lost, and they learned a lesson: trying to intimidate Justice Carpio is – to quote Carpio himself – dumb. I mean, this man stood up to China before anyone (not even Presidents) dared to do so. Justice Carpio does not bow down to anyone.

Justice Carpio embodies tenacity. One is tempted to say that he is unstoppable, but it’s more like he simply does not give up. Consider the issue he is most well-known for today – the West Philippine Sea dispute. Few know, (much less remember) that Justice Carpio first encountered the issue 25 years ago in 1995. As Chief Presidential Legal Counsel of then-President Ramos, he saw China seize Mischief Reef and how the nation failed to protect it or get it back. That experience formed the bulwark of his present strategy. He once told a group of scholars, China thinks in terms of centuries; we must expand our thinking on a similar scale. That’s tenacity. How many leaders can trace their advocacies back to even just 20 years ago?  

In the eyes of those who only want the best for him, Justice Carpio possesses an infuriating sense of selflessness and commitment to his principles. And he did this at great personal cost – several times over.

Every law student has read Lambino v Comelec, the landmark case that stopped the “cha-cha” (charter change) campaign launched by supporters of then-President GMA, who wanted to change our government into a parliamentary system.  Now, few remember that Justice Carpio was GMA’s first appointee to the SC. He was a rumored favorite to succeed CJ Davide. But when the Lambino case landed on his desk, Justice Carpio faced a choice: ambition or Constitution. What he wrote in Lambino told us where his moral compass firmly pointed:  “An initiative that gathers signatures from the people without first showing to the people the full text of the proposed amendments is most likely a deception, and can operate as a gigantic fraud on the people.” Ouch. No wonder he wasn’t appointed.

The last time he was nominated for CJ, President Xi Jinping was in the country. If Justice Carpio had kept quiet about the West Philippine Sea, his chances of getting appointed would have increased. But what did he do? He spoke up about it in Congress, at UP, and at Ateneo. Why? Because it was important for the country, he said. 

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This kind of selflessness is so rare, it matters. In an era of political disillusionment, we have witnessed Justice Carpio exhibit selflessness several times. Even Justice Arturo Brion (one of the greatest legal minds in recent Court history) has gone on record to say, “[F]or many years, we in the Court recognized him as our real leader.” The title may have eluded him, but the honor was given to him nonetheless.

Here’s one more truth I’d like to share. We owe Justice Carpio more than we realize. A lot of things we enjoy today we owe directly to his efforts. Consider cheap airfare. Once, the country only had one airline. Going to Boracay was like going to another country. (It was so expensive, my first time to go there meant a 35-hour boat ride.) Then-Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Carpio created the strategy that opened up the airline industry. Now, everyone can fly. And inter-island shipping or Ro-ro? Justice Carpio mapped that out as well. 

And of course the one thing none of us today can live without – cellphones. Justice Carpio was the Chief Legal Architect who broke down the telco monopoly in the 1990s. He made it possible for new players to come in. So while some telcos at times take issue with some of his SC decisions, I hope they remember that this man made it possible for them to exist in the first place.

Lastly, he is proof that you can achieve all of these without amending a single sentence in the Constitution. In a climate where we are told only a “RevGov” can save us, imagine Justice Carpio achieving all that. 

The retirement date of Justices coincides with their birthday. I took the time to write this as a way of thanking a selfless man, who has done so much at great personal cost. We cannot all be Carpios. But we can aspire to perform acts of selflessness, for he has shown us how. –

John Molo is a commercial law litigator who enjoys reading and learning about the Constitution and its intersection with politics. He teaches Constitutional Law at UP Law-BGC, where he also chairs the Political Law Cluster of the Faculty. He is the President of the Harvard Law School Association of the Philippines, and a past Chairman of the IBP Law Journal. He led the team that sued the Aquino administration and invalidated the PDAF.

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