Justice Antonio T. Carpio:’the best chief justice we never had’

Last Friday was Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio’s last working day at the Supreme Court. The next day, Oct. 26, he retired on his 70th birthday after 18 years of dedicated and distinguished service in the Supreme Court.

I would like to give tribute to Justice Carpio and honor him for his patriotism – the elusive love of country amongst us – with his work in the High Tribunal and our national sovereignty that we only know too well.

Justice Carpio is widely regarded as “The Best Chief Justice We Never Had!” - the ultimate accolade that is shared even by non-lawyers, as well as his colleagues in the Supreme Court. Senior Justice Marvic Leonen affirmed it “more than one thousand percent” in a recent interview with CNN Philippines. The highly-respected magistrate also revealed that the “Supreme Court becomes more stable every time Carpio is the Acting Chief Justice,” which he had been many times since 2012 up to this week in 2019.

In the Makati Business Club Testimonial last week, former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban disclosed that the position of Acting Chief Justice thatCarpio held for more than eight months is even longer that the less than two months of Chief Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro in 2018 and the less than three months of Chief Justice Pedro Yap in 1988. Indeed, even the combined two terms of Chief Justices De Castro and Yap of four months are only half of the eight months of Senior Justice Carpio.

Retired Chief Justice Panganiban also shared the good news that the colleagues of Justice Carpio in the Supreme Court have granted him the privileges of a Chief Justice. “His peers unanimously granted him the retirement privileges of a Chief Justice. I think this is the least the Court could do for its esteemed member who faithfully served the longest term as Associate Justice.” Indeed, Justice Carpio is one of the longest-serving magistrates with almost two decades of service with our country’s High Tribunal.

The touching unanimous resolution of the Supreme Court is rightly giving Justice and Recognition to what is due to Antonio T. Carpio, the longest-staying Senior Associate Justice and "the Chief Justice that We Never Had." Justice Carpio is highly respected by his own colleagues in the past 18 years. He may be the last of the kind.

As Senior Justice Leonen said, he is the “Justices’ Justice” and they try to “emulate him in his mold.” Recently retired Chief Justice Bersamin also recognized Carpio’s leadership and that he could not imagine a court deliberation without Carpio. Chancellor Adolf Azcuna of the Philippine Judicial Academy , who retired as Supreme Court Justice in 2009, said that Justice Carpio “brings out the best in the task of finding the law’s meaning and it was a joy and honor to have worked with him.”

In a span of almost ten years, Justice Carpio missed four chances of becoming the Chief Magistrate. He was bypassed twice by two pathetic presidents and twice declined his automatic nomination as the most senior among the Supreme Court justices.The first was in May 2010 when he dissented against the Supreme Court’s decision allowing President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to appoint a Chief Justice despite a constitutional prohibition against such “midnight” appointments. The other was when Maria Lourdes Sereno was ousted as Chief Justice in May 2018 via the controversial quo warranto.

Justice Carpio did not accept the automatic nomination out of principle or delicadeza, which made myriad Filipinos and foreigners alike admire and respect him.

Unfortunately, his principled decision not to accept the nomination due to his dissenting opinion on the quo warranto case of CJ Sereno did not endear him to the incumbent President. It was used as a specious excuse not to appoint Carpio as Chief Justice in November 2018. It sadly happened despite the most senior magistrate accepting the nomination and going through the process of applying for the position of Chief Justice.

It is common knowledge that the real reason why President Rodrigo Roa Duterte did not appoint Carpio as Chief Justice was because of latter’s staunch advocacy for our sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), which is diametrically opposed to the shameless pro-China position of the President. The former Davao City Mayor has severely criticized and insulted Carpio despite his much-admired scholarly statements based on the pertinent provisions of our Constitution and of international law.

Our victory with the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague on 12 July 2016 can be attributed to arduous work done by Justice Carpio, who did the amazing research to debunk the ludicrous nine-dash line claim of China. After consultation with Filipino and foreign experts, he initiated the filing of the case with Arbitral Tribunal in 2013 where the Philippines won the landmark maritime case against China. His advocacy in the WPS began in 2012 after China flagrantly occupied Scarborough Shoal.

(There are more than 30 maps of the Philippines hanging on the walls of Justice Carpio’s office at the Supreme Court that show the awesome serious research he had done in his dedicated advocacy in the WPS.)

In 2017, Justice Carpio published his authoritative book, “The South China Sea Disputes: Philippine Sovereign Rights and Jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea.” This collectors’ item book contains the Philippine maps and the research work done that greatly helped win our case in The Hague a year earlier on 2016. As he exhorted in the dedication of the copy of the said book that he gave to me: “Let us continue defending the West Philippine Sea for the present and future generations of Filipinos.”

In his last five months in office, Justice Carpio wrote two important decisions – his “huling hirit” (last hurrah) - that will save MERALCO customers several Trillion Pesos in the next two decades. Together with other ten justices, Carpio penned the Supreme Court decision (11-2) cancelling the seven Power Supply Agreements (PSAs) that Meralco entered into for 20 years without the required bidding in compliance with the Competitive Selection Process (CSP). It was allowed by the super-corrupt Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) whose chairman was fired by no less than President Duterte for corruption in November 2017.

The second was the unanimous Supreme Court decision that nullified the ERC’s adoption of the current or replacement cost in the valuation of Meralco’s Regulatory Asset Base. In an en banc session, Justice Carpio wrote the decision that would effectively provide electricity to consumers in the “Least Cost Manner.” Thus, the High Tribunal decision championed the consumers rights of the many million Meralco customers by ordering the ERC to review its approval of Meralco’s unbundled rates.

Former Senator Rene A. V. Saguisag, who was appointed Supreme Court Justice in 1987 but respectfully declined, wrote in his Manila Times column last week that he would have preferred Carpio as the Chief Justice. However, the erstwhile presidential legal counsel revealed that “there are Justices who are better-remembered than Chief Justices themselves” and cited the late Justice J. B. L. Reyes and others like US Supreme Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. as examples Indeed, Chief Justices can come and go without much distinction of notice and even serving for a short period of time.

Being hailed as “the Chief Justice that We Never Had” is actually even better that being appointed as Chief Justice itself. Lawyers and non-lawyers alike, as well as judges and justices admire and acknowledge Carpio as a person of probity with the independence of a brilliant legal mind. This is truly the ultimate recognition of the distinguished work that Justice Antonio T. Carpio, a true patriot and a statesman, has rendered with our Supreme Court and to the Filipino people. Mabuhay!

(The author is the Managing Director of the Pilipinas Sandiwa Heritage Foundation, Inc, an non-government organizations that works for good governance.)

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