Remembering Two Pillars of Justice


(In Remembrance of Two Heroes – Chief Justice Teehankee and Justice Zaldivar by Chief Justice Andres R. Narvasa. Speech delivered during the Annual Celebration Honoring Martyrs and Heroes, Bantayog ng mga Bayani, November 29, 1995.)

To George Santayana, from his work “Life of Reason,” we are indebted for the oft-quoted aphorism that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The same thought has since found expression in many other ways, and is as true of nations as it is of individuals. In the context of what we celebrate today, perhaps it can be paraphrased, without any loss of meaning, in the statement that a nation that forgets its heroes is doomed to re-live the times that called for them.

Today we remember the martyrs and heroes of the Marcos years, and enter them into the scroll that lists the names and deeds of those others who had lived and died for this country since the beginning of its history. It is altogether fitting that we do so on the eve of the day when we remember all men and women of our race whom love of country had drawn to the altar of service beyond thought of self, often to the sacrifice of life itself.

As a member of the judiciary, I take special pride in the fact that two of those who graced it in years past have been deemed worthy to join those whose courage nursed and kept alive the flickering light of freedom during the dark years of the dictatorship. They have added new dimensions to service in the cause of law and justice; their lives bring home the lesson that heroism is earned in other battlefields than those of war, in the struggles to preserve a people’s free institutions – non-violent but no less perilous, no less demanding of great courage and resolution.

It is chiefly about these two jurists – Chief Justice Teehankee and Justice Zaldivar – that by your leave, I would speak this morning.

It was my privilege to be associated with Chief Justice Claudio Teehankee in the Supreme Court for a period of about two years, from my appointment on April 10, 1986 until his retirement in May of 1988 after a tenure of some eighteen (18) years spanning more than the entire lifetime of martial rule.

He was a man of enormous talent; my association with him served but to confirm what before I knew mostly by word-of-mouth and from published accounts of his scholastic accomplishments and legal and judicial career. His academic record was, to say the least, outstanding – A.B. summa cum laude in 1938, Ll.B. also summa cum laude in 1940, both at Ateneo de Manila, a brilliant performance capped by his taking first place in the bar examinations of 1940 with an average of 94.35%. Thence to a highly successful 25-year practice as a partner of the law firm Tañada, Pelaez and Teehankee (which later became Tañada and Teehankee). Then, bitten, as it were, by the public service bug, he joined the government, first as Undersecretary, later Secretary of the Department of Justice where he served until his appointment to the Supreme Court on December 17, 1968. In between, he found time to answer the call of civic duty, serving entirely in such organizations as the Civil Liberties Union, the NAMFREL, the Knights of Rizal, and others. He co-founded, with Senators Claro M. Recto and Lorenzo Tañada, the Nationalist Citizens Party.

To the Supreme Court Justice Teehankee brought not only the accumulated experience and expertise of close to forty years of law practice and high public office, but also the analytical and incisive mind of the born logician. He had a tremendous, almost photographic memory, a mastery of the English language and a good command, too, of the Spanish tongue. He combined a forceful personality with an unshakable confidence and imperturbable equanimity, and won the admiration of his colleagues with the unabashed respect and devotion, even reverence, for the Court which he conspicuously demonstrated. His was a great dream: of a judiciary independent and fearless, manned by men and women of genuine ability and unchallenged integrity, impervious to pressure and influence.

To a man like him, who though the way he did and showed it in every word and action, martial rule was rampant evil let loose on a helpless nation. His was the lone – or almost the lone – voice in the Court of that time that spoke out against the excesses of the martial regime, his that spoke out in defense of civil liberties and the supremacy of the rule of law.

Consider, for example, what he told the graduating students of the San Beda College of Law at their commencement exercises on April 21, 1979:

“The stock argument of the proponents of martial law is that the democratic process is often slow and time-consuming and inhibits the pace of development and there is need therefore for executive and administrative shortcuts that bypass the dilatory machinery of the legislature and the judiciary and that the people of a developing country such as ours are more in need and interested in their physical and economic well-being, food and industrial production, roads and bridges than abstract human rights which can come later. My view on this is simply that human rights and material rights go together and should not be presented to the people as alternatives.”

He stood by his principles and never wavered in his convictions all throughout the dark years of martial law, never overlooking any opportunity to speak out in defense of the Rule of Law, and in opposition to absolutism and oppression. He thus fell into disfavor with the President, and was twice by-passed in appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

On a personal note, he was a source of comfort and inspiration when I and a small group of fool-hardy individuals, struggled in 1985 to frustrate the manipulations in the Sandiganbayan aimed at negating the conclusions of the Fact-Finding Board that Senator Benigno S. Aquino had been a victim of a military conspiracy directly involving President Marcos’ Chief of Staff, Gen. Fabian Ver, and other senior officers. We lost those court battles. The Sandiganbayan ruled to exclude the testimony of Gen. Ver and the other military officers and men given before the Fact-Finding Board, and thus laid the predicate for their subsequent acquittal. When the Supreme Court quickly struck down our efforts to nullify those rulings of the Sandiganbayan, it was Justice Teehankee who raised his voice in dissent, in which he was later joined by Justice Vicente Abad Santos and Justice Ameurfina Melencio-Herrera.

The People Power Revolution of 1986 brought vindication to Justice Teehankee. He swore President Corazon Aquino into office, at her explicit request. Less than two (2) months later, President Aquino reorganized the Supreme Court, beginning with the appointment on April 2, 1986, of Claudio Teehankee as Chief Justice.

One of the first things done by the reorganized Court under Chief Justice Teehankee’s decisive leadership was to order the reopening of the questioned proceedings in the Sandiganbayan which, as I mentioned, had already acquitted the 26 accused in the Aquino-Galman killings. A fact-finding body composed of retired Supreme Court Justice Conrado Vasquez, and retired Appellate Court Justices Eduardo Caguioa and Milagros German, was appointed to receive evidence on the disclosures of collusion and pressures at the highest levels of government to procure a sham trial. In a resolution written by Chief Justice Teehankee, with no dissents and only three abstentions (Justices Feria and Fernan, and myself) (144 SCRA 43-101), the Court approved the report, nullified the acquittal of the 26 accused of the Aquino-Galman killings, and ordered a retrial of the cases. Chief Justice Teehankee closed his ponencia with the following stirring words, so characteristic of him (at pp. 93-94):

“Now that the light is emerging, the Supreme Court faces the task of restoring public faith and confidence in the courts. The Supreme Court enjoys neither the power of the sword nor of the purse. Its strength lies mainly in public confidence, based on the truth and moral force of its judgments. This has been built on its cherished traditions of objectivity and impartiality, integrity and fairness and unswerving loyalty to the constitution and the rule of law which compels acceptance as well by the leadership as by the people. The lower courts draw their bearings from the Supreme Court. With this Court’s judgment today declaring the nullity of the questioned judgment of acquittal and directing a new trial, there must be a rejection of the temptation of becoming instruments of injustice as vigorously as we rejected becoming its victims. The end of one form of injustice should not become simply the beginning of another. This simply means that the respondents-accused must now face trial for the crimes charged against them before an impartial court with an unbiased prosecutor with all due process. What the past regime had denied the people and the aggrieved parties in the sham trial must now be assured as much to the accused as to the aggrieved parties. The people will assuredly have a way of knowing when justice has prevailed as well as when it has failed.

The notion nurtured under the past regime that those appointed to public office owe their primary allegiance to the appointing authority and are accountable to him alone and not to the people or the Constitution must be rejected… While the appointee may acknowledge with gratitude the opportunity thus given of rendering public service, the appointing authority becomes functus officio and the primary loyalty of the appointed must be rendered to the Constitution and the sovereign people in accordance with his sacred oath of office…”

The rest is history. And Chief Justice Teehankee’s place in history would be secure, did it but rest on that single achievement which, however, is only one of the many for which he fitly deserves the accolade we now pay him.

Unlike Chief Justice Teehankee, whose fixed star was a career in law and the judicial system, Justice Calixto O. Zaldivar had a many-sided record of public service. Born soon after the turn of the century, on September 13, 1904, he finished his legal education in the University of the Philippines in 1928 and passed the bar examinations of 1929, with the third highest mark among the successful candidates. Following a brief stint in the law offices of Justice Jose P. Laurel, he struck out on his own, practicing law until 1962. Within that period, he also answered other calls on his talents and energies; at various times, municipal councilor of Pandan, antique; representative, assemblyman and governor of the same province; officer in the Judge Advocate Service where he rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel; assistant and later acting executive secretary and reparations commissioner, among others.

Appointment to the Supreme Court on September 12, 1964 came as a fitting capstone to a multifaceted public career that had ranged almost all branches of government, executive and legislative, administrative and military. He retired ten years later, on September 13, 1974.

Justice Zaldivar would not have been human if such a wide-ranging public career, such marked success in the political exercises of representative democracy did not inspire and instill in him a lively devotion to libertarian ideas and lifelong distaste for political tyranny in any form, for government imposed by force and without the free consent of the governed. That his faith in democratic processes and in the rule of law never wavered despite what may have seemed the hopeless prospects of opposing a well-entrenched authoritarian regime is evident in the opinions he wrote during the last two years of martial law. A striking example is his lengthy and well-written dissent in Planas v. Commission Elections, 49 SCRA, which questioned the validity of Presidential Decree No. 73 submitting to the people for ratification the proposed Constitution approved, after martial law was imposed, by the Constitutional Convention convoked a year earlier, in June 1971. Declaring that “(t)he rule of law must be upheld,” he said that the voting in the citizen’s assemblies mandated in PD 73 was not a legally effective vehicle for ratification, and that the subsequent Proclamation No. 1102 declaring that the proposed constitution had, through such a mode of voting, been duly ratified was repugnant to the 1935 Constitution. It was not my good fortune to know him, but I am certain that he fully merits the honors we now pay him.

The state of Israel had its Yad Vashem, a national memorial to the millions of Jews who perished in the holocaust and an enduring reminder to its people that tragedies of such magnitude, ravaging the imagination and almost defying belief, will never be allowed to happen again. Let the Wall of Remembrance you have put up fulfill a like purpose, and, by enshrining the memory of those who fought and died in the dark night of one-man rule, serving notice of our determination as a people that nothing like it shall evermore come to pass.