Very few public officials were like Haydee Yorac who could be held in such high regard by her countrymen for her integrity and intelligence in government service.
Yorac was among the first batch of persons who were rounded up upon the declaration of martial law. Released from Camp Crame after several months, she thereafter distinguished herself as an exacting professor at the University of the Philippines college of law. She also volunteered her services to the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), staying in the background most of the time. In 1981 she earned a master of laws degree at Yale University in the United States.
It was after the dictatorship’s ouster in 1986 that Yorac emerged as a key figure in the Filipino people’s clamor for a thoroughgoing change in the values held by the nation’s leadership – the corruption, nepotism and greed that were hallmarks of Marcos’ long rule.
At the Commission on Elections, which she served as chairman from 1989 to 1999, her firm grasp of the law and, more importantly, her principles, restored the people’s faith in the democratic process of choosing their leaders. She also tried to build institutional strength through collective decision-making, role modeling, and firm but compassionate leadership. It was a difficult job for which she was uniquely suited, as she refused to be allied or influenced by the traditional political groupings or clans that were trying to make a comeback.
Her next stint in a high-profile government position was as chair of the Presidential Commission on Good Government from 2001 to 2005. This was a most formidable challenge, which meant fighting the Marcos family with all the resources they still commanded, as well as undertaking a massive housecleaning operation within the bureaucracy itself. She did her best within the limitations, and in 2003 won a Supreme Court decision that recovered $700 million for the government in Marcos ill-gotten wealth that had been frozen for years. She also won a decision that declared the coconut levy funds (collected from farmers during the dictatorship) to be public money and not privately-owned as claimed by Marcos crony Eduardo Cojuangco Jr.
Yorac received a Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service in 2004, and other marks of public recognition as well. (Ironically, however, she lost when she ran for the Senate in 1998.)
As a private person, Yorac treasured the company of her family and friends, and she enjoyed good food, books and films. She continued to work after a stroke in 2003, but died from cancer in 2005.
 She defended the artists Lino Brocka and Behn Cervantes from charges of inciting to sedition in 1984. For a more detailed narrative of Yorac’s life, see Lorna K. Tirol’s biography in the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation’s website.