Duterte’s best choice for Chief Justice

I  support the appointment  of Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio to head our judiciary.  He is the best choice of any President for Chief Justice. He is President Duterte’s best choice.

Justice Carpio should be appointed Chief Justice because of his experience, competence, wisdom,  integrity and wisdom. He has shown this in many cases and especially because of his advocacy on the West Philippine Sea. I say this without qualification even if I have disagreed with Justice Carpio on the citizenship rights of foundlings and on the rights of indigenous peoples, as in my view respect for these fundamental rights far outweigh any theoretical harm that might be caused to our nation by these vulnerable and marginalized populations. Even with these disagreements, I consider Justice Carpio a true patriot, the strongest defender of the Constitution and our national sovereignty at this time, a legal giant, and a senior statesman.

Justice Carpio is a veteran of government, serving in both the executive and judicial branches for more than twenty years. He served as Chief Presidential Legal Counsel to President Fidel V. Ramos (FVR) from 1992-1998 and I personally knew him in that capacity as I was an environment undersecretary at the same time.  

‪I also proudly claim several other affiliations with Justice Carpio—a shared name, similar place of origin Mindanao, the same undergraduate dorm (Cervini Hall) and college (Ateneo de Manila University), and a common legal education (the University of the Philippines College of Law). Both of us have also taught in our law alma mater, although I was still a student when he was a favorite tax professor of UP Law.

Familiar with both his legal and governance work, I can affirm that Justice Carpio approaches his role in government as a problem solver. Among others he has been recognized for the brilliance and political will he showed when he led the FVR administration’s effort to  break the telecommunications monopoly of PLDT. In a commencement speech he delivered last year at the Ateneo School of Government, Justice Carpio reflected on that experience:

 “I remember clearly how it happened. One day the President called me to his office and told me that the PLDT people were bad-mouthing me. Then the President asked me: “Where is that Executive Order on interconnection that you prepared. I will sign it now.” So, I rushed back to my office to send the President the Executive Order for his signature. And that is how we broke the telecom monopoly. Soon, four new telecom players entered the market, and they were promptly interconnected with PLDT. Some of these new telecom players offered fixed landlines within two weeks from application. Others offered on demand mobile handsets for free in exchange for long-term subscriptions. The 15-year waiting time to get a landline was obliterated by the stroke of the President’s pen.”

Justice Carpio emphasized the lesson from that experience. According to him: “There are critical bottlenecks in our economy that severely obstruct development. Many of these bottlenecks can easily be removed by mere executive action if there is political will from the President. Yes, political will is absolutely needed but unfortunately there is often a scarcity of political will. The opening of the telecom industry in 1993 was timely because it prepared the economy for the digital age – for the coming of the internet, the call centers and the BPO industry. The ease of access to land and mobile lines increased the velocity of business transactions and leveled the playing field.”

Justice Carpio was appointed Associate Justice of the  Supreme Court by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on October 26, 2001. He is now the most senior member of the Court and has been in that eminent position for nearly a decade now.

As a constitutional  law and international law professor myself, I have studied Carpio jurisprudence and his work on the South China Sea, and it is truly spectacular – brilliant, visionary, and committed to the highest aspirations of the constitution and people.

As I have written before, the appointment of a Chief Justice is one of the most important decisions a President can make. In 2012, I wrote that in making this historic decision, the president must avoid appointing a person for mainly political reasons. It would be a huge mistake if this appointment will be made for reasons other than national interest.  At the same time, it is very clear to me, that politically, a Carpio appointment as Chief Justice would work very well for President Duterte.

Among others, such a move would be universally praised. As I wrote last Tuesday, even the International Criminal Court would take notice and will probably take such an appointment into account in its determination of complementarity – whether the Philippines has the domestic accountability mechanisms to address crimes against humanity that might have been committed here. Appointing Justice Carpio Chief Justice is a very loud signal that the Philippines has an independent judiciary and it can be trusted to hold people accountable.

The next chief justice must have integrity, exceptional intellectual capacity, imagination, independence, and political skills to lead the high court in  a time of many challenges. He or she must be able to stand up to those who would block progress towards a transformed judiciary that would support governance reforms, uphold the rule of law and be a bastion for social justice.

In my view, the obvious choice is no other than Justice Carpio. Aside from the imperative of restoring the seniority tradition, which I argued in favor of in my previous column, Justice Carpio’s record as public official and Supreme Court justice is there for us to examine and evaluate.

Justice Carpio’s decisions, whether in majority or dissent, are always solid, scholarly, oriented to good outcomes for the country. He is usually on the right side of environmental, social justice and public accountability cases. He knows the court and the judiciary inside and out, and will be able to outmaneuver opponents to reform while winning to his side the many still on the fence. As Justice Marvic Leonen observed in a Rappler interview, the Supreme Court only got better whenever Justice Carpio became Acting Chief Justice.

A Chief Justice Antonio Carpio would be very good for President Duterte. A Chief Justice Carpio would be wonderful for the country.


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