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A Conversation with Adolf Azcuna

A conversation with Adolf Azcuna: His legacy & 'The Writ of Amparo'
HINDSIGHT By F Sionil Jose Updated June 14, 2009 12:00 AM

Associate Justice Adolf Azcuna of the Supreme Court

Since my bookshop is within walking distance from the Department of Justice, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, every so often, my customers are mandarins of the legal profession who, for so many years, have also reinforced my scant knowledge of the law. They include the late Chief Justice Enrique Fernando and, of late, the lawyer Saul Hofileña. During the last few years, however, my frequent mentor has been Associate Justice Adolf Azcuna of the Supreme Court. He has defined for me many vexatious quandaries in government, the wrinkles in the faded fabric of our free institutions.

His last Supreme Court decision, for instance, on the American marine who raped a Filipina resulted in the SC ordering the Department of Foreign Affairs to renegotiate the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. That treaty, according to Azcuna, did not give enough recognition to Philippine sovereignty. Convicted Americans should be jailed in local prisons, not in American facilities.

So once again, one lazy Saturday afternoon the other week, we were at Za’s Café behind my bookshop. Just retired at the mandatory age of 70, he does not look his years. Tall, suave — he could easily pass for a middle-aged movie star. But behind those macho and urbane attributes is, perhaps, one of the keenest legal minds in this country honed in academe, in the murky alleys of the Filipino reality as well as in its perfumed corridors of power.

Za’s Café is, of course, an Ermita landmark (this is a free commercial) and is the discreet rendezvous of politicians, government hierarchs and a few writers like Teddy Boy Locsin who journeys all the way from Makati to have an American turkey-style lunch on Thursdays. Adolf and I often settle for chocolate and Za’s gourmet ensaymada.

Most of us know that our courts are inefficient and viciously corrupted. Lawyers are known to write favorable decisions for the cases that they have won with grease; people say that such and such judge is “the best that money can buy.”

In a society where cynicism and apathy validate and exacerbate malfeasance of government, the ordinary Filipino must trust one — and perhaps the last — institution to provide him haven from persecution. What could that impregnable rock be? It is the Supreme Court, which is not only the final arbiter of the law, but hopefully, the unassailable redoubt of truth.

This being so, how may this court retain and fortify its credibility? As the third co-equal pillar of government the SC supervises the entire justice system. All judges and lower courts are its responsibility. It follows then, that it must oversee the system with unblinkered scrutiny, weed out its “crooks in robes.” The justices themselves must be transparent. Like all government employees, they must make public their assets and liabilities. This, Justice Adolf Azcuna has already done.

For all this burden heaped upon the SC, it is hobbled by so many obvious problems; perhaps the most trying is its miniscule budget. This is evident in the palpable and ramshackle buildings that pass off as houses of justice. Alas, the budget of the Judiciary is just one percent of the total national budget. To earn additional funding, the courts charge a “filing fee” — that is to say, when a case is filed, a certain fee is paid by the litigants. This fee is contentious because if it is too high, the very poor will be denied access to justice.

The Writ of Amparo, as initiated by Justice Azcuna, is perhaps the most meaningful rule that the Supreme Court has adopted to defend us. This is Azcuna’s enduring legacy to Philippine jurisprudence. Broadly, it is a “remedy to protect the right to life, liberty and security of every person.”

It strengthens the legal foundation of human rights, the writ of habeas corpus that protects the liberty of individuals by compelling the presentation of the body of a person detained without charges.

Amparo — which derives from the Spanish amparar, “to protect” — does more than the writ of habeas corpus because it grants “protection orders, inspection orders, and production orders in cases of extralegal killings and enforced disappearance.”

The writ was not legislated. The Supreme Court as mandated by the Constitution can formulate rules for the justice system and the writ is the latest of such rules.

The writ originated in Mexico as provided for the Constitution of the State of Yucatan in 1841; it was later incorporated in Mexico’s Federal Constitution in 1857.

Shortly after assuming his Supreme Court robe, Adolf Azcuna journeyed to South America to see how the Amparo Writ operates in that continent, notably in Mexico and Argentina. It also works in India and in the state of Minnesota in the United States. In fact, it is now included in the Protocol of the United Nations.

As a postgraduate in International Law and Jurisprudence of the University of Salzburg in Austria, Azcuna has long been familiar with the writ and its necessary adoption in the Philippines. In the dictatorships in South America — and, in more recent times, particularly during the Marcos regime, the “salvaging” of so-called enemies of the state and the unexplained disappearance of hundreds — these dictatorial brutalities demanded it.

Azcuna comes from Zamboanga. He graduated with honors from the Ateneo de Manila, placed fourth in the bar exams in 1962. He was a member of the 1971 Constitutional Convention and, yet again, of the 1986 Constitutional Commission. As early as the 1971 Convention he already began working for the adoption of the writ in the nation’s fundamental law. He was 32 at the time.

From 1992 to 2002, he was a partner in the Azcuna, Yorac, Arroyo and Chua Law Office.

Azcuna was spokesperson to President Corazon Aquino and later Press Secretary until 1991 and Presidential Legal Counsel from 1987 to 1991. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo appointed him to the Supreme Court in October 2002.

As Associate Justice, his major decisions illustrate his concerns for the welfare of the common man. For instance, he promoted the Justice on Wheels program of the Supreme Court patterned after the World Bank supported project in Guatemala; the use of mobile courts to improve the access to justice of the very poor and “encourage speedy disposition of cases through the alternative means of dispute resolution.”

Azcuna attributes the tremendous backlog of SC cases to the vaulting ego of Filipinos, to their penchant for filing cases when so many of these disputes can be settled by arbitration or dialogue. Then, too, such cases are the bread and butter of our surfeit of lawyers. Lawyering is a growth industry; for so many Filipinos it is the most attractive job — how people love to be addressed as “Attorney”! Our surplus of lawyers is also due to the perception that lawyering is the sure path to wealth — just, as Azcuna says, soldiering is the most glamorous and lucrative profession in Thailand.

Adolf Azcuna is married to Maria Asuncion Aunario, dean for the last two decades at St. Scholastica College. They have four children. Aside from being a prodigious author of law books, Azcuna is also a seasoned photographer.

On his last birthday — the day that he retired — his staunch ally, Chief Justice Reynato Puno, convened an en banc session of the high tribunal. In that special meeting, Azcuna reaped a rich harvest from his colleagues who unanimously applauded his early and dogged effort to make the “Writ of Amparo” actually work for the people.

Unwilling to lose a good man, the Supreme Court appointed Azcuna, Chancellor of the Philippine Judicial Academy, in Tagaytay on June 1. The Academy, with a faculty of 30, trains judges. Slots for judges are not filled fast enough because the salaries of judges are not all that high. Though all judges are lawyers, some are not thoroughly familiar with the workings of the courts. Since decisions are in English, many judges need refresher courses in the language.

Shortly after he left the Department of Education where he was Secretary, the brilliant scholar and educator Edilberto de Jesus told me of the gladsome presence of many excellent and diligent men and women in the bureaucracy. He said that, though they often receive dismal pay, loyalty to duty sustains them.

So then, this government will eventually be delivered from the quagmire — not by peacock politicians or by mealy-mouthed radicals but by these Filipinos of sterling faith, good will and compassion, working often in anonymous crannies and believing that truth is justice in action or it is not truth at all. Adolf Azcuna belongs to this noble breed.

Here are some of the questions I asked him:

Philippine Star: In your years as Associate Justice, what did you see as our greatest problem insofar as the justice system is concerned? And how may it be corrected?

Adolf Azcuna: The backlog of cases. It can be corrected by a systems approach: computerization, increase of budget for the judiciary, training of Judges, pursuing the Action Program for Judicial Reform (APJR).

Is morality, religion, or an abiding faith in God a necessary prerequisite in the making of a judge? Isn’t it enough that laws are interpreted as they are?

Probity, integrity, competence, independence are the requisites. A good moral character is part of that. Religious beliefs are left to one’s free choice.

You have served under three chief justices, Davide, Panganiban and Puno. There were those who questioned Davide’s decision to legitimize Gloria Arroyo’s takeover from Erap. I asked Chief Justice Davide why he did what he did, as a person and not as an interpreter of the law. He said he was afraid the military would take over. What is your take on this issue?

I was not a member of the Supreme Court then so I am not aware of its deliberations except through its published decision. I would rather simply abide by that Supreme Court decision.

Should the Supreme Court be activist, as is happening now?

The Constitution provides that it is the power and duty of the courts to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the Government. The exercise of this power and duty makes the courts “activists.”

It is the president who appoints the Supreme Court Justices. In the United States, the justices serve for life. What do you think of this system? Should judges be elected?

I believe our system of appointing judges and justices by the president from a list submitted by the Judicial and Bar Council is all right as well as the mandatory retirement age of 70.

There are voices critical of Chief Justice’s Puno moral crusade; saying that, again, the Supreme Court should be deciding on legal issues, not on moral problems. What is your view on this?

Chief Justice Puno’s moral crusade is a personal one and is not inconsistent with his position or office.

There is criticism that the Supreme Court is intruding into the prerogatives of the legislative and the executive branch in strictly economic matters, in legislating laws that it considers as rules. Is this criticism valid?

I subscribe to the philosophy (See, H.L.A. Hart, “Concept of Law”) that law is a fusion of rules and that these rules are accepted by society as having binding force because the people agree on the basic principles of what counts for law in our polity and how law may be changed and enforced. If this underlying agreement unravels we would be in trouble. That is why there is need to recognize and uphold the rule of law in every instance.
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