Judicial activist faces ‘Don Quixote of federalism’

Gerry Lirio, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 13 2018 09:37 PM | Updated as of Feb 14 2018 12:33 AM

Former Chief Justice Reynato Puno (right) at a Senate hearing. ABS-CBN News file photo

“What's on the mind of President Duterte?” 

Former Chief Justice Reynato Puno surprisingly threw this question, probably wanting to know the parameters of his mandate, at a former Palace official who first asked him of his plans a day after news broke that the president had appointed him to head the 25-member consultative committee to review the 1987 Constitution last December 9.

The two were having dinner with friends at a Tomas Morato restaurant while the President had just left for a visit to India, and there was no way the former magistrate would get some immediate answers. 

Before the appointment, Puno met at least twice with Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, several months apart, to discuss the president’s campaign promise to federalize the country. 

In the first meeting, Medialdea reportedly tried to assess the former justice’s views on the President’s campaign promise; in the second, Medialdea broached the idea of him chairing a constitutional commission (yes, it was in the beginning), way before the President delivered his first State of the Nation address in July 2017.

But, because the 18 other committee members so named by the Palace are public figures, it would be a bit easy to understand the direction the committee might take. Among them are former Senate president Aquilino Pimentel Jr.; former Supreme Court justices Antonio Eduardo Nachura, and Bienvenido Reyes and 1969 bar topnotcher Victor dela Serna Sr.; and Fr. Ranhilio Aquino, dean of the San Beda Graduate School of Law. 

In the company of fellow great legal thinkers, Puno may have to recall and bring down his court gavel and read to them the Anti-Riot Act. He is after all the chair, first among equals.

The president swore Puno and the other 18 members into office Tuesday afternoon in Malacañang. 

But long before Palace advisers thought of him, Puno was already campaigning for changes in the 1987 Constitution. In fact, a day after he retired from the tribunal in May 2010, he agreed to become the “face and reason of charter change,” if only for the people, especially the lawmakers, “to see the value of rewriting the Constitution.”

Now 77, the man who penned the Freedom Constitution of the revolutionary government of President Corazon Aquino in February 1986 led the launching of a new movement named “Bagong Sistema, Bagong Pagasa: An Advocacy for System Change,” calling on the political leaders to take a closer look at the constitution.

Given the time and choice, Puno would like to expand the Bill of Rights. “We have the freedom of speech and of the press in the Bill of Rights of the 1987 Constitution,’’ he said.

“Shouldn't we include the right to free education and shelter, so that these become demandable from the government?” he added, reminiscent of what President Ramon Magsaysay once said that those who have less in life should have more in law.

“The 1987 Constitution was not a failure,” he once told ABS-CBN News. “It has served its purpose.”

The 1973 Constitution, he said, clothed former President Ferdinand Marcos, with dictatorial powers that cut short the powers of the legislative and the judiciary.

The 1987 Constitution that followed, he added, was meant to prevent another dictatorship, but it overlooked the need to address the balance of power among the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches of government.

“The dictator is gone, but the imbalance remains,” he said. “The 1987 Constitution has a provision on political dynasty, but it failed to check the rise of dynasty. The dictator is gone, but there are more dynasties now. We have to finish the job.”

DON QUIXOTE OF FEDERALISM 

Former senate president Aquilino Pimentel. ABS-CBN News file photo

Like Puno, former Senate President Aquilino "Nene" Pimentel wants to see the end of dynasties.

In fact, it was Pimentel, as local government secretary, who first attempted to end dynasties when he removed from office all elected local government officials after the February 1986 revolution and replaced them with officers-in-charge (OICs). It almost destroyed his political career and his chances when he ran for senator the following year.

Can they work together?

Pimentel worked with Chief Justice Hilario Davide in presiding over the impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada in 2001. While in the high tribunal, Puno handled many discordant legal voices.

But if Puno waited months for his Palace mandate to help change the Constitution, Pimentel has waited all his life to change the form of government to federalism, not as an ideologue, but as a personal conviction. This developed from his experiences as a young mayor of Cagayan de Oro, who had to wait for ages for the Palace to release funds for his city.

“Things would change for the better in a federal system,” he said. “The LGUs will develop itself to stand on their feet. No more waiting from Malacañang to move, like you are waiting for Godot.”

Pimentel has been selling the idea of federalism to decentralize power from what the Mindanaoans call "Imperial Manila" even when no one is listening, prompting people to call him the “Don Quixote of Federalism.” Now 84, he is sometimes seen rushing for an appointment in a wheelchair.

“I do not have the luxury of time,” he told ABS-CBN News in a text message.

Both Puno and Pimentel are deeply religious; Puno is a Methodist, Pimentel is a Catholic.

In the many times this newsman broke bread with him, the former chief justice would start with an opening prayer thanking the Almighty for the food on the table and seeking the grace of strength and wisdom to make the meeting productive. In all these gatherings, Puno was a quiet listener, keeping undivided attention even to a younger lawyer talking about the 1987 Constitution.
 
Like Puno, Pimentel goes to his appointment on time. In a recent luncheon forum he organized for young newsmen at Club Filipino, he left his food when Gotz Heinicke, resident representative of federalism advocate Hans Seidel Foundation of Germany, suddenly appeared before him. At once, he spoke about federalism endlessly.

Both Puno and Pimentel are eager to start working with the consultative committee, write a new constitution and later present it to the people for a consultation series. With the help of the other committee members, the two are willing to put on the line their remaining years to see the change.

More than what’s on the president's mind, the two said in separate interviews that they want to find out what’s on the Filipino people's minds.