MANILA – After 18 years, more than 900 decisions and no backlog, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio leaves the Supreme Court this week as acting Chief Justice, hailed by his colleagues as the quintessential scholar, a patriotic Filipino and a leader.
"The Honorable Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio, through his participation and leadership, defined an era of the Supreme Court of the Republic of the Philippines," said Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, reading out loud the SC magistrates’ plaque of appreciation for Carpio who attended his last flag raising ceremony Monday.
"Indeed, [he] has earned his place in the history of the Supreme Court. Many of his writings have become canonical. Many more would become so. He will be known as the quintessential scholar, a patient mentor, an enlightened and patriotic Filipino, a passionate and just jurist. And above all else, a leader for the judiciary,” he added.
All but one of his fellow-justices were present during the ceremony. SC employees were clad in blue, red, yellow and white – the colors of the Philippine flag.
A prolific and highly-respected jurist, Carpio penned 935 full blown long decisions, 79 dissenting opinions, 30 concurring opinions, 13 separate opinions and 4 concurring and dissenting opinions, with no backlog in his almost 2 decades in the high court.
His writings, according to his colleagues, were "clear, erudite, strategic and always with a perspective towards insisting on a just result that should benefit the Filipino people."
He wrote the 2002 decision in Chavez v. Public Estates Authority and Amari Coastal Bay Development Corp. which upheld the public’s constitutional right to information on matters of public concern, even in on-going negotiations before a final contract, subject to certain conditions.
Consistent with the public’s right to know, he dissented to a ruling which allowed former National Economic and Development Authority director-general Romulo Neri to withhold information about his conversation with former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on the NBN-ZTE deal on the basis of executive privilege.
He also concurred in declaring government officials’ warning to the media against publishing the Hello Garci tape unconstitutional for being a form of prior restraint.
In 2006, he convinced fellow-magistrates to declare unconstitutional the Arroyo-backed Sigaw ng Bayan people’s initiative intended to introduce changes to the 1987 Constitution. He called the initiative that aimed to gather signatures without showing the full text of the proposed changes “most likely a deception” that can operate a “gigantic fraud” on the public.
In 2011, he wrote the decision upholding the Philippine Baselines Law as being consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which paved the way for the South China Sea arbitral ruling.
Carpio had also consistently voted to hold public officials to account.
He penned the decision upholding the plunder charge against former Sen. Jinggoy Estrada and voted to strike down the Priority Development Assistant Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel and the condonation doctrine, which considers the elective officials’ reelection as the public’s forgiveness of their faults or misconduct.
He opposed the rulings which: allowed former President Joseph Estrada to run for public office, acquitted Arroyo of plunder, granted former senator Juan Ponce Enrile's plea to post bail and allowed dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
Under the Duterte administration, Carpio often voted with the minority.
He opposed the rulings that declared valid the arrest of detained Sen. Leila de Lima and the ouster of former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno through a quo warranto petition.
And while he initially voted to limit martial law in Mindanao to Marawi City, he dissented to the rulings upholding the legality of its subsequent extensions.
His final act before leaving the high court is to vote, again with the minority, to junk the election protest of 2016 vice presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr.
Despite his dissenting opinions, Carpio’s fellow-justices recognized that his opinions served as the "platform that elevated discussion for all his colleagues."
"His writings reveal the wisdom that he patiently evolved throughout his career as a lawyer, professor of law, Chief Legal Counsel for the Office of the President, and also as Senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court,” they said.
PATRIOT AND ADVOCATE
But Carpio is best known for his advocacy in fighting for Philippine interests in the West Philippine Sea.
From collecting maps that served as evidence submitted to the arbitral tribunal which later invalidated China’s nine-dash line to vocally criticizing the government’s inaction in enforcing the arbitral tribunal’s ruling and denouncing deals that favor Chinese interests, Carpio broke the mold of usually quiet magistrates – something some of his colleagues are not willing to do but which they respect.
"Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio is both a statesman and a patriot. His effort to protect our national sovereignty and ensure accountability of all government officials remains tireless, unceasing and enlightening. His knowledge and applied wisdom of national and international law is unparalleled," the plaque of recognition they gave him said.
With his retirement, he told reporters last week, he hopes to continue his crusade and remain a strong defender of Philippine territory.
Perhaps Carpio’s biggest contribution to the judiciary is serving as the acting chief justice during unstable times when SC was rocked with controversies.
He was acting chief justice when former Chief Justice Renato Corona was deposed by impeachment proceedings in 2012 and when Sereno was ousted in 2018, both in connection with non-submission or failure to accurately declare assets in their statements of assets, liabilities and net worth.
His colleagues credited him for bringing stability to the Court.
"When needed and on many occasions that the Office of the Chief Justice was vacant, he took on the mantle of leadership for the Court, comfortably and without hesitation. His leadership provided the stability for the institution," they said.
"He is always a solid anchor, a firm, impenetrable rock, an immovable tower of strength that holds the core together when it truly matters,” they added.
CONTROVERSIES, LOST CHANCES FOR CHIEF JUSTICE
Carpio himself was not immune from controversies.
He was once accused publicly by Corona of plotting to replace him – a claim he denied – while his rift with Arroyo is widely-believed to have cost him a chance at the top magistrate post.
In 2018, he again vied for chief justice to replace then-Chief Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro but President Duterte, whose policies on the West Philippine Sea he disagrees with, chose recently-retired Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin instead.
But his sense of delicadeza also prevailed on at least 2 occasions, according to former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban’s newspaper column.
Despite being the most senior justice in the running to replace then-Chief Justice Reynato Puno in 2010, he declined his automatic nomination for chief justice believing Arroyo cannot make a midnight appointment a few days after the national elections.
He also declined to replace Sereno, saying he should not benefit from a ruling he opposed.
And just before he retires from the SC, Carpio declined the nomination to replace Bersamin refusing to be “Mr. One-Day Chief Justice,” Panganiban revealed.
For Carpio, what is more important now is to pursue advocacies with more passion.
During the flag ceremony, he shared he has mixed emotions on leaving the Supreme Court.
"As I return here to this spot where I started my journey before the SC family, a flag ceremony one fine day 18 years ago, I am both happy and sad,” he told SC employees and fellow-justices.
“Happy because I have done my best to serve our people, and sad because I am bidding farewell to my family of the last 18 years."
He added: "I dare say that my colleagues in the en banc and my co-workers in the SC family have always shown utmost dedication and professionalism in their work and service to the Filipino people. So let me say a big thank you to all of you.”
Carpio officially retires on October 26, one of the longest-serving SC associate justices in history.