MANILA — For many law students, his name is almost synonymous to constitutional law. For government officials, including Supreme Court magistrates themselves, his expert advice on constitutional issues was sought after.
Fr. Joaquin Bernas, one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, was easily the most influential commentator on Philippine constitutional law — a legal luminary whose impact on educating generation after generation of lawyers will continue long after his death early Saturday morning at the age of 88.
AUTHORITY ON CONSTITUTIONAL LAW
His commentary on the 1987 Constitution, a 2-and-a-half-inch-thick book that parses the provisions of the Constitution detailing their history, interpretation in jurisprudence and even some citations to records of the deliberations of the 1986 Constitutional Commission (ConCom), is both a required reading and a source of comfort for first-year law students struggling to understand concepts such as expanded judicial review, political question, eminent domain, among other legalese in their first foray into the complicated world of lawyering.
Bernas’ legacy is acknowledged by Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra no less, who once joined him at the Ateneo Law School faculty where Bernas had been dean twice. He was Dean Emeritus when he retired in 2004 until his death.
“Father Bernas was the epitome of the classic Jesuit scholastic. His masterful work on constitutional law is a must-read for all Ateneo law students. To this day, Fr. Bernas continues to mentor me through his masterpiece,” he said in a statement, shortly after Bernas’ death.
Former Ateneo School of Government Dean Tony La Viña, who now teaches constitutional law in different universities, remembers Bernas as a constitutionalist, lawyer and law professor, bar topnotcher, prolific author and columnist, academic leader, Church leader and an anti-dictatorship fighter who was a member of the convenor group that chose Cory Aquino to lead the opposition against Marcos in the 1986 elections.
Regarded as an authority on constitutional law, Bernas frequently weighed in on discussions on Charter Change during his heyday, whether as amicus curiae or friend of the court before the Supreme Court or as a resource person for the media.
In 2014, he told ANC’s “Beyond Politics” he didn’t think it was time for a “massive change” on the Constitution amid talks of possibly granting then-President Benigno Aquino III a second term and of changing the form of government.
He said then that reelecting PNoy would have been contrary to the spirit of the ConCom and what Cory stood for, and the bicameral form of government with a Senate and a House of Representatives was working.
“For me, it doesn't really make much difference, it depends on the people who are there…,” he said.
His absence in the public eye in recent years was noticeable in the midst of a renewed push for Charter change under the Duterte administration — first through a committee to review the 1987 Constitution formed in late 2016 and more recently, the House of Representatives’ own move to amend the economic provisions of the Constitution.
He was rushed to the hospital at least twice in October 2019 and November 2020.
MEANINGFUL LIBERTIES ENSHRINED IN BILL OF RIGHTS
But for former Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te, Bernas’ legacy is in ensuring protection of the rights of individual citizens.
“He was Vice Chair of the Committee on The Bill of Rights of the 1986 Constitutional Commission and in my cases against the death penalty, especially my first one, I read the deliberations on the death penalty and read many of his comments and views on life and law, crime and punishment, government wrongs and human rights and was much enriched by them,” he said in a Facebook post.
“More than his generations of students at the Ateneo, for whom he is a revered figure, his legacy is really one of meaningful liberties enshrined in the text and spirit of the Bill of Rights,” he added.
That concern for individual liberties was highlighted in the issue of the passage of the Reproductive Health Law which Catholic bishops opposed but Bernas and his fellow-Jesuits did not, telling the Ateneo Law School publication The Palladium in 2014 that there were many good things about the law and the defective aspects should be attacked individually through litigation.
“There is disagreement…and I would say that there are Catholics who wrongly believe that what they believe should be followed by everyone or should be followed by the government. But the government is not a Catholic government, it is a secular government. And it is for all, not just for Catholics,” he said in a television interview.
“The Constitution is very clear that religious beliefs cannot be used as an obstacle to public life. It’s along that line that we live in the same society and we have find ways and means of living together,” he added.
Then-Supreme Court Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo, in 2015, lauded Bernas for his “commitment to gender equality.”
“As President of the University, he would invite my wife Cynthia to become Dean of the Ateneo Law School. He would put faith and trust in a woman in her late 30s to become Dean of the Ateneo Law School, and she would stay there for more than 10 years,” he said.
“This is living proof of Fr. B’s commitment to gender equality, aptly described in a book (I forget now who the author is) that he lent my wife as a student, and it begins with the statement that ‘woman is not the lesser man’. Thank you Fr. B. for putting faith in a woman. We hope she did not disappoint you and the institution that we call our alma mater,” he added.
PRIEST AND LEGAL SCHOLAR
Despite Bernas’ position on the RH Law however, Bernas remained a “holy priest,” according to Far Eastern University Institute of Law Dean Mel Sta. Maria, who considers Bernas his mentor.
Bernas joined the Society of Jesus when he was only 17 years old, 7 years before he decided to take up law.
“His scholarly dedication to the law did not detract from his priestly consecration: he gave retreats and recollections and regularly celebrated the Holy Eucharist,” Fr. Ranhilio Aquino, dean of the San Beda Graduate School of Law, said of Bernas in a Facebook post.
A former student, lawyer Tricia Cervantes-Poco, recalled how she regularly attended the masses Bernas celebrated.
“My husband asked what made you a great man, and I could probably have talked about you as a constitutionalist. But truthfully, it was you as a homilist who made the biggest impact in my life,” she said in an emotional Facebook post addressed to Bernas.
“For four years, I had a date with you at 12:15/6:05 pm, and in your 3-minute reflections, you made clear and real to me how God's love manifests in our daily lives. When there is much to be grateful for, how can one not choose to live a life of service?,” she asked.
Inspired by Bernas’ example, Cervantes-Poco went on to serve with the Ateneo Human Rights Center for 4 years and is now with the Ateneo Legal Services Center which runs the school’s legal aid clinic. She also teaches full time.
“I think about the work you've done and how precious but fragile our freedoms and democracy are. I think about the work ahead of us, and how everything feels even more urgent because you are no longer physically around,” she said.
Bernas — Father B to his students — spent almost his entire lifetime educating the next generation of lawyers.
A few years after graduating valedictorian at the Ateneo Law School in 1962 and placing 9th in the Bar Exams, he began teaching in the same school in 1966, leaving only for a few years to serve as President of the Ateneo De Manila University and to head the Jesuit Order.
But to teaching he always returned.
His students revered him for his sharp tongue, wit and humor in and outside the classroom.
Del Castillo shared one class recitation: “The student didn’t know the case so she coyly replied, ‘Father, may I pass?’ He retorted with a deadpan look, ‘No, but you may fail.’”
In another incident, as everyone was running out of the classroom due to a strong earthquake, Del Castillo said Bernas came out of his office asking, “Who wants to confess? Who wants to confess?”
Explaining his “cool” teaching style to The Palladium, Bernas, who was known to flunk students, said, “I’m not the one being graded…I will just give them a low mark! Bahala sila!”
“I always enjoyed teaching, I always enjoyed tormenting people!,” he said. “I think they [his students] also enjoyed it, especially after they go through me and they’ll look back… That’s the case with students all time, they boast of the professors they have—after.”
But what endeared Bernas to his students is his openness and accessibility.
“[L]like many Jesuits he was a man of the world. He did not live in an ivory tower. He was accessible and accommodating to everyone, could engage in a lively discussion on any topic (especially over a glass of scotch), and with a great sense of humor. As a lawyer, he was St Thomas More reborn,” Guevarra said.
Another former student and later on a fellow-faculty member, lawyer Tom Temprosa, recalled fondly his interactions with Bernas.
“Today, I look back and remember our exchanges, laughter, and banter in the hallways of the law school, how you would always shuffle my hair and pat my back whenever you would see me! I will always carry with me our conversations, your wit, your humor -- your utter brilliance that has inspired so many. You are more than my teacher -- you are a life-long inspiration,” he said.
Aside from teaching at the Ateneo Law School, Temprosa works for the Commission on Human Rights.
Sta. Maria, for his part, said talking to and listening to Bernas was “always inspiring.”
In a Facebook post, he shared one of the pieces of advice Bernas gave him about his writings.
“I left saying to myself, I just have to speak up and write something, maybe people will listen. He once told me that I should not think so much of people's reaction about my articles, I just have to write it and speak out because somewhere out there, even if only one listens, that is enough. The seeds are planted,” he said.
The Ateneo Law community and the Philippines may have lost a brilliant legal mind with Bernas’ passing but his legacy lives on with the seeds he left behind.