MANILA -- A Supreme Court justice on Thursday urged new lawyers to speak out and fight injustice, as they join a legal profession faced with challenges of a global pandemic and threats to democracy.
SC Associate Justice Marvic Leonen delivered a rousing speech during the oath taking of 2019 Bar Exam passers challenging them to use their new-found privilege to advance social justice.
It begins, he said, by speaking out and not remaining silent in the face of injustice.
"[O]ur silence, when we fall victim or after we serve as accomplices to corrupt acts of the powerful, is also our own powerful political act. Our silence maintains the status quo. It ensures that others will also be victimized. Our silence in the face of abuse skews power to the system in favor of those with resources and against those who need the law more. Our silence legitimizes greed and undermines the power of public trust," he said in his keynote speech.
"Silence about corruption and abuse of power is not only in itself unjust; our silence when we have the ability to speak is in itself a cause of injustice," he added.
Leonen reminded the new lawyers that they are more than their titles and professional degrees and that their primary role is always to find solutions and bring about change.
" Your oath to the rule of law is not an oath of surrender to the unjust and oppressive elements of the status quo, it is not license to further marginalize those who are disadvantaged, those who are poor, those who are abused by power and untruths. Your oath serves as your power to bring about change, that is hopefully just, hopefully systemic, your oath is a promise to empower," he said.
"Remember that being a lawyer is not primarily about you, your profession is designed to make the problems of others your problem...your task is not to hope or seek a better world, it is more than that. Your purpose as a lawyer is to use your life to shape law so that it authentically contributes to the achievement of the best society for every human being."
More than 2,000 new lawyers attended the oath taking which was done online for the first time as part of the high court's efforts to prevent further spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
All 14 Supreme Court magistrates were present, with each justice wearing face masks.
Courts all over the country were physically closed for more than 2 months while some courts have implemented their own lockdowns in response to particular reports of possible COVID-19 infections in their buildings.
Senior Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe, the Chair for the 2019 Bar Exams, acknowledged the challenges posed by the "unprecedented times." The new lawyers, she said, will not only be the first batch to have been sworn in online but also to start their legal practice during a "debilitating global pandemic."
"In formally assuming your duties and responsibilities, I challenge you to lead the new generation of lawyers in carrying the great responsibility of utilizing the law to help society cope and move forward. Being the first lawyers ushered in the era of the new normal, you are in a unique position of innovating ways to ensure that justice becomes accessible to all and that our law remains a staunch bulwark of our people's rights and freedoms," she said.
"Now, more than ever, the legal profession needs your youthful exuberance, your proficiency in new technologies, and most of all, your interconnected sense of community. Harness all these qualities for the advancement of our legal profession, with the brimming optimism that these, too, shall pass," she added, as she formally asked Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta to admit the names of the 2,100 lawyers into the Roll of Attorneys.
Signing the Roll is the last step towards becoming a full-fledged lawyer and will take place from July 6 to August 3.
Leonen shared the view that the pandemic poses a great challenge moving forward, not only because of the need to strengthen health infrastructure but because as more and more people lose their jobs, more and more people, including children, will go hungry, which could lead to "acts of desperation."
"Law will take part in the narrative of providing succor as well as remedies when needed," he said but he stressed there are other existential threats the legal profession must face.
Among these threats is climate change, citing data from the United Nations panel showing that world temperatures will rise 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2040, which, he said, could lead to more catastrophic events, even more pathogens like viruses and bacteria.
His solution: reduce fossil fuel emissions and meat consumption.
Leonen, an environmental and human rights advocate prior to becoming an academic and joining the Supreme Court, has been advocating for environmental reforms, even going vegan.
The law, he said, will again be conceptualized, crafted, promulgated and invoked to achieve all of these and lawyers will be needed.
THREATS TO DEMOCRACY
In his wide-ranging speech that touched on a diverse array of topics, Leonen also warned about certain dangers that could undermine democracy such as the dark web controlled by big commercial institutions where internet users surrender privacy and control of information, even allow surveillance and unthinkingly approve end use license agreements.
The courts, he said, will have to adjust to the rise of artificial intelligence and other technological advancements, even as it has to deal with minority groups who struggle to cope -- indigenous communities, religious minorities like atheists and LGBTQI groups.
Leonen also reminded the new lawyers of the rise of "conservative populism" worldwide.
"You see the challenges to the institutions that gather and speak truth to power. Journalists worldwide suffer simply because they seek to verify and validate the truth. Those who speak truth to power, even in ordinary social media platforms experience what it means to be shamed and cyberbullied," he said.
Leonen did not cite specific cases.
"Trolling is also a sad Filipino phenomenon, and it is slowly becoming systemic and organized. Our trolls are not confined to any political color. Untruths and fake accounts now present the prospect of undermining the promise of an authentically deliberative democracy. It challenges how our people will be represented. Remember that the quality of our democracy determines the quality and relevance of our laws," he explained.
Lawyers, Leonen said, could choose to ignore all these threats.
"But we have a choice. We have the option to discover our courage, leave with the discomfort, critically examine our society and use our profession for a greater purpose that humanity not only survives, but thrives with social justice," he said. "It is true that law, as part of culture, and as it is now, constitutes us but we can redefine it. The legal profession can choose to help craft, interpret and apply the law, so that it provides solutions."
'BE BETTER THAN US'
Leonen acknowledged that the challenges could be daunting but offered this piece of advice to those who might find the situation in following the noble path too difficult: "...remember these words which I also keep repeating, which I first heard from Lean Alejandro, a good friend and activist in the 1980s, it has become one of my favorite lines nowadays – 'the line of fire is always a place of honor.'"
He urged the new lawyers to protect those who have less in life, speak up against corruption, and when entering public office, to "discharge it for the public trust that it is."
"Do not temper principle with pragmatism, do not hide behind comfortable acquiescence, do not use comfort in lieu of integrity at critical times, do not disguise your complicity. Instead, be at the frontlines," he said.
"As a lawyer, resist injustice. Make it your passion to resist injustice. Strive for excellence, not only in order to get you more titles, not to land yourself in Top 10 lists of lawyers, strive for excellence, because you need excellence with honor to enable and empower the weak, the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed," he added.
There is a lot to be done out there, he reminded them, before issuing a final challenge: "[B]e better than us."
"Walang magpapalaya sa atin kung hindi tayo mismo. Humayo nang buong giting at tapang. Paglingkuran ang sambayanan," he said.
(No one will free us but ourselves. Go forth with all heroism and courage. Serve the people.)
Leonen's speech, which was streamed online and on government channel PTV-4, drew rave reviews from online users. "Justice Leonen" was the number 1 top trending topic on Twitter about an hour after he delivered his speech.
Some Twitter users called his speech "life-changing" and inspiring.
Bar topnotcher Mae Diane Azores responded to the challenge in a tweet:
"Today, we made history as the first batch of lawyers who took their oath virtually. Tomorrow, we will change the future by resisting injustice and being at the front lines in our fight for the cause of the poor, the disenfranchised, oppressed and the vulnerable," she said.
For all the positive reviews he received online, Leonen did point out one thing about the digital world in his speech:
"The digital world creates digital amnesia. It diverts political responsibility, creates epistemic bubbles and breeds intolerance. The sheer breadth of information, and our ability to save unexamined information in our hard disk or in cloud space, replace critical analysis, deep thoughts, and the patient but persistent evolution of our own personal philosophies," he said.
"With the buffet of information available to us, we have conveniently forgotten a timely reminder from a writer Susan Sontag that definitely, information is not illumination."