March 04, 2006

Lessons in life and law

“But he’s not wearing any clothes.”

That is the innocent but utterly true reaction of the child in the children’s tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, to the sight of the Emperor walking around naked even as his courtiers, jesters, ministers and everyone else afraid to say “No” to him told him otherwise.

“We’re back to normal with the lifting of 1017.” Yea, and I’m 6 feet tall.

Sometimes it takes childlike innocence to see beyond all the crap and reveal the truth. And when that truth is revealed plainly, it becomes no less compelling because it is spoken by the innocent, the young, the untrained, the inexperienced. In all its stark simplicity, the truth—plain, guileless, unvarnished—stands out.

A lot of my students experienced standing up for their rights these past days. If, in the course of this semester, their only experience with activism was my rants about the dictator and how the study of law becomes irrelevant in a regime where there is no rule of law but the rule of one person, in a span of a week, that experience became personal.

For many, the walk-out last Thursday was memorable because it was probably the first time they walked around the academic oval—chanting slogans from decades past, “walk out, walk out, sumama na kayo!” For many, it was also memorable because it was a time they found common cause with their Dean and their professors as fellow activists for the rule of law. For many, it was memorable because it was probably the first time they felt for a cause strongly enough to take a stand and speak out for it.

Yesterday, lawyers marched to the EDSA Shrine, the current de facto symbol of freedoms now that Plaza Miranda has been removed by Lito Atienza from the list of freedoms’ bastions; with us was a group of students from my alma mater, the U.P. Law—my students, in past semesters as well as some from the current semester.

For many, that was memorable—walking with lawyers of every stripe and color and persuasion. You had civil libertarians, past and present, walking with trapos, past and present. You had opponents in court walking hand in hand. You had alternative lawyers, young and old, walking with traditional lawyers, young and old. You had academicians walking with the foot soldiers in the trenches.

And you had the lawyers of today walking with the lawyers of tomorrow. For me, that was memorable.

In a way because of 1017 and G.O. 5, the dictator managed to put things in perspective for many people, including lawyers and law students alike. That it is possible to push the people too far; that it is possible that greed, lust for power, corruption, malice, selfishness and an overriding ambition to hold on to an illegitimate office and a non-existent mandate can cut across apathy, indifference, cynicism and lack of hope.

I saw in my students that same fire that was mine in those heady days of February 1986 when, as a senior graduating from U.P., I marched with many people I did not know nor cared to know, screamed my throat dry, raised my fist in protest, clasped my hands together in prayer, wept for my country, and later exulted with my people—all for the cause of freedom.

As these twenty something students shouted, “never again, never again to martial law!”, I saw in them (many of whom live sheltered lives) a fire that was stoked, a realization that had just dawned, a passion that was burning and an idea, for them, that had just come: that it was not possible to learn the law without loving the country and the people whom that law professes to serve. It is a lesson that no law professor could teach in the classroom; it is a lesson that no amount of study time in the library could impart; it is a lesson that no school of law could ever drive across. It is a lesson that only life can teach. And for my students who walked out of their classrooms on Thursday and walked with the lawyers on Friday, it is a lesson well-learned.

In 1986, when Marcos fled and Cory Aquino took power, I was then unsure of my calling. An activist who had just finished a pre-med course without any intention of going to medical school, I briefly flirted with the idea of taking up law; yet, I found the beliefs forged in many a DG in the steps of the Palma Hall Annex with my friends from Sapul, SURGE and Buklod-Isip almost irreconcilable with the “rule of law” that I had experienced under Marcos. I refused to become a part of that structure. While praying and reflecting on what my life post-EDSA would be, I came across a letter written by one man to his eldest son and namesake; it was a letter that changed my life and made me enter the halls of Malcolm Hall.

In that letter, the father told his son:

"When you asked me about a month ago, for a list of books that you could read to start studying law, I was loathe to prepare the list because I felt that you would be wasting your time studying law in this “new society.”

I am still not sure that it would be worth your while to do so. A few days ago, while chatting with a soldier, he asked, in all seriousness and sincerity, “Pero sir, kailangan pa ba ang mga abogado ngayon?” And in a way that perhaps he did not intend, he raised a perfectly valid question.

A lawyer lives in and by the law; and there is no law when society is ruled, not by reason, but by will–worse, by the will of one man.

A lawyer strives for justice; and there is no justice when men and women are imprisoned not only without guilt, but without trial.

A lawyer must work in freedom; and there is no freedom when conformity is extracted by fear and criticism silenced by force.

A lawyer builds on facts. He must seek truth; and there is no truth when facts are suppressed, news is manipulated and charges are fabricated.

Worse, when the Constitution is invoked to justify outrages against freedom, truth and justice, when democracy is destroyed under the pretext of saving it, law is not only denied–it is perverted.

And what need do our people have for men and women who would practice perversion?

Yet the truth remains true that never have our people had greater need than today for great lawyers, and for young men and women determined to be great lawyers.

Great lawyers–not brilliant lawyers. A scoundrel may be, and often is, brilliant; and the greater the scoundrel, the more brilliant the lawyer. But only a good man can become a great lawyer: for only a man who understands the weaknesses of men because he has conquered them in himself; who has the courage to pursue his ideals though he knows them to be unattainable; who tempers his conviction with respect for those of others because he realizes he may be mistaken; who deals honorably and fairly with all, because to do otherwise would diminish him as well as them–only such a man would so command respect that he could persuade and need never resort to force. Only such a man could become a great lawyer. Otherwise, “what you are speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you say.”

For men and women of this kind, our country will always have need–and now more than ever. True, there is little that men of goodwill can do now to end the madness that holds our nation in its grip. But we can, even now, scrutinize our past; try to pinpoint where we went wrong; determine what led to this madness and what nurtured it; and how, when it ends, we can make sure that it need never happen again.

For this madness must end–if not in my lifetime, at least in yours. We Filipinos are proverbially patient, but we are also infinitely tough and ingeniously resourceful. Our entire history as a people has been a quest for freedom and dignity; and we will not be denied our dreams.

So this madness will end; the rule of force will yield to the rule of law. Then the country will need its great lawyers, its great engineers, its great economists and managers, the best of its men and women to clear the shambles and restore the foundations of that noble and truly Filipino society for which our forefathers fought, bled and died."

This letter, written on October 23, 1972 in detention, was written to Jose Ramon Diokno, Popoy, by his father and namesake, Jose W. Diokno, Ka Pepe. It was this letter--alternately an answer to his son’s question, a treatise on the legal profession, a discourse on the national situation prevailing at that time, and a showcase of a lifetime of insights on how to study law–that gave a young and idealistic activist, unsure of his decision to pursue law, the first insight that law and activism, law and advocacy, law and social change, law and a lifetime of meaningful service could co-exist. Twenty years later, that slightly older but still idealistic activist is now a lawyer actively engaged in human rights practice and the teaching of law. In the same manner that his letter challenged me, I would ask you, after reading what Ka Pepe told his son Popoy, to ask yourself if you are the person he describes; if you are a law student, ask yourself if you want to become the lawyer he describes; if you are a lawyer, ask yourself if you are capable of becoming the lawyer and the person he describes.

Now, more than ever, when the Empress’s new clothes are on full display, we need women and men who will tell the Empress that her clothes are an ill-fit. Now more than ever, will we need our good women and men, our good lawyers and law students, our great Filipinos. Now more than ever, our country needs women and men who will stand up for the freedoms that great Filipinos like Ka Pepe, Ka Tanny Tanada, Lean Alejandro, Edgar Jopson, Ditto Sarmiento, and even, more recently, Bobby Gana made their lives’ work and gave up their lives for.


keishiko said...

thanks for posting this entry, sir, especially the letter. it made quite enough of an impression on me (goosebumps and all) even without my finding out that it was from Jose Diokno to his son.

right now when i am still struggling/hoping to stay in law school and hardly daring to dream of finally becoming a lawyer at all, this letter reminds me of why i am still--impractically, perhaps, stubbornly--determined to keep working toward someday becoming a great lawyer. :)

Inez said...

Dear Sir Te,

Thank you for encouraging us law students to fight, for helping us realize that no matter how young we might be, or how small we are to the rest of the world, we can make a difference. God bless you :)

(Many thanks also to the text message you sent. Those who received it passed it on to everyone else)

Anonymous said...

Sir you've been one of our greatest inspiration in this struggle against GMA's tyranny. Thank you for being our conscience and for urging us to go beyond the four walls of Malcolm and expand the avenues of our legal education!

Pia Faustino said...

Hi Atty. Te,

This is Pia Faustino from GMA-7 News and Public Affairs. I came across your blog after Googling your name.

I do research for the weekly investigative show, REPORTERS NOTEBOOK, which airs every Tuesday after Saksi.

We are currently doing a story on illegal arrests and detentions in the Philippines, with focus on a case of 11 young people who were recently arrested in Benguet by the PNP, allegedly tortured, and accused of being NPA.

We were hoping to arrange an interview with you this weekend about the rights of persons accused of committing a crime, and about some of the other clients/cases you've handled. Your input would be very important for us to deliver a full report.

If you're amenable, I can be contacted at, or mobile 09172090852.


Pia Faustino
GMA7 News and Public Affairs

PS -- By the way, I've also faxed a letter to your office at FLAG. The details of our request are also there.

sophomore, UP Law said...

While I was there at EDSA Shrine, I couldn't help but sadly recall that only 5 years ago, I was on the same spot, calling for the ouster of a president in rightful indignation of his acts. 5 years hence, I was back on EDSA again but this time denouncing another act of another president. I really hope that 5 years from now, I would not be returning to EDSA - not because I've gotten disenchanted with fighting for what is right BUT because our leaders have truly changed their ways and there will be nothing to denounce and nothing to rally against (ok, you can all say "dream on...").

Ted said...

@sophomore, up law. "Dream on" is as good a motto or guiding principle as any. When we lose our capacity to dream, then we lose our capacity to be in awe, to be in wonder, to be surprised, to stand transfixed and marvel at beauty, to be overtaken and overwhelmed by newness, to look forward to change, to desire change, to fight for change, to welcome change, and yes, to dream of change. Jesus promised that He will make all things new; without the capacity or desire to dream on, Jesus's words find no refuge in our lives. So, why not indeed, dream on?