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Sabino De Leon, Jr.: Justice with A Human Heart  

(Article published in the Jun 23,2003 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

He stood tall and straight, taller and straighter than most of us.  We were quiet when he spoke, for his voice was full and deep, as if coming all the way from the caverns of his soul.  And his heart was soft.  On 16 June 2003, that part of him whose role, like his, was to give, gave in. 

       I first met Mr. Justice Sabino De Leon, Jr. in the early 80s when he became one of us teachers at the Ateneo De Manila Law School.  He was already a seasoned lawyer by then, -- in private practice as Assistant Attorney at the Angel S. Gamboa Law Office after graduating from the Ateneo in 1957, the resident counsel of LCC Corporation in 1961, in the legal department of Republic Bank from 1963 to 1977 (the last two years as General Counsel), and again in private practice as name partner in Asuncion, Gomez & De Leon Law Office.  But still, he was the school registrar’s delight. 

He did not ask for, nor even hinted that he wanted, the courtesies that the law school often gives to a veteran practitioner enhancing its faculty.  He took the subjects that did not sparkle with glamour; he agreed to teach on hours that we considered the graveyard shift, and was even willing to teach on Saturdays when the rest of us would rather be in the beach, in the mountains, or simply at home taking our siesta. 

He was a newcomer to the faculty, and, though he did not need to, he took the place at the end of the line. He was at once welcomed by his co-professors and was immediately loved by his students.  Hence, I was surprised when, one evening at the Faculty Room, he told me he wanted to reduce his teaching load and, in fact, limit himself to Saturday afternoon classes.  When I asked him why, he told me quietly, almost as if speaking to himself, that he was joining the judiciary. 

It was a time of national restless then, government was still martial-like if not formally martial law, and it was simply not the time to be part of the government machinery.  So, in my ever irreverent way, I asked him what brought about this atypical instance of lunacy. He replied, ignoring my brashness, “I am being given an opportunity to serve in the government and this is as good a time as any for me to take it.” 

Seizing the moment to serve was not a stranger to Sabino De Leon, Jr. Service genes must have come from his father who was, during the junior’s formative years, successively and successfully the Governor of the province of Bataan, then Chief of Police and later Mayor of Quezon City.  At the Ateneo, nurture nourished nature.  In high school, where the extra-curricular activities one engaged in were just as critical as one’s academic performance, he became the Prefect of the Sodality of Our Lady, then THE organization to be in any Jesuit school, devoted as it was to fostering in its members deep and life-long love for the Blessed Virgin Mary.  True to the jesuit  thrust for eloquentia et sapientia, he was, in addition, president of the oratorical and debating team.   

Outside of school, he was no different.  Fom the protective palms of the Jesuit education, flew he into the world below and was leaven to his community.  Writes his neighbor, former Deputy Government Corporate Counsel Felipe S. Aldana: “…when my wife and I subsequently joined the Christian Family Movement at Sta. Rita Parish, Quezon City, we found out that Ben and his wife, Ely, were already members.  Then when I was invited to join the Knights of Columbus Council 4610 at said parish, Ben was already an active member”. Active, was of course, an understatement.  Sabino De Leon, Jr. was at one time Grand Knight of Council 4610. 

And living up to Horace’s  in medio stat virtus, learned undoubtedly in his latin classes in high school, he balanced his involvement by being active in secular organizations, too, and was at one time president of the Philam Homeowners Association. 

His stint in the judiciary followed, as did his life, the main stream.  It was then the executive power’s practice, presently very often ignored, to begin a neophyte judge’s career in the provinces, there for him or her to hone his skills and master his craft before being tasked with the more daunting cases in center city.  So, he feel in line and started as Presiding Judge of Branch 34 of the Regional Trial Court of Gapan, Nueva Ecija.  After three years, he was, in January 1986, moved to Branch 28 of the Regional Trial Court of Manila, an assignment considered by the members of the judiciary of the old school, as almost equivalent to being appointed to the Court of Appeals. 

Promotion came four years later, when he became an Associate Justice of the Sandiganbayan on 27 March 1990 where he eventually became the Chairman of the Fourth Division.  Of his performance, his colleague, Justice Romeo M. Escareal, had this to say: “I had the honor of working with him in the Sandiganbayan and observed his faithful adherence to what Socrates had described as attributes properly pertaining to a judge: to hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly and to decide impartially.” 

After nearly a decade at the Sandiganbayan, he was appointed to the Supreme Court on 11 October 1999 and joined –after Chief Justice Claudio Teehankee, Class ’40, and Associate Justice Lorenzo R. Relova, Class ’39, the very short list of Ateneo Law School alumni who had become members of that, up to now, UP Law dominated court.   

UP alumnus Senior Associate Justice Josue N. Bellosillo, reviewing Justice De Leon’s decisions, saw in his ponencia “Justice De Leon’s devotion to the unheralded plight of the lowly and the oppressed”.  And of his personal life, Bellosillo said, “Justice De Leon has lived as a magistrate with dignity, honor, and integrity fully shared with the common man who looks up to him and this Court as his last frontier for vindication and relief”. 

Another UP alumnus, no less than Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide Jr,. summed up his impressions thus: “Verily, Mr. Justice De Leon is blest with attributes that make one of the truly rare and vanishing breed of men who have struck a wonder balance between their personal and professional lives”. 

It was thus without hesitation that I accepted, against my better judgment,   despite condolences from my senior partner Ricardo J. Romulo and to the chagrin of my spouse who rued both the time that would take from the little I devote at home and the reduction in my contribution to gross domestic product (the good justice assured me that the Supreme Court would pay me enough to buy a car; but he did not say it was enough only for a second hand or just a down payment for a new Altis), that I accepted being the examiner in Taxation when he was chairman of the 2001 Bar Examination Committee.  And there I sensed how really soft his heart was. 

More than once, while he briefed me on what my duties were going to be as tax examiner and during the long and arid season of correcting the thousands of examination booklets than came inexorably every ten days at my doorsteps, did he remind me that I should always bear in mind the hardship that the bar examinees and their families had gone through just for the chance of being a lawyer.  I heard that as a fatherly advice to shed what used to be my signature at the Ateneo Law Faculty—a self-appointed guard dog at the gate of the legal profession, fiercely ripping apart with 5s and failing marks in merciless glee at least two of three who dared seek entrance.  He must have told the same thing to my co-examiners and but a few of us had the heart to disappoint him.  When the results came out, 2001 batch had one of the highest passing percentage in bar examination history. 

One year after retirement from the Supreme Court and back from an invigorating visit to his children and grandchildren abroad, his generous heart wanted to give some more on 16 June.  But satis was the verdict of the higher authority.  As the evening ended, it was out, out brief candle for this no poor player; the morning has come, and good Justice is to take his well-deserved place beneath the warmth of the everlasting sun.