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Doing Justice to His Honor

(Article published in the Aug 5, 2002 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

In these days of feigned humility, the autobiography is an extinct literary genre. No one writes about himself anymore; others do that for him, some in tribute, others in hate, often for love or just as often for hire. And so, when Justice Romeo M. Escareal, Sr. handed me "Your Honor…an Autobiography", I immediately immersed myself in its pages, curious as to what he had to say that he could not leave to others to say for him.

The Foreword suggests that he meant to address his family. He wrote: "One morning, while I was in our vacation house in Tagaytay City during Holy Week, I realized that I was nearing the age of 75. It was then that I felt I should let my children and their children share my experiences, my thoughts, my life. I wanted them to know what it was like when they were not yet born into this world – to get glimpses of how I had lived and made it possible for them to exist."

But very quickly, it becomes clear that he is speaking to a wider audience, his friends, former colleagues, you and me who had not had the opportunity of knowing him well, and, members of the judiciary and of the bar, as well of those who would want to join their ranks. He is telling the story of his life, but more than that, he is delivering a message, crafted by his experience and reflection, that could not have come to us as clearly and as forcefully if not from his own lips.

"Your Honor…An autobiography" is nothing, if not candid. Things others feel embarrassed by are said without a tinge of hesitation. For instance, the justice speaks of a different sort of graduation after he finished his elementary schooling as salutatorian of Calumpit Elementary School in Barrio Corazon in March 1938: "After our elementary graduation, I was circumcised by Amang Asias beneath our backyard mango tree, together with other boys my age, using a sharpened "balisong" for the operation. We were told to chew boiled guava leaves and apply the mixture on the affected parts to serve as disinfectant".

Later on, he admits to living up to his name: "During my undergraduate years, I discovered the mysteries of life, which usually accompany adulthood. While I tried to court some girls who caught my fancy, I was not serious in any of my relationships with them. It was as if I felt that being named Romeo, I was supposed to be romantic and colorful in my relations with the opposite sex. While in Liberal Arts at the UST and in my first two years in UP, I continuously experimented with the goal of having more than one girl friend at the same time. I assigned a few days a week for visiting girls whom I had come to know, either through friends or at parties. I spent several afternoons a week, including Sundays, in courting them. Sometimes, I succeeded in having my affections reciprocated but only at arm-length. Boys at that time were supposed to be gentlemanly who still belived in chivalry and chastity until marriage".

He continues, "to avoid complications, I chose my girlfriends who studied in different shools or universities…some affairs lasted a few months while others lasted a few weeks…It was only in the latter part of my second-year Law in UP that I became serious and selective and limited my attentions to only two girls", yes, he called that serious, "one of whom finally became my future wife."

But more than in these snippets, which might have been of interest to Freud but not to men of this time, he bares his soul in the exposition of his reflections on his experience in the judiciary, more particularly at the Sandiganbayan.

Then lawyer Romeo M.Escareal joined the judiciary, as judge of the Circuit Criminal Court (CCC) in Tuguegarao in 1971. At that time, the appointment of judges was subject to confirmation of the Commission on Appointments. A strong objection on the part of any one of the members, all politicians and often desirous of protecting their turf, could spell the doom of an appointment. This was how he felt during his confirmation: "When my name was called, I felt as if I could not breathe, fearing that somebody might raise an objection or move to table my confirmation. The gavel remained poised in the air for what seemed an eternity but to my relief, it finally banged and I heard the word "Confirmed". I did not wait further and left the session hall…". He asked to take his oath before then Justice Secretary Abad Santos who is reported to have said" With pleasure. Do you know that you are the first one to whom I will administer the oath out of more than 500 whom I had cleared for appointment but all of them took their oath before President Marcos?".

From the CCC in Tuguegarao, where he reports being harassed by "certain quarters" – whom he all mentions by name, he was detailed to the Cebu-Bohol CCC, where he remembers, "out of around two dozen rape cases I handled in Cebu, I convicted only two accused, with one of them sentenced to a life-term. In contrast, I rained convictions left and right in cases involving homicide, robbery, theft, malversation, and carnapping.". It was while he was in Cebu that he was appointed, after almost seven years since Tuguegarao, to the Sandiganbayan, subject of his very revealing reflections.

Fast forward a bit to post-EDSA Sandiganbayan. The selection and appointment of Presiding Justice Garchitorena was, to him, "a flawed exercise of judgment". Of the PCGG cases he says, "I was and still am pessimistic as to the chances of the PCGG cases, or even a major portion thereof, to be judicially tried and terminated, not only because of my conviction that the complaints prepared and later amended by the PCGG were not only defective in substance but also awkwardly phrased and more concerned with form as well as being characterized by a lot of bombast". But his most interesting story, to me at least, is about Presiding Justice Garchitorena and Justice Minita Chico-Nazario.

Justice Escareal narrates that "for reasons known only to himself, Justice Garchitorena vehemently opposed her appointment". Justice Nazario was nevertheless appointed, and, Justice Escareal recalls, "without being fully aware of the nature and extent of Justice Garchitorena’s objections to the appointment of Judge Nazario, I administered her oath of office in my chambers in the presence of Justices Molina and Amores and Clerk of Court Luisabel Cortez on the basis of a photocopy of her appointment sent to her by the Supreme Court. This event led to an administrative complaint being filed with the Supreme Court against me and Justice Nazario by Justice Garchitorena who refused to recognize the oath-taking and prevented Justice Nazario from assuming her position."

The administrative case was dismissed, almost one year later, and Justice Nazario became the junior member of, of all divisions, the First Division, presided over by Justice Garchitorena. After a year, Justice Nazario wanted to be re-assigned to the vacancy in the Second Division resulting from the retirement of Justice Narciso Atienza, and asked Justice Escareal to intercede for her.

How Justice Garchitorena handled the matter should be read directly from Justice Escareal’s account. The bottom line was, according to Justice Escareal, Justice Nazario "had to endure her calvary in the First Division for several years more until the Fourth and Fifth Divisions were ordered constituted by Congress and she became the Chairman of the latter Division…"

The footnote wraps up his story: "After the events which commenced from the impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada…and [his] succeeding trial before the Sandiganbayan, certain events transpired during the latter stages involving Pres. Justice Garchitorena and Assoc. Justice Anacleto Badoy, Jr…resulting in Justice Badoy being relieved, Justice Garchitorena being suspended until such time as he shall have cleared the docket of the First Division of a big number of long-pending and undecided cases."

As to Justice Nazario, Justice Escareal reports, "ironically, Justice Nazario, Chairman of the Fifth Division, was selected and appointed by the Supreme Court as Acting Presiding Justice. Moreover, she was appointed as Chairman of the Special Division to take over the Estrada cases."

There is a lot more soul-baring in "Your Honor …An autobiography" than I can do justice to in this space. I end with two: the first, many will agree with; the second, I had the honor of sharing with him. In Chapter 31, he describes why he opted for optional retirement: "I made the final decision to retire optionally and irrevocably in the first week of February 1996 due to my grave disappointment and disbelief in the manner and extent of what I personally perceived to be the gradual erosion and lack of faith in the entire judicial process". But balancing this pessimism, was the hope we both silently shared on stage, at the PICC, on 30 April 2002, as we, members of the Bar Examination Committee of 2001, stood before the successful examinees. "I may be indulging in wishful thinking but I still believe that from out of the many young people of our country, there will be one who will rise to lead us into a better life. One thing for certain, we all have to continue looking for that light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the seeming darkness of any situation, we are assured that God is with us and that He will protect and guide us always."

"You Honor …An autobiography" is a "must read" for anyone concerned with our justice system. Not everything it says is palatable to everyone, but between its covers, Justice Romeo M. Escareal, Sr., a man who has seen it from the outside as well as from inside and at close range and from afar, lifts up the times of his life, like the Oblation where he took up law, utterly frank and nakedly honest, and offers his judicial career which he "loved and worked for devotedly and unselfishly, untarnished and unblemished by any scandal or intrigue".