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A Protector of the People Retires

(Article published in the No. 11, 2002 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

He was his usual self when I saw him in his office last Thursday: standing tall and straight, slender like a reed in his sinews, his spine stiff as a rod like his principles; his face, like the arid land of his birth, gently furrowed by a lifetime of smiles at his own wry humor and swept dry by the endless smoke that had for many years wafted from his cigarette; and, his conversation, interesting as it already was with anecdotes and pithy insights, made all the more engaging by an occasional wave or two of his right pointer as if showing physically how conclusion flowed logically from premise.

But 07 November was no usual day nor Jesus F. Guerrero a usual man. That day, he completed his seven-year term as Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon and ended thirty seven years in the government, some of it as presiding judge but mainly in the prosecution service. Whoever is eventually appointed to assume his vacant office has a hard act to follow.

I met him first over a decade a ago when, as a legal aid lawyer in private practice, I pounded with my dusty shoes the hallways of Metro Manila’s often dingy and mostly cramped and crowed courts of justice. He was presiding efficiently, orderly, and fairly over cases heard in Branch 148 of the Regional Trial Court of the National Capital Region in Makati.

He was by then already a much sought-after resource person and lecturer – frequently invited to share his experience and expertise by the U.P. Law Center, although it was from MLQ University that he received his Associate in Arts, with high honors in 1954 and Bachelor of Laws, cum laude, in 1958, as well as by associations of his peers and colleagues like the Philippine Judges Association, Philippine Trial Judges League, National Prosecution League of the Philippines.

The privilege was mine, as then the administrative officer in charge of the conduct of the bar review classes, to minister to his needs when he consented to be among the Ateneo Law Schools bar reviewers in 1985 and 1986. Post Edsa-I saw us working together again at the Davide Commission, formed by law to investigate the reasons for coups and recommend measures for their avoidance, when concurrent with his other official duties, he was the Commission’s counsel/consultant from 11 December 1987 to 03 May 1988. All these times, I felt that sooner or later, in his own quiet way, he was to make his mark in the legal landscape before he, like our elders who had decided in their youth to give their lives to the government, would be led to pasture on his much-awaited but inflation-ravaged pension.

That mark was made during his last seven years in the government, as Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon, that started on 07 November 1995 when he took his oath of office before then President Fidel V. Ramos. He inherited from his predecessor Deputy Ombudsman Manuel C. Domingo a caseload of 2,581 pending cases consisting of 1,884 criminal cases, 331 administrative cases, and 366 combination of letter-complaints still undergoing the fact-finding process and requests for assistance. To his successor, he is leaving only 730 pending cases, or barely 28% of what he started with, made up of 349 criminal cases, 248 administrative cases, and a total 133 letter-complaints and requests for assistance. Between his coming and his going, his office docketed a total of 17,870 cases, or an annual average of 2,558 cases, composed of 8,573 criminal cases, 3,735 adminstrative cases and 5,562 letter-complaints and requests for assistance. People in business make fun of lawyers’ very meager management skills (conveniently overlooking the fact that part of that ineptness is forgetting to send their professional bills), but this is one lawyer who knew how to manage both the volume and velocity of cases that go through the legal process. He is good material for a case study for serious schools of management.

My non b-school analysis of the case flow in his office points to several strengths and weaknesses in our system of processing citizen complaints, if not in our cultural make-up. Dramatic increases in cases filed occurred during or near to or just after election years. The highest number was recorded for the year 2000 when 3, 277 were filed. This was followed by the 2,859 filed in 2001. In a country where a candidate never admits to losing fairly and is always, per his protestations, the victim of his winning opponents’ electoral fraud, the Office of the Ombudsman, as well as, to a wider extent, the entire prosecution machinery, seems to have become part of a politician’s bag of tricks to harass, malign, or at least inconvenience his opponent.

In fact, this too is evident even in the cases filed in the Office against appointed officials. Getting a case filed with the Office of the Ombudsman is so easy and inexpensive that the Office has become a standard recourse to the disgruntled regardless of whether the case has merit or not. Over the last few years, every public official of note and reputation has become easy target of anti-graft accusations, irrespective of his integrity as a person and performance in office. Easy access to the bell of justice which was, in all good intentions, provided in the Constitution to ensure the rights of the truly aggrieved against their oppressors has been abused and has enabled the false accusers become the oppressors themselves. The bell of justice, depicted in that well-remembered story from the golden days of Greece and Rome I read long ago while at Lakan Dula Elementary School in Tondo, is now too often rung by the ass.

It is in how Jesus F. Guerrero disposed of the cases flowing into his office that the good public servant made his mark. Working with a lean complement of no more than about 25 lawyers and 10 non-lawyers, he disposed of over 10,000 criminal cases, recommending for prosecution 2,266 and 8,181 for dismissal. In effect, for every one hundred criminal cases he resolved at his level, he recommended for prosecution roughly 22 and for dismissal 78. This is convincing evidence, to me at least, that his office was not a prosecution mill, that he did not succumb to the all-too alluring temptation to recommend prosecution on the alibi that, anyway, the head of the Office would have the last say and, in any case, the person accused would have a chance to prove his innocence in court.

Jesus F. Guerrero protected the truly aggrieved by those in public office as assiduously as he protected those in public office from the oppression of false accusers. He was a true protector of all the people.

Good luck, Manong Jess, may your successors cherish and follow your legacy.