Today is Monday, May 21, 2018

Opening Remarks on Lecture Forum on the Rule on the Writ of Amparo

By Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno

On behalf of the justices of the Supreme Court, I welcome our fellow co-workers in the Judiciary, the Justices of the Court of Appeals, and the judges of the first and second level courts in Metro Manila.

It is not every day that we get to gather ourselves as a collective group – as the Judiciary. We represent the third great branch of the government vested by the Constitution with the power to interpret our laws -- our fundamental law, statutory laws, and international instruments to which we are signatories. This power is not a mere paper power, for even if conservatively wielded, it can effectuate evolutionary changes in our society but, radically and rightfully wielded, it can cause revolutionary changes in the life of our people.

The proofs of this proposition are in the history of judiciaries all over the world. For instance, it was the issue of slavery or inequality between the whites and the blacks that triggered the Civil War in the United States. The cessation of armed hostilities brought momentary peace to the Americans, but racial inequality was not excised by the coming of peace. It took the U.S. Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren to cut the ugly head of racial inequality through its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which buried for good the separate-but-equal doctrine. In fine, in one might stroke of the judicial pen, equality for the blacks was restored in the land of Lincoln -- a feat that the sword of the Executive and the purse of Congress failed to achieve for nearly a century. The power to interpret law is therefore a power that can make a difference. The power is weak only in the hands of weaklings; the power is puny only to those whose minds no longer dream and dare.

In the last century, the Bill of Rights has been enthroned in the more civilized states that profess democracy. Its storied triumphs against the divine rights of Kings, the infallibility of sectarian heads, and the dictatorship of the proletariat have its half stops but never their full stop. Its full flowering took more than several hundreds of years in England, the United States, France and other more enlightened nations. Obviously, democracy is not a form of government that instantly guarantees an impregnable wall against violations of human rights, on the part of the State itself and of non State actors alike. The struggle for democracy has its victories and defeats, its highs and lows, its ebbs and flows, for it is a fight without a final chapter.

If democracy has survived other ideologies, it is partly because of the Constitutions written by men and women whose far-seeing eyes not only enabled them to predict the evils that would threaten the liberty of people, but more importantly, to provide solutions to exorcise those evils. The Philippines is not without such people blessed with prophetic eyes, endowed with visions that enable them to step into the future -- one step ahead of us -- and warn us of the dangers that lie ahead of our freedoms.

In 1987, Justice Adolf Azcuna, then one of the commissioners tasked by President Corazon Aquino to draft the 1987 Constitution, embedded in its backbone a provision giving the Supreme Court the extra power to promulgate rules which would give life to the writ of amparo to protect the constitutional rights of our people. Through his initiative, the rule-making power of the Supreme Court was expanded to complement the awesome power of Congress to make laws. Historically, it is the parliament that protects the rights of people through its lawmaking power. Justice Azcuna allowed the Supreme Court to have a share in the exercise of this power by expanding its rule-making power.

For years, that expanded rule-making power of the Supreme Court lay in deep hibernation. Amparo was an unknown denizen in the constitutional jungle. When a question was asked about it in the bar examinations of 1991, the blood pressures of the examinees shot through the ceiling. Justice Azcuna, then the examiner, had to be ordered to give credit to any answer proffered by the candidates. It was the first time that the dogma “ignorance of the law does not excuse” was ignored. Little did we know that, 20 years later, the nation would look to the writ of amparo to protect our people from the unabated extralegal killings and enforced disappearances that stalk our legal landscape.

Last July, we called for a Summit in search of solutions to this stubborn problem that had earned for us the dubious distinction of being the sarcophagus of human rights in Asia. The search compelled us to circumnavigate the world looking for the best legal armor to fight extralegal killings and enforced disappearances. It brought us to Latin America where they had encountered the same problem during the dark days of military dictators in the 70s and the 80s. We found that the best legal shield of protection against these killings and disappearances is the writ of amparo, which originated in Mexico in the 19th century. It was more comprehensive than the writ of habeas corpus that developed as part of the common-law remedies in England. Constitutionalists consider the writ of habeas corpus as a mere subset of the writ of amparo in terms of its amplitude.

Two weeks after the Summit, the Supreme Court Committee on the Revision of the Rules of Court met and started probing the essence of the writ of amparo and defining its metes and bounds. It was not to be a cakewalk, for the writ of amparo developed its own variety from soil to soil in Latin America. Our writ of amparo has its distinct root, branch and flower though the concept is a transplant from the bowels of Latin America. It is for this reason and more that we have to examine the umbras and penumbras of the Philippine version of the writ of amparo. If I may so, this writ is the judiciary’s humble offering to the altar of human rights in the Philippines. This is our offering, all of us who are part of today’s Philippine Judiciary. They can criticize the Judiciary with real and imagined complaints, but they cannot charge it with inertness, with paralysis and with amnesia in protecting the constitutional rights of our people.

My fellow judges and justices, the writ of amparo is the greatest legal weapon to protect the constitutional rights of our people. The protection of our people depends on how well you will wield this weapon. This weapon is now in your hands.

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