Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno: Upholding Standards of Justice and Right Living
On December 6, 2006, Reynato S. Puno became the 22nd Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines. A man of unblemished character and impeccable integrity, Chief Justice Puno is also recognized as a legal scholar and a man of God.
He is a United Methodist Church (UMC) lay preacher and administrative council chairman of the Puno UMC. He was formerly administrative board chair of the Knox UMC.
Despite the pressing demands of his new job, he graciously granted The Open Word an interview to give us a personal look at Reynato S. Puno: the public servant, jurist, church leader, and family man.
Chief Justice Puno will be the Guest of Honor and Speaker during the Philippine Bible Society’s 42nd Annual Membership Meeting on April 21, 2007 at the PBS UN Ministry Facility.
You have spent most of your professional life as a public servant. Looking back at your career, do you clearly see God’s hand in it?
I was also able to pursue my Master’s and Doctorate degrees in the United States – all on scholarship and fellowship. After which, I returned to the Philippines and you can just imagine the offers I got from these big law offices that would have certainly made me rich.
Instead, I practiced in my late brother’s law firm before accepting my appointment to the Office of the Solicitor General with a salary of 16,000 pesos.
From there, I was appointed Associate Justice of the Court of Appeals, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Justice, then back to the reorganized CA before finally being appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993.
When I look back now, I clearly see how God’s hands directed the course of my life and I can see His purpose in bringing me to the judiciary.
Just how important is the Bible to you and how did it influence your career?
The Bible has always been an important part of my life and the lives of the members of the Puno family. Early in our years, my late father, who was a disciplinarian, compelled all of us to read the Bible from cover to cover, every day of the year.
So sometimes we are able to read the Bible not only once but twice. When we got to be more mature, we read its commentaries. This process embedded into our consciousness all the holy teachings in the Scriptures and most certainly, they influenced the developments of our lives.
So Bible reading was a distinct part of our lives and when I finished college, I led Bible study classes at Knox UMC. Presently, I teach the Bible in our Sunday school for adults at the Puno UMC.
The Bible tells us of Israel’s leaders, many of whom have acted with fairness and with good judgement. Who among them do you particularly like?
Well, I like King Solomon. I especially like his conversation with the Lord, where he didn’t ask for long life or for riches but supplicated for wisdom to enable him to rule his people with knowledge and righteousness. And because of that special plea, he was given by the Lord not only wisdom but also the extra benefits of life. And as the Bible tells us, King Solomon became the wisest of the wise in judging his people.
I’ve always thought that King Solomon represented the model judge, not only in antiquity but also in modern times. He was able to rule his people, be the judge of their conflicts with wisdom that came from the Lord above, and I’d like to think that he’s the best judge who seek light from the Lord.
With the mounting concerns of credibility on our election process, what do you think is your role or most important contribution to the coming elections?
At this juncture, the judiciary really plays a crucial role in resolving these different crises facing our people. All the surveys show, quite unfortunately, that except for the judiciary, the credibility of the two other branches of government is down.
We hear constant allegations about acts committed by the executive, members of the legislature, and the other agencies of the government against the Constitution and the laws.
Given this kind of landscape, it is only the judiciary that can decide these conflicts, in accordance with the rule of law. If we fail in our role, the consequences would be tragic. There would be chaos and perhaps, a scenario worse than that.
That is why we think that what you said in your acceptance speech was very apt.
Yes, but the most important sentence there is the last sentence. “In God I put all my trust.” I know I have a big burden and without God’s guidance, I cannot succeed in my job as Chief Justice.
You told us a bit of the work you’re handling now. What do you see in the future for your three and a half years in office? What will be the focus of your watch?
First, the Court must be independent. I have always emphasized this necessity. Only an independent judiciary can be credible.
If we lose credibility, our people will lose their faith in our system of justice. If they lose that faith, they would have no option but to resort to extra-judicial methods of resolving their conflicts. That would mean the end of the rule of law in our country.
Second, the judiciary should not only be independent but it should dispense justice fairly and in as fast a manner as possible.
These are enormous problems confronting the judiciary today. Of course, these problems will not easily go away, but I hope to significantly diminish them during my watch in the judiciary.
We have heard you raise your concerns about the on-going spate of extra-judicial killings, particularly this judge from Cagayan who was murdered in Quezon City.
We have to be concerned about extra-judicial killings. According to the Melo Commission, it is the leftists, people who belong to the left of the political spectrum, who have the most number of victims. Next are the members of the media. The third worst victims are the members of the judiciary.
We have now 13 judges murdered all over the country and all these cases remain unsolved. The latest is this judge from Baggao, Cagayan. He was shot, point-blank, just a few meters away from the Quezon City Hall. Again, the killing is unsolved.
Even the international community is bothered about these killings. A few weeks ago, I personally received Professor Alston, the Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights investigating these crimes. I likewise received a delegation from the United Methodist Church in the California-Nevada Jurisdiction that was also concerned with these extra-judicial killings, which involved pastors of the UMC, the UCCP, and others. The concern is growing worldwide.
One of the concerns of the Bible Society is to help the youth in engaging the Bible. They are a special target for us because they are the biggest sector of the population and the most “misunderstood.” Do you have a special message for them?
If you look at our country today, you will find that the youth constitute the majority of our people. In fact, if they unite they can elect the leaders of the country. Given their idealism, the youth are a vital force of the nation.
That is one reason why we should instill all the Biblical lessons in their minds. We should reinforce their ideals with the morals and ethics of the Bible.
Some groups say that the youth, while they are very important in this election, seem to lack the interest. Reports say that there are many first-time voters who did not register, or that many are disillusioned with the current crop of leaders, wondering if their vote still makes a difference.
That’s very bad. Studies conducted by the Asian Development Bank also reflect this disinterest. They call it the State of Learned Hopelessness. The finding is that they seem to be resigned. They seem to lack interest in the changes and challenges going on in our society.
The youth must be active in the coming elections. They must vote and protect their vote.
In a democratic society, election is important. It is the only peaceful way of changing our rulers in case they do not satisfy the expectations of the people. With their number and ideals, the youth holds our future.
With the continued rise in the number of lawyers, do we now have enough manning our courts?
There are not enough lawyers. You know, a lot of these lawyers are not in the practice of the law. Just a small percentage of them are. It is not easy to practice law. It is not as lucrative as the practice of other professions. Some lawyers just engage in business.
Hence, if you look at our population and the number of cases filed, the ratio of lawyers is quite below standard. That is why we have difficulty in getting judges in some areas, especially in far-flung provinces.
There was a time that we really had difficulty attracting lawyers to be judges because of the low pay and the high risk of the position. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the Constitution requires the Judicial and Bar Council to nominate at least three candidates for each vacancy. That makes the search doubly difficult.
So, for quite some time, that problem plagued the judiciary. But about 2 or 3 years ago, Congress came to our rescue and enacted a law that adjusted the salaries of judges. This helped us attract better lawyers to join the courts.
But still, the pay cannot compare to what lawyers in the private sector get. Despite a good salary offer, it is still hard to get judges in places where there is conflict going on.
Let’s go to something lighter. With all the challenges and all these cases being brought to the High Court for resolution, how do you unwind?
I used to play golf and tennis but with the new duties, especially the administrative duties, I hardly find time for them now. So I just unwind with my three grandchildren. They provide the joy I get from these sports activities … Dalawang babae, isang lalaki (Two girls and a boy). They always make my day.
I also read history and philosophy books, aside from the law books. And of course, since I teach Sunday school, I update myself on the commentaries. Baka tanungin ako, hindi ako makasagot eh (It would be embarrassing if I were not able to give an answer should they ask me on it.).
Was your father also a lawyer?
Yes, he was a lawyer, but he did not practice his profession. Isaac Sr. was in the optical business. My mother, Narcissa, did not work but had her hands full with their eight children. During those times, the mother teaches the children, so every day, she checks on our assignments. If you’re not doing them, she will help you with your assignment, which I cannot do now because I cannot even do elementary arithmetic for my grandchildren. That is now beyond me. (laughs).
Can you give us an idea of your family life? Is there another lawyer in the family?
There are no lawyers among my three children. I was married to a lawyer (the late Luzviminda Delgado). She was a Clerk of Court at the Supreme Court. She and I first met in the law office of Roxas and Sarmiento. She was valedictorian of her class. She also graduated cum laude.
You know law is a very difficult profession, very demanding. Law is, as they say, “a jealous mistress.”
Since both of us were lawyers, we devoted a lot of our time to law. There is no end in studying law. And we’re both in government.
Perhaps that is one reason why nobody in the family followed our footsteps. They saw how difficult the life of a lawyer is.
Well, our first two children studied Business Administration at DLSU. Our youngest and only girl, Ruth, took up Economics at the Ateneo. After graduating – she had good grades; she was on the Dean’s List – she wanted to be a lawyer (laughs).
So, I told her that I would not be an impediment to her desire though I wish I were. I tried to make her realize the disadvantages of studying law in terms of time, effort, and global employment opportunities. Eventually, we compromised. She would pursue her Master’s in Economics first and I will pay for it (laughs). If after getting her Master’s degree, she still wants to study law, it’s her call.
So, she went to Australia and got her Master’s there. She finished last December with honors. She’s on her own now but she’s not discussing with me her plans to study law (laughs).
What are the names of your children?
The first is Junior, Reynato Jr., and the second is Emmanuel, who was born on Christmas Day. He was a cesarean baby. Hence, I had the privilege of choosing the date of his birth. I chose December 25 and gave him Emmanuel as his name. The third is Ruth and, as you will note, her name comes from the Biblical character, Ruth.
True to his form, Chief Justice Puno keeps a tight schedule of shepherding his flock in the judiciary. A day after the interview, he even went to the Taguig City Hall of Justice, at the height of a hostage-drama and checked up on the court employees who were taken by the hostage-taker. The following day, he went to Bacolod City to induct the officers of the local regional trial court. He also presented them copies of the Bible as his personal gift.
This reformist of a Chief Justice has began cleaning house, banning the appointment of spouses of justices in the High Court, the Court of Appeals, the Sandiganbayan, and the Court of Tax Appeals. He is also looking into addressing reports of corruption at various courts, while seeking to protect honest judges.
Aside from these, he also plans to partner with the Philippine Bible Society through a Bible distribution program, which he had envisioned (see side story). The program, he said, will provide Bibles not only for all the judges in the country but the entire judiciary as well, with an implicit order for them to read God’s Word.
Despite the enormity of the task ahead, we can expect Chief Justice Puno to work for a better system of justice because of the integrity that he has shown throughout his life.
Let us unite in prayer that God will give him the wisdom and the strength to be victorious in his endeavors, especially in his partnership for the advancement of the Bible Cause.