May 27, 1939
Front Page Faces
Mr. Chief Justice
WHILE small smart Jose Yulo was closing up the legislative mill in Manila, small wise old Ramon Avanceña was grinding away at the judicial mill in Baguio, with adjournment fixed for the end of this month. If the Assembly’s record of the fast but careful legislation was impressive, even more so was the Supreme Court’s record of swift justice.
The Justices had rendered an average of five decisions a day, had by last week broken the standing record for the court’s summer sessions by deciding over 200 cases. The last Baguio session was held in 1935; 180 cases were disposed of. About 260 cases are expected to be cleaned up by the end of the 1939 session. This does not include resolutions, except those on motions for reconsideration of cases.
The seven wise men of the Supreme Court, under the quiet but efficient leadership of Chief Justice Ramon Avanceña, meet at the old senate cottage in Baguio’s government center every day, write their decisions at home. It is a significant commentary on the structure of Philippine government that, while President Manuel Quezon is on the front pages daily and while Speaker Yulo helps him make news and history, the head of the judicial branch, coordinate with and the equal of the executive and legislative, is one of the least known public men in the Commonwealth.
Mr. Avanceña has sat on the high court bench for 22 years; he has been Chief Justice for 14; but few citizens would recognize him if they met him on the streets. This is not extraordinary in a democracy. The Chief Justice is not a political figure, he makes no speeches and marches in few parades. His field of action is the hushed and austere court-room. In addition, Mr. Avanceña is by temperament, a retiring and unassuming man, humble and honest.
His three predecessors at the head of the Supreme Court are indeed giants who would compel humility in any jurist. Cayetano Arellano, “the first Chief Justice in time and rank in the Philippines,” according to former Justice George Malcolm, was an erudite gentleman who wrote decisions “so luminous and convincing that it is still customary for lawyers, in citing one of his decisions, to stress the point that it was written by Mr. Chief Justice Arellano.” In a difficult and bewildering time, Arellano laid the foundations of Philippine jurisprudence.
Victorino Mapa, a sharp contrast to his predecessor, had an American conciseness of speech and directness of reasoning. Mr. Malcolm considers him “the finest legal mind on the Court. His opinion was the last word in any subject.” He was handicapped by a weak body; his spirit was intensely patriotic. He agreed to leave the congenial duties of the Court to serve as secretary of justice. His reward came to him when he returned as Chief Justice, breaking the heart of his brilliant rival, Florentino Torres.
Manuel Araullo, the third Chief Justice, had Arellano’s Spanish background. He had been educated in Spain. But he had an English jealousy of judicial prestige and power. He defended the courts valiantly against all intrusion, maintained the independence of the judiciary against executive and legislative attacks.
Mapa was Chief Justice for only 15 months; Araullo, for less than three years. Only the fabulous Arellano served longer than Avanceña; the first Chief Justice retired after 21 years.
Avanceña surpasses his predecessors in one thing: he has a commanding executive ability. He has kept the Supreme Court working swiftly and efficiently, with a minimum of friction and procrastination. This year’s record-breaking summer session is only one instance of his qualities as a leader.
His success is due in great part to the ruling precept of his life, which he once expressed as: “I would not accept any position in which I could not successfully serve.” When he was nominated for the post of attorney general, he refused for fear that he was not prepared, and asked that he be allowed to get experience first as a judge of first instance.
Several prominent lawyers once tried to prove with figures that it was mentally impossible for the Supreme Court to study adequately and decide so many cases in a year. The inference was that that Court was sacrificing justice to speed.
Informed of the charges, Mr. Chief Justice Avanceña smiled briefly. “It’s like this, chico,” he told the inquiring reporter. “Let us supposed that you know nothing about mathematics and that I am an authority on the subject. A problem is submitted to us for solution. You would probably take days. I would take only about three minutes.” Mr. Chief Justice’s smile was like a Supreme Court decision; it allowed no appeal.