The general’s lawyer

Many who lived through martial law cannot look at a man in uniform without somehow recalling its horrors. It is a perceptual association that has survived the graying of memory.  You have to keep telling yourself that the evil was in the regime, not necessarily in the individuals it used.

It’s not always easy to heed this voice.  Thus it was with much satisfaction that I watched Gen. Carlos Garcia’s grilling by a congressional committee.  I imagined the young legislators who were questioning him to be the children of our generation, leveling off the score for the countless activists summoned before military bodies during those dark years.  For a while, I even forgot that Rep. Imee Marcos, who asked very sharp questions, was the dictator’s daughter.

Everything I detested in the military during its heyday – the smugness, the arrogance, the corruption, and the malevolence – seemed to merge in the corpulent general’s persona. So powerful was the wicked glow he emitted that I thought it gave even his seatmate – the kindly Gen. Narciso Abaya – a shadowy mien.  If a man’s culpability were to be determined by the way he looked, there was no question Gen. Garcia was a guilty man.

It was in the middle of these ruminations that I suddenly caught a glimpse of the general’s lawyer seated just beside him. Halfexpecting a well-dressed lawyer from the country’s expensive law firms or a familiar face from the roster of champions of lost causes, I was totally unprepared for what I saw.  The general’s counsel looked like my old friend Constantino B. de Jesus, my roommate in school and a dear brother.  “That’s not Tito,” my wife assured me, “the chin is too small.”  “Of course, it is Tito,” I pressed, “without the goatee.” Only Tito buttons his cotton barong at the neck.  “That’s him,” I said with increasing discomfort.  Tito is a competent, meticulous, lowprofile lawyer of unassailable integrity. He certainly does not need the money or the publicity. What, in heaven’s name, is he doing beside this man who has been virtually pilloried as a crook?

Later that day I sent him this message: “You must have a reason for burdening yourself with such an indefensible case.  I’m dying to hear it.”  He replied, “I’ll call you later.”  We met the other day and talked for about six hours about the practice of law, the responsibility of lawyers, the fragility of our institutions, and his own 32-year-career as a litigator, sometimes as a court-appointed counsel for convicts on death row.

“I hope you’re being paid well,” I said unfairly.  “So far, I have received a regular helping of Hall’s candy from him,” he said laughing.  “Of course, the sins of the client should not be visited upon the lawyer,” I added, hoping to erase the mild insult I had just uttered. Tito has been my friend since college days at the UP.  We meet for lunch at least once a month to exchange notes about family, country, and life in general. To one another, we are as brother, philosopher, and friend.  I was surprised he did not seek my advice on whether to take this case or decline it.

“I didn’t know him from Adam,” he said. “People I implicitly trust asked me to help him. His first lawyer had just withdrawn his counsel, and a congressional committee has been waiting to put him on the stand. I am a lawyer; a lawyer’s oath makes no distinction on who to defend.”

I asked if he did not think it was necessary for his client to tell him beforehand what his story was.  “No, things happened very fast.  He was in the hospital.  He was facing a congressional investigation and he needed a lawyer to tell him what his rights were.  In time, of course, I will have to know and be convinced by his account of the disparity between his declared income and the money and properties that he is supposed to own.”  He was emphatic that he would never pursue his client’s interest at the expense of truth and justice.

The law is about basic fairness, Tito reminded me.  Under the rule of law, there is a presumption of innocence until guilt is proven.  It is what separates rule of law from mob rule, he said. He lamented media’s tendency to highlight the negative aspects of a person’s appearance and situation and to take these as indications of his guilt.

I could only nod in agreement.  By coincidence, I’ve been reading the book “Supreme Court Decisions as Philosophy” and marked a line in the landmark case of Conde v. City Judge Superable Jr.:  “When a litigant is therefore an individual for whom he (the judge) does not cherish kindly thoughts, he is called upon to show greater care lest inadvertently he finds himself unable to resist the prompting of his emotions.”

“This is a fascinating case,” Tito told me.  “I don’t regret taking it.  It is every lawyer’s dream to contribute to the refinement of the law’s meaning through jurisprudence.” He said there are many novel elements in this case:  the anti-money laundering law, the role of the Ombudsman, the proper sphere of a court-martial, etc.  These and the whole politically-charged atmosphere in which this case is being tried will test our resolve to protect our institutions from the instant gratifications of trial by publicity.

How lucky for the general to have a bright lawyer who is neither a crook nor a crackpot.  If he is ultimately found guilty, my fear is that, in a culture like ours, his lawyer would be made to bear part of his disgrace.  I asked Tito if this does not bother him. He smiled and simply said, no.


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