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The curious case of Raphael Lotilla, who said ‘No’ to a CJ nomination

07:57 PM June 19, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO—When he left the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo five years ago, former energy secretary Raphael ‘Popo’ Lotilla told reporters: “I would like to end my vow of poverty and all the ancillary vows that come with it.”

He lied.

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Popo Lotilla is not and has never been poor by any means, of course. But back then he was a rare breed — a top Philippine government official who didn’t get rich from his position.

He didn’t own a house. He didn’t own car. He didn’t even own a TV.

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In fact, he led such a frugal lifestyle he earned a Meralco designation as lifeline customer for consuming less than 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month.

Leaving government was supposed to change that. I thought he’d join some corporation or start his own private practice and starting making real money.

Instead, Popo joined a United Nations agency focused on international maritime issues. He has remained faithful to his vow.

“Am not homeless, but I don’t own a house or a condo. No TV for me,” he told me in an e-mail after I wrote to check if he has acquired any additional assets after leaving government.

Popo Lotilla is back in the news. He’s been nominated to become the next chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court.

He said ‘no.’

It’s a safe bet that it’s not because he’s worried that the now famous requirement to disclose everything he owns in a SALN would pose problems. (In fact, other politicos would probably waive that requirement in his case for it may make them look bad.)

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He had a bigger reason.

In an odd twist, reading his letter explaining it made me glad that I didn’t let him talk me into going to law school years ago.

Otherwise, I would have ended up writing something like this:

“The tradition of seniority has a way of muting political ambitions and insulates to some degree the office of Chief Justice from the patronato system. Over the long term, particularly under future presidencies whose virtues we are unable to anticipate at this point, adherence to the principle of seniority may still be our best option.”

I’m kidding. Popo is one of the most elegant writers I know. But he’s also a legal scholar — and a former public official, one of the few known for ironclad integrity.

So it didn’t surprise me that buried in the legalese was Popo’s clear idea of what public service is about, and the hard work needed to change the way government works.

At the risk of annoying my friend by paraphrasing him, what he’s actually saying is this: “Letting a president choose the country’s top judge is a bad idea. Let’s do it by seniority. It’s not perfect. But that’s better than leaving the decision to a clown or a crook who happened to get elected president. ”

He knows what he’s talking about. Popo served three presidents — two of whom are now widely viewed as a clown and a crook.

It’s been a tough career.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one of his friends to feel disappointed when he was occupying fairly high profile roles in the administrations of Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo. With Erap, I actually thought, ‘For crying out loud, what in the world are you doing in that gangster government?’

But while many in the country celebrated the 2001 revolt, dubbed People Power 2, which swept Erap out of power, Popo saw it as a kind of setback.

It’s not because he believed in Erap. But I got the sense that, in his view, EDSA 2 was a shortcut that could backfire, and do more harm than good.

And it did.

Yes, Erap was a disaster. But forcing him out under questionable legal grounds simply muddled that record in the eyes of people, especially those who voted for him.

Yes, Erap could have maneuvered his way out of his impeachment trial and could have gone on to finish his term. That would have meant a few more years of chaos and pain.

But, in Popo’s view, the nation would have survived Erap — and his undoubtedly catastrophic regime would have brought home a more powerful, longer-lasting, message to Filipinos: That electing a popular former movie star just because he’s a popular famous movie star can lead to disaster.

That electing a clown would lead to a catastrophe.

Popo’s endorsement of seniority as a basis for picking the Supreme Court chief justice speaks to this point.

Philippine democracy is not perfect, he’s saying. Yes, it’s vulnerable to clowns or crooks than can use money or popularity to win elections.

But it can be strengthened and expanded, slowly and steadily, by creating rules, by developing a culture that rejects corruption, rewards hard work and celebrates responsive and responsible leadership.

And perhaps, eventually, we can have a political culture in which a clown or a crook will not have any chance of getting elected.

But that will take time. That won’t happen all of suddenly. And it won’t just happen with the election of one leader, or with one dramatic political event like EDSA 1 or EDSA 2.

It entails patience and hard work. That’s also how Popo saw his role in government.

He did not immediately resign when Erap’s government was collapsing because he saw himself as a professional public servant, and because he saw the need for career professional public servants who took their positions and responsibilities seriously.

There was a practical reason. He was then deputy director general at NEDA and some of the agency’s young employees had joined the uprising. “I was in a better position to protect them than if I just left from retribution,” he recalled.

But there was a broader and deeper reason, one that speaks to his emphasis on patience in pushing to change the way government works.

“I associate the seasonally popular view with an enchantment for cataclysm, a preoccupation with the one single event that can change our nation’s life forever,” he told me.

“But institution-building is more incremental, and we cannot call on the career officials whom we want to provide continuity and stability to be among the triggers for overnight political changes that recreate more of the same flaws.  Better societies are able to keep change and continuity in healthy tension, and do not have to recreate everything from dust.”

Popo has long been big on patience and taking the long view.

One of our rare fights was based on that. He was editor in chief of the UP Collegian and I was one of his staff editors when Ninoy Aquino was assassinated in 1983.

There was confusion in the days following the murder, and I was one of the hotehead editors who pushed for a more aggressive lead headline on the assassination.

Popo insisted on restraint. We had heated arguments over this. But looking back, he was right. The headline we eventually used — “Reports conflict on Aquino slay” – was the right choice.

His frugal ways were legend at UP Diliman. The scion of a wealthy hacendero clan in Antique, Popo lived for years at Narra Residence Hall, the senior dorm notorious for bad ventilation, leaky bathrooms and poorly-lit corridors and rooms.

But his simple ways were partly the reason why, as a professor at the U.P. College of Law, Popo inspired a group of young attorneys many of whom are now some of today’s prominent attorneys.

Some of them even considered following his lead by embracing a “vow of poverty.”

“We were a group of young lawyers who were inspired by Popo to join the academe and to serve,” my friend lawyer Susan Villanueva told me years ago. “Somehow, without at all being preachy and through sheer example, Popo made us believe and want to change the way things were through our abilities and expertise as lawyers.  … All of us graduated at the top of our class. Most of us were in the top law firms or had lucrative private practices. Yet, we wanted to take the road less traveled.”

Susan and the other UP law alums had hoped to see Popo named dean of the UP College of Law. She was prepared to give up her position at a major law firm to teach and do policy work full time at the UP Law Center.

“Imagine a public policy center that had in-house expertise, beholden to no private interests that could help shape government policy,” she said.

Unfortunately, Popo lost his bid for the deanship. Susan called his defeat “one of the seminal events in the lives of so many people.”

“Had Popo been appointed, I would have also taken the vow of poverty he had taken,” she continued. “I can’t believe now why I was even prepared to make that sacrifice but that time was different. It was a time for possibilities. We all felt then that a Popo deanship would have been a turning point in UP Law’s history, the golden age. There was a critical mass that could be led by Popo who was primus inter pares. Someone we all respected who could lead us to make the change happen.”

Popo himself didn’t dwell on his defeat. In fact, he’s big on another thing: Hope.

He would rather not waste time exploring the viewpoint that goes: “Oh, the Philippines is hopeless. Filipinos will never get anything right. Wala nang pag asa ang Pilipinas.”

When I found myself wallowing in that mode of thinking many years ago, it was my friend Popo Lotilla who straightened me out.

In a 1991 handwritten letter that was part pep talk, part lecture, he told me, “As to the matter of hope, your faith and mine in humanism will sustain it.”

“For as long as these islands are inhabited by people, there will be hope and plenty of it,” he continued. “The challenge is in preserving the humanity of our people and perfecting it. They have not lost hope in Burkina Faso either, have they?”

On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/benjamin.pimentel

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TAGS: chief justice, Government, Politics, Raphael Lotilla, Supreme Court
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