During Fr. Bernas’s presentation as a friend of the court, the public listened in awe of his incisive treatment of the intricate constitutional issues involved.

I had the distinct opportunity to work with Fr. Bernas in some constitutional law test cases and in the administration of the Ateneo Law School. It was during these occasions that I had witnesses his enduring passion for the rule of law and his capacity to influence minds.

In some important cases of national importance in which the Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) lawyers and I handled, Fr. Bernas served as the moving spirit and inspiration. He knew how to motivate people without necessarily imposing his views upon them.

One occasion was at the height of our preparation for the holding of the Asia-Pacific Conference on East Timor in the Philippines during the Ramos administration. Fr. Bernas supported AHRC’s decision to contest a Quezon City Regional Trial Court’s temporary restraining order issued upon the efforts of the conference organizers. AHRC and its lawyers consulted Fr. Bernas on a strategy in testing the case successfully before the Supreme Court. Pressure was being exerted upon the Ateneo administration by some government officials to dissuade the AHRC from pursuing the conference in light of the national security and diplomatic implications of the conference. Two hours before the opening of the conference at Malcolm Hall, UP College of Law, the Supreme Court quashed the lower court’s injunctive order. The decision triggered the successful advocacy for East Timorese struggle for independence.

On another text case, Fr. Bernas, together with AHRC and a group of lawyers representing the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, crafted the legal strategy and theory in defending the constitutionality of a landmark legislation, the Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997. In his assuring and humble attitude, Fr. Bernas provided u with incisive novel constitutional legal theories in support of the claims of millions of indigenous peoples to their ancestral domains around the country. The legal team  would have wanted him to argue the case during the summer session of the Supreme Court in Baguio City on April 13, 1999, considering that the counsel for the petitioners was retired Justice Isagani Cruz. Unfortunately, Fr. Bernas had to conduct an annual retreat four our senior law students during that period in Baguio. Atty. Carlos P. Medina, Jr. and I  had no choice but to take on the task that day. We took refuge in Mirador, where Fr. Bernas was conducting the retreat.

Before we left for the hearing, Fr. Bernas, in a very unassuming manner, asked whether we had argued orally a case before the Supreme Court. Realizing that we were new to the process, he called on the retreatants to pray for us. Then to build our confidence, he instructed us to use short notes as guides outlining the fundamental issues and key contentions. As the votes would later reveal – 7-7, a divided Court – the law was sustained paving the way for the implementation of the processing of ancestral domain claims of indigenous peoples.

In the impeachment case against Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide, Jr., the AHRC, the School of Government, and some Ateneo Law School professors worked closely with Fr. Bernas in filing a petition supporting the assumption of jurisdiction by the Supreme Curt over matters affecting the impeachment case initiated at the House of Repesentatives. During Fr. Bernas’s presentation as a friend of the court, the public listened in awe of his incisive treatment of the intricate constitutional issues involved. It was a delight to listen to contending parties quoting fr. Bernas in support of their respective arguments.

During the oral arguments in the FPJ citizenship case, the Supreme Court justices witnessed Fr. Bernas transcend the rigors of a prolonged session of the Court, which ended close to midnight, only to deliver a most impressive opinion as friend of the Court once more. Fr. Bernas, upon reaching the Jesuit dormitory past midnight at the Ateneo Professional Schools with Prof. Ruben Balane, decided to take a long deserved rest in his seat. After a few minutes, Prof. Balane noticed Fr. Bernas beginning to experience convulsion and suddenly paased out in his seat. Equally exhausted, as he himself had been asked to serve as amicus curiae that day, Prof. Balane sought help from a group of law students then preparing for their international moot court competition in one of the classrooms. Timely medical assistance was administered to Fr. Bernas. His response to the call of legal and moral duty far outweighed his concern for his own physical needs.

The nationally debated case on the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), recognizing the historic right of the Bangsamoro people to claim their homeland, which was supposed to be signed by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines Negotiating Panel (GRP-Panel) in August 2008, again became an occasion for me to understand the mind of Fr. Bernas and his non-judgmental predisposition when he relates to people. He had the opportunity to to sit with the GRP-Panel and myself, in my capacity as chief legal consultant, to discuss the constitutional aspects of the MOA-AD. At the height of the public criticism of the agreement and the oral arguments before the Supreme Court, Fr. Bernas tackled the sensitive political and legal issues with much respect for the integrity and sincerity of the negotiating panel, although he may have differed in the end in his view of the entire process. As one deeply immersed in the negotiation in the MOA-AD, I found reassurance in how Fr. Bernas handled the dynamics of law and politics in the context of social issues like the Bangsamoro claim.

In all of these engagements, Fr. Bernas has consistently grappled with issues of national significance without hesitation and argued orally or in writing, with distinct objectivity of an academic mind, but grounded on the fundamental principles of justice and humanity.

Sedfrey Candelaria (AB PoS ’80, LL.B ’84) teaches constitutional law and indigenous people’s law, among others, at the Ateneo Law School. He is also the school’s associate dean for student affairs and dean for admissions. He was part of the government negotiating panel in the peace talks with the CPP/NPA/NDF.
Source: “Ateneans Inspiring Ateneans” 1859-2009 by Ateneo de Manila University Press.