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Judge of Character

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Chief Justice Reynato Puno dodged the impeachment controversy and, instead, echoed Confucian values at the Anvil Exchange Forum— characteristics, he said, our government leaders ought to embody.

[Photo of Ronnie Puno]Anvil president Eddie Cobankiat called Chief Justice Reynato Puno the “savior of this country, because he is the only guy who can prevent a political meltdown.”

Despite the praises and even suggestions he run for President, Puno spoke little about politics before members of the Anvil Business Club in a recent forum.

Instead, he stressed the importance of good governance. His choice philosopher: Confucius—whose political thought is rooted in ethics.

Through his speech, the chief magistrate perhaps was not so subtly urging others in power to be good (or better) leaders.

For the People

“More than economic prosperity, more than military might, government needs the trust of the people,” noted Puno.

To earn people’s trust and be a good leader, the father of three recommended: “You must love the people as if they were your own children.”

After two People Power Revolutions that unseated two heads of state, Filipinos very well know what they are capable of when things go awry in the political front. Puno pointed out both Edsa Revolutions were “testaments to the lesson that governments that forfeit the trust of the people have unhappy exits.

For history not to repeat itself for a third or fourth or, heaven forbid, fifth time, Puno borrowed the Chinese philosophers words to guide his peers: “The moral character of the ruler is the wind; the moral character of those beneath him is the grass. When the wind blows, the grass bends.”


[Photo of Anvil Business Club]Puno’s morals appear to have given him good wind. People power movements have bucked rulers out of Malacañan. This time, however, it could keep the chief in the judiciary.

In early January, talks of a plot to oust the Chief Justice made the news. The supposed impeachment would be based on a Supreme Court decision, which Puno allegedly did not enact. The discontinued case was to disqualify Negros Oriental Representative Jocelyn Limkaichong, whose citizenship was put in question.

Several government officials have pointed their fingers at Malacañan to be behind the impeachment rap against Puno. As speculation built up, some said moves to impeach the Chief Justice was the first step to building a Supreme Court that would allow Charter Change.

Former Senate President Franklin Drilon said Puno is not one to toe the line when it comes to changing the Constitution. Retired Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, meantime, said Puno, as a man of character and integrity, “wages lonely battles against conventional wisdom with his stirring dissents and insightful opinion.”

But his proverbial moral wind has gained him supporters who would bend like grass against the impeachment. The Asia Pacific Bar Association called moves to oust Puno “unconstitutional.” Comrades from Bantay Korte Suprema, a coalition of legal luminaries in the academe, law groups, and the Makati Business Club, are also staying vigilant to keep Puno in office until his term ends in 2010.

Preaching His Practice

“We need leaders with moral character,” said the chief magistrate. The country’s problems, Puno reckoned, could be solved by changing not so much the legal system, but its moral system.

Most civil servants are known to desire nothing more than the power their positions give them. Puno, on the other hand, values virtue. He believes “such virtue enables the ruler to maintain good order in his state without troubling himself and by relying on loyal and effective deputies.”

His leadership skills and, perhaps, even his character, were shaped in the academe. For three consecutive years—1960, 1961, and 1962—the University of the Philippines College of Law alumnus was awarded the Outstanding Award for Excellence and Leadership by the Alpha Phi Beta Fraternity. He was also appointed the much-coveted editorship of the Philippine Collegian.

His accolades and awards have gained him the respect of his peers and the people but it’s his character that helps him keep that respect.

President Puno?

Amid the impeachment buzz, Puno has been thrust into the spotlight. His integrity and speech on morality helped him shine on the national stage. This has won him praises from his peers in the executive and  legislative branches.

Everyone admired Puno so much that they may have envisioned a glimmer of hope for the Philippines with Puno as the Chief Executive. Senator Panfilo Lacson was the first to push for Puno’s presidency. Others quickly followed.

Before Lacson’s very public endorsement, Anvil external vice president Daniel Ching coined the acronym PUNO: People United for a New Order, which very much sounded like a presidential campaign slogan. But Puno said he’d much rather be a catalyst for moral change than run for national office in the next elections. “I keep politics out of the judiciary. We simply do our duty as the constitution mandates, over and above political interests.”

At the Anvil Forum, a member asked what Puno would do if tomorrow, he found himself appointed as the president of the Philippines. “You assume I covet the Office of the President?” he answered in jest.

Leading by Example

But unlike those of publicity-hungry pols, Puno’s character shows in the seemingly most trivial things.

He cited the great Chinese philosopher saying, “Character is who we are when no one is watching.” All eyes maybe on Puno but his integrity is not merely for show.

Ching called Puno “a man of character” for arriving earlier than most of the members of the club.

Puno took the compliment with witty modesty saying if he didn’t arrive on time, “I will cite myself in contempt.”

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