Defender of Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law



A staunch defender of civil liberties and the rule of law, Roberto R. Concepcion was the 11th chief justice of the Supreme Court. He was born in Manila on June 7, 1903, to Isidro Concepcion and Catalina Reyes. He had his secondary education at San Beda College, where he also received his associates in arts degree. In 1924, he graduated with a bachelor of laws degree, summa cum laude, from the University of Santo Tomas. He topped the bar examinations given that same year.

After a short stint as a private law practitioner, Concepcion joined the government service as an assistant attorney in the Bureau of Justice in 1929. In 1940, he was appointed judge-at-large, serving in various parts of the country. He shocked the judicial community when he conducted court sessions at Jolo town hall instead of in board ships anchored in bay, which was then standard procedures as a precaution against people who ran amok and indiscriminately killed those in their path. During the Japanese occupation, he served as a judge in Samar and as general consultant to the First Coded Commission. Upon the reestablishment of the Commonwealth government with the return of the American forces in1945, he reassumed his old position as judge. He briefly served as justice undersecretary before being elevated to the Court of Appeals on November 23, 1945. On February 9,1954, Concepcion was appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court. He became Chief Justice on June 4,1966.

A highly principled man, Justice Conception was uncompromising whenever the integrity of the country or the Supreme Court was challenged. His obsession was to clear the dockets of the courts. He instituted some internal changes in the high tribunal so that its decisions could be promulgated as soon as they were made. For this-not to mention his administrative duties-he often had to work late.

To Justice Concepcion, no man is above the law. He maintained his solute stand in decisions he penned even in cases involving the highest officials in the land, such as President Quirino in complex rebellion cases, People vs. Hernandez (99 Phil. 545); President Magsaysay, in Hebron vs. Reyes (104 Phil. 175); President Macapagal, in Pelaez vs. Auditor General (15 SCRA 589), and Marcos, in Javellana vs. Executive Secretary (505 SCRA 36), which questioned the presidential proclamation of the ratification of the 1973 Constitution.

In 1971 habeas corpus cases, he formulated the cardinal rule which is now enshrined in the 1987 Constitution-that the Presidentís constitutionally conferred power to declare martial law or suspend the writ of the habeas corpus is neither absolute nor qualified but limited and conditional, and that the Supreme Court is empowered to inquire into the sufficiency of the factual basis for such declaration or suspension.

As Chief Justice during the declaration of martial law in 1972, it fell on Conceptionís shoulders to preserve the independence of the Supreme Court against the pressures exerted by the Marcos Administration to use it as an instrument in legitimizing its actions. Marcos has filled the court with justices who were supportive of his decisions, thus making Conceptionís job of maintaining judicial integrity extremely difficult. In his minority decision in Javellana vs. Executive Secretary, Conception attacked the procedure on how the 1973 Constitution was ratified with a mere show of hands during the so-called Peopleís Assemblies and accused the president of violating the Constitution. Conception called on his fellow justice to declare the proclamation of the ratification of the 1973 charter null and void. However, in an extended opinion, Associate Justice Felix Makasiar claimed that an executive proclamation could only be nullified by a two-thirds vote by the court, which Conception failed to muster. Thus, the Supreme Court ruled that there were no longer legal impediments to the enforcement of the Constitution.

The erosion of the judiciaryís independence and the subordination of the Supreme Court to the Executive Branch were too much for Justice Conception to take. He resigned from the Supreme Court 50 days before his retirement age on April 17, 1973.

After leaving the Supreme Court, Conception continued to express his commitment to the rule of law by supporting human rights cause through legal assistance to the poor. He served from time to time as consultant, adviser, or chairman on the National Committee on Legal Aid of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines. He stressed that legal aid should be made available especially to the indigent to deliver justice and equity without which peace could be attained. He also served twice as dean of the College of Law of the University of Santo Tomas.

Despite his advanced age and fragile physical condition, Conception accepted his appointment on June 2, 1986 as a member of the Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 charter. He served as chairman of the committee on the judiciary. He was always the first to arrive during its sessions as well as the last to leave. His advice was always sought by the Commission, which considered him as its elder statesman. He was the principal author of the judiciary article of the completed charter, whose draft was designed at his sickbed.

Conception was married to Dolores Conception, by whom he had four children: Carmencita, Roberto Jr., Milagros, and Jesus. He died on May 3, 1987 at age of 83.



Jessica May O. CadeliŮa