I am happy to get a copy of the coffee table book Chief Justice Ramon Q. Avanceña: His Stories of A Young Nation, by Ricky Avanceña, edited by Carmen Guerrero Nakpil and with foreword by Chief Justice Hilario Davide. My passion to share it actually lifted my months-old writer’s block. This is the story of one of the greatest men who ever lived.
Ramon Avanceña was born on April 13, 1872 in Iloilo. His parents Don Lucas and Doña Petra owned a fleet of cargo ships. His sisters Jovita and Ramona founded the famed Colegio de Sta., and were awarded with the Pro Ecclessia et Pro Pontifice Medal by Pope Pius XI.
Avanceña went to the University of Sto. Tomas at the height of the Propaganda Movement in Europe. One day, our teenage hero ran into the most terrifying professor in school. Where is Señor Avanceña going and why is he in such a rush? To study these papers sir, the boy replied truthfully, but not adding that those were smuggled excerpts of Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, possession of which is punishable by death.
The young patriot joined the war against foreign rule. At 26, he was the Secretary of State for the Provisionary Government of the Visayas. He helped overthrow the Spaniards led by Diego de los Rios from Panay. But a few days later, American war ships attacked. Avanceña and company valiantly defied them, but he was captured – and tortured mercilessly.
How would you feel if gallons of water were pumped down your throat until your entire body becomes a bloated mass of pain? Can you bear the agony as your tormentors jumped down your swollen belly to expel the water? What if they do it again? And again?
Ramon Avanceña suffered beyond imagination, but he steadfastly refused to betray the rebel forces. He almost died, but they cannot break him.
Upon his release, Avanceña founded the Instituto de Enseñanza Libre (Institute of Free Education) in his hometown of Molo, and also went on to become a law professor at the Liceo de Manila. He joined the Bureau of Justice, and in 1905, after 3 years of excellence, he was promoted to Attorney General – the chief legal adviser of the government – but he declined, saying he wasn’t ready yet.
So instead he was appointed Judge At Large for Visayas and Mindanao. During this time, he married Flocerfina Abad and they would be blessed with 6 sons. Another promotion made him Judge of the Court of first Instance for the 13th Judicial District. In 1913, he was again offered the post of Attorney General, and this time he accepted.
But his independence jarred the Establishment. Governor General Francis Burton Harrison, the country’s de facto ruler, got a more agreeable replacement and made Avanceña an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
On April 1, 1925, Ramon Avanceña was elevated as Chief Justice.
The baptism of fire was ignited by the epic battle between Senate President Manuel Quezon and Governor General Leonard Wood. But the issues have evolved when it reached the 6-man High Court: Can the Senate President and the Speaker of the House vote on the stock shares of the Philippine National Bank and the National Coal Co., alongside Wood, as members of the Board of Control? It has always been that way, but the 5 American Justices said it was unconstitutional, thus evicting the appointees of Quezon and Speaker Osmeña.
The lone dissent came from the lone Filipino in the tribunal. Chief Justice Avanceña ruled that it was already implied that the American Congress ratified the Board of Control when it did not annul it. Also, those corporations are private and remain so, even if the government is a stockholder. Furthermore, membership to the Board is not a public office.
In the Inaugural of President Manuel L. Quezon, it was Avanceña who administered the oath. They were the best of friends since their school days at the Letran although their personalities are polar opposites; Avanceña was the epitome of cool, while Quezon’s fiery temper was legendary. But what they had in common were infinitely more significant – their deep patriotism, the sense of honor to not let their closeness affect public policy, and the mutual trust and respect that withstood the crucible of war and the test of time.
But anarchy was looming. The Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision to deny benefits to a laborer who died while on duty. The President denounced the judges; the media had a field day. Since the case was already under review by the Supreme Court, both Quezon and Avanceña were in a bind. In a gesture of supreme statesmanship, Avanceña offered to resign – together with all the magistrates who rallied behind him – rather than compromise the reputation of the Judiciary. Quezon won’t retract, nor would he allow a constitutional crisis, but he left them alone.
The Chief Justice himself deliberated on the case. The heat eventually died down, and the Supreme Court reversed the previous ruling and ordered the employer, Barredo, to compensate the family of the laborer, Cuevo. The independence of the Judiciary stood tall and untarnished.
Ramon Avanceña served his beloved country with the sterling integrity that had become his trademark. He was looking forward to his 70th birthday and quiet retirement after 25 years in the Supreme Court, as Chief Justice for 16.
Then the Japanese attacked.
The President declared Manila an Open City to shield the citizens and moved the government’s command center to the impenetrable island fortress of Corregidor, which also became the headquarters of the American forces headed by Gen. Douglas McArthur. Avanceña once again responded to the call of duty by agreeing to relinquish his powers immediately to his successor, the equally honorable Jose Abad Santos, to maintain political stability even if the hostilities worsened.
Then Quezon gave an order that would change their lives.
The President instructed Justice Secretary Jose Laurel and Executive Secretary Jorge Vargas to stay in Manila and do whatever it takes, short of pledging allegiance to Japan, to protect the civilians. Gen. Masami Maeda forced them to create a council to serve as a bridge between him and the people – and if they refuse to cooperate, then all men, woman and children in the countryside will be massacred. Vargas organized the remaining Commonwealth officials and asked Avanceña for help.
Avanceña and the other Filipino leaders hostaged by the invaders would, time and again, through subterfuge, sabotage Imperialist plans. They were effective because in public they seem to cooperate but in private they would meet with Quezon’s emissaries and expose inside stories.
Then Avanceña was stricken with cancer. Liberation came during his operation at the PGH. McArthur instigated their arrest for “treason.” Intelligence dossiers on Avanceña confirmed his unparalleled nationalism, and a U.S. Major, out of respect, came alone to fetch the ailing old man from his home in Pasay, and brought him to Bilibid Prisons. His health deteriorated, and he was confined to a hospital under guard, but his sentries respect him so much that they never wore their guns. The People’s Court dropped the charges for lack of evidence. Ramon Avanceña was now free – and vindicated by history.
Avanceña gave his last full measure of devotion. At President Elpidio Quirino’s request, he came out of retirement to serve as senior adviser, but had to leave, out of delicadeza, because his old friend Laurel ran against the latter. He was hospitalized again, and the winner of the next election, the charismatic Ramon Magsaysay, visited him and asked him to his own personal adviser when he got well again. But a few days later, the President died, and the Chief Justice did not recover.
Ramon Avanceña died on June 12, 1957. The new President, Carlos P. Garcia, paid his last respects and was surprised that the late Chief Justice, as was his request, had already been buried the same day at the La Loma. Chief Justice Manuel V. Moran, in his eulogy, distilled the essence of Ramon Avanceña: “Era un santo.”
“He was a saint.”