Romeo T. Capulong, people's lawyer
The deposed dictatorship saw the flowering of people’s lawyering, with many young and almost totally unknown lawyers in all parts of the country taking the side of the people and responding to the severe conditions of military and political repression. – Atty. Romeo T. Capulong
It is in the nature of things that while there is the dark side, there also is the bright, redeeming opposite. The iron grip of martial law was the indispensable condition for the imposition of the Marcos fascist dictatorship on Philippine society 40 years ago. Ironically, it also saw the “flowering of people’s lawyering” as the late Atty. Romeo T. Capulong, one of its foremost proponents and practicioners put it.
Atty. Capulong, quintessential people’s lawyer, died last September 16, after some years battling an uncommon bone marrow disease. When he turned 77 last February, Atty. Capulong, who we fondly called “RTC”, mused that he wanted to live a few more years because he felt he had many more things to do and because he wanted some quality time with his family.
In actuality, RTC as a public interest lawyer, patriot, political activist and social reformer, has left a uniquely rich and enduring legacy that would be of invaluable service to our people for generations to come.
This writer cannot possibly do justice to the man and his life accomplishments in this short essay. Instead I would like to first focus on the concept of people’s lawyering that RTC developed, articulated and promoted to lawyers, young and old, all over the country, from a lifetime of honing its principles and methods in all the human rights and public interest cases he and his law firm, the Public Interest Law Center (PILC), handled.
RTC took pains to differentiate between legal aid for indigents and lawyering for the exploited and oppressed poor. The former derives its mandate from the Philippine Constitution that calls for “adequate legal assistance” for poor litigants which is why the government has a Public Assistance Office whose lawyers are paid to give free service. So also the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and voluntary bar associations have similar programs.
“The people’s lawyers”, on the other hand, “emerged as a response to…social inequities, particularly human rights abuses, and to the aspirations of the poor for a just and humane society.” RTC clarified that their mandate does not come from government, the law, or any “selfish material agenda”. It derives from a genuine commitment to social change; that is, to address the underpinnings of endemic poverty by recognizing its deep socio-economic and politico-cultural roots and joining the people’s movement to extirpate these causes.
Thus, “(u)nlike the typical pro bono lawyer, the people’s lawyers do not limit themselves to the generally accepted interpretation and use of the law to uphold and protect their clients’interest. They know that in an elite-dominated society, the law is merely the expression of elite interests. Instead, they take a critical view of the law and what the law should be from the perspective of the disenfranchised or marginalized client.”
RTC would demonstrate, time and again, how he would apply these guiding principles in upholding and defending his clients’ interests including the 10,000 plaintiffs in the Marcos human rights litigation; the farm workers of Hacienda Luisita and displaced peasants of Hacienda Looc; the families of urban poor buried in the Payatas garbage dump slide; the employees of corporations like Meralco, PLDT and the big banks; the “comfort women” or sex slaves of the Japanese Occupation in WWII; migrant workers in death row such as Flor Contemplacion; the “Maharlika 26” Moros framed-up for bombings in Metro Manila; activists arrested for silently protesting Senate deliberations on the Visiting Forces Agreement; the “Southern Tagalog 72” leaders of progressive organizations falsely accused of various crimes; the “Morong 43” health workers accused of being New People’s Army bomb-making experts or trainees; revolutionary leaders such as Jose Maria Sison, Luis Jalandoni and many others; and the list goes on.
Corollary to such principles, RTC held fast to the indispensable role of the protest mass movement in diminishing, if not equalizing, the inherent disadvantages of his kind of clients in the legal arena, wherein money, power and influence most often determined the outcome of cases.
He was painfully aware and drew attention to the fact that legal issues that people’s lawyers handle arise from a “conflict of rights or interests and from the exploitation and oppression of the numerous poor by the tiny privileged sector and/or government policies or programs.”
Thus he emphasized, “The legal battle is not confined to the courtroom. People’s lawyers employ creative forms of collective action…and rallying support for the clients' cause.”
RTC’s close and productive working relations with myriad people’s organizations and alliances at the national and local levels is a testament to how he valued their primordial role in creating favorable political conditions for winning lop-sided legal battles.
One such recent example is the struggle to free the Morong 43, forty three health professionals and workers who were arrested en masse by the miltary on false charges and through clearly illegal means while undertaking a health training seminar in Morong, Rizal. RTC expressed deep appreciation for the domestic and international political support garnered by the hapless Morong 43 without which, despite clear and sound legal basis, they would not have been protected from further torture and intimidation at the hands of the military and eventually released from unjust detention.
Reciprocally, RTC called for people’s lawyers to “initiate and assist in a process whereby the (legal) issue is utilized for organizing and raising the social awareness, unity, and militancy of the people…” He was especially gratified when, as a consequence of or in conjunction with legal cases he and his fellow people’s lawyers were handling, his clients, their families and supporters would become better organized and strengthened in their fighting will and capacity.
Despite the fact that he had received so many accolades in his career, including being selected as Ad Litem Judge of the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTFY), RTC remained well-grounded, humble and broadminded. When conflicts arose between him and his clients and with co-counsels over legal and political tactics, RTC very clear-mindedly and even-handedly managed to minimize, if not resolve, these differences in a principled and non-antagonistic manner.
Many times we were witness to how he acknowledged his and co-lawyers perceived and actual shortcomings to his clients (all pro bono, by the way). He never allowed the legal case and its political value and outcome to be undermined out of pique or frustration from internal wranglings. He painstakingly explained the rationale for the legal tack being pursued even as he listened intently and tried to satisfy his clients’ questions and misgivings.
One of the clearest measures of RTC's effectiveness in lawyering for the poor and oppressed is the constant serious threat to his life and safety, including harassment and at least a couple of failed assassination attempts. But RTC was undaunted and was a fighter to the end. When his doctors advised him to retire from work in order to prolong his life, RTC remarked, in true revolutionary. "Retirement is out of the question. When I fall, I will fall fighting."
Atty Romeo T. Capulong was no Don Quixote. Drawing from his deep experience in legal battles and his mastery of the legal and political terrain, he chalked up an impressive track record including landmark victories achieved all the way up to the Supreme Court.
For RTC, his commmitment to the people’s social and national liberation meant that he be first and foremost the best people’s lawyer he could be and to make possible the emergence of a new generation of people’s lawyers. Five years ago, the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), an association of human rights, public interest, alternative law practicioners was founded with him as its Chairperson. With close to 500 lawyers and law students in its roster today, RTC can indeed take his much deserved rest secure in the knowledge that people’s lawyering in the Philippines has indeed arrived.#