Viral | Leonen delivers powerful speech during online oath-taking of new lawyers

During the online oath-taking of new lawyers – a historic first for the legal profession – on Thursday, June 25, Supreme Court justice Marvic Leonen delivered a powerful speech that has since become viral as it highlighted the solemn duty that lawyers must perform in society and the role of technology in fulfilling that responsibility in these troubled times.

SC justice Marvic Leonen (Photo courtesy of Tere Tupas-Torres)

Below is the full speech delivered by Leonen:

Congratulations. You made it. You hurdled the most difficult civil service examination in the Republic. Years of toil and sacrifice have borne fruit.

You deserve the privilege to enter your name to the sacred rolls of attorneys. The privilege of your title comes with a lot of responsibility. Keep in mind that this title will not fully define or constitute who you are.

You are more than your degrees and your professional titles. They are your masks; behind these masks and titles should still be authentic human beings. 

The presence and support of others made your achievements possible. Your parents and close relatives have nurtured, clothed, and fed you. Your many professors have patiently, hopefully humanely, trained you.

Many others have been there for you. They are easy to overlook – the food servers you have bothered while you review, the men and women that cleaned up after you, to name a few. They too deserve recognition and your appreciation; treat them all well.

As an exercise of humility, soon after the ceremonies, and as one of your priorities, please go back to them, say ‘Thank you.’

Without a shadow of any doubt, Senior Associate Justice Estella Perlas Bernabe also deserves our recognition and our appreciation. Many deans have told me what we in the Court have always known: she has exhibited exemplary leadership, compassionately listening to all our concerns, creatively addressing various problems as they came up, including how we conduct this oath taking.

She continuously mentored her staff and the personnel of the Office of the Bar confidante, giving space for the next bar chairs and their staff to witness the preparations, the implementation, and post-activities for the Bar Examinations.

With leave of my colleagues, I daresay that we are unanimous in saying that the 2019 Bar Examinations have been well executed. The results show it. Congratulations, Justice Telly, for a job superbly done.

Congratulations also to Ric and to your family who are always there for you, and your efficient staff who executed your guidance with enviable precision.

Justice Telly, it will be difficult to follow your exemplary performance. But I believe that every meaningful challenge is always difficult. The next Bar Examinations will meet the standards of the Court En Banc and even as it builds on the spirit of reform that has continued to inspire the present Peralta court.

First, we will attempt to remove more inequities that are inherent in the modality of the Bar Examinations. Already with unanimous support, the Court En Banc has approved a regional site in Cebu City for the Bar Examinations.

I have also been given the go-signal to drive a project that will examine the various digital platforms for a pilot test in computerizing the Bar, including how applicants answer the exam questions. This will be a relief to those who come after you, with handwriting as bad as many of the justices of this court.

Second, I hope to trigger a conversation as to the real nature of the Bar and make its practices more reasonable. The Bar is merely a qualifying examination, not a determinant of how good you will be as a lawyer.

Certainly, it does not measure your worth as a person. It is the intention of the current Bar chair to take a hard look at the various rituals that add unnecessary pressure on the applicants, including the utility of midnight and last-minute tips from well-meaning supporters, and the way we evaluate the answers to the examinations and present the results.

Soon enough, we will make the proper proposals for consideration of the Court En Banc. Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta has ensured that I can work with the next Bar chairpersons in order to have a strategic view of the reforms that will happen. Already, Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa, Justice Alexander Gesmundo, and Justice Ramon Paul Hernando have been so generous in their advice. 

Every generation is defined by its responses to the challenges and crises that confront them. Yours is no exception. 

Obviously, this digital oath taking pro hac vice takes place against the backdrop of a potential existential threat to humanity. Its format is motivated by the Peralta court’s desire not to put more people at risk by refusing to facilitate the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

In truth, this pandemic poses a greater challenge than prevention measures are a global effort to find cures and discover the vaccine, or governments finding ways to strengthen their health infrastructure.

Reports say that this pandemic will cause one of the most malignant recessions in our history. Close to 1 billion human beings will become poorer. Many will lose their jobs. Seeing one’s children go hungry can lead to many acts of desperation.

Law will take part in the narrative of providing succor as well as remedies when needed.

Covid-19 is not the only existential threat we now face. There are more.

Climate change and its dangers are imminent, if not already present. Given current lifestyles, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that we will reach the marker of increase in average world temperatures of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2040. 

That is only 20 years away. With current lifestyles, as you approach the peak of your careers, you will experience a myriad of globally catastrophic events, regular heat waves, higher sea level rises, displacement and involuntary migration of many communities, unpredictable weather patterns, coral reefs breaching and dying off to almost extinct, lower fish catches, droughts and the corresponding decline in food production, and many more.

Studies are now hinting that changes in world temperatures and unbridled human activity may make pathogens, like viruses and bacteria, more common and more virulent.

Covid-19 will certainly not be the last pandemic.

Humanity’s task to slow down climate change is daunting. To just slow down the pace of change, the entire world has to reduce its fuel emissions to at least half of what it is now by 2030.

2030 is just 10 years from now. The entire world has to massively shift from fossil based sources of energy to renewables. We have to radically reduce our meat consumption, with our current dietary trajectory and a population of 10 billion by 2050, agricultural livestock will contribute almost 25% of all greenhouse gases. 

Again, law will be conceptualized, crafted, promulgated, and invoked to achieve all of these. Lawyers will be needed.

The very concept of democracy as an existential threat is also now under strain. The promise of egalitarian democratic forums through digital and wire technology has taken a wrong turn. 

Today the Big Nine – Google, Amazon, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Facebook, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent – control most of technology. Commercial motives have unleashed the nebulous algorithms of advertising, digital addiction, and epistemic bubbles. 

We willingly surrender our privacy and give greater control over our information to the Big Nine, the malevolent forces of the dark web, and those whose expertise is to undermine sovereign exercises such as elections and democratic referendums.

All this is happening when our attention is diverted, while we spend time on food photography and the dopamine rush of social media. Even our political and social consciousness is falsely assuaged, and therefore effectively limited, because we can voice our rants on Facebook or Twitter. We believe that that is not enough.

Today we are seduced by a virtual world that pretends to maintain friendships and relationships. The convenience of cyberspace diverts us from authentic human relationships, which are developed through face-to-face conversations that are rather inconvenient, requiring patience, filled with tentative emotions, sometimes painful, but always inviting understanding. The digital world creates digital amnesia. It diverts political responsibility, creates epistemic bubbles, and breeds intolerance.

The sheer breadth of information, and our ability to save unexamined information in our hard disk or in Cloud space, replace critical analysis, deep thoughts, and the patient but persistent evolution of our own personal philosophies. With the buffet of information available to us, we have conveniently forgotten a timely reminder from a writer Susan Sontag that definitely, information is not illumination.

Artificial intelligence and its deeper variations such as machine learning are now ubiquitous and deployed in whole societies.

Surveillance comes with convenience. For example, it is found in many of your smartphones, through your locators, persistent and nonpersistent cookies, digital fingerprint.

Your unthinking approval of the terms of service, or end-use license agreement. Not only does artificial intelligence contain the possibility of replacing human labor, it will challenge how human intelligence will be deployed.

It will redefine the role of humanity.

Institutions which dispense judgment or wisdom, like courts, will soon have to adjust. Your generation is also seeing the redefinition of democracy, as it witnesses the struggles of various marginalized identities against the norms coercively imposed upon them.

These are the indigenous communities, religious minorities, including those who believe that an ethical life can happen without a belief in a god or an institutional religion. Those whose gender identity and expression of sexual orientation do not conform to the dominant view. Their various struggles in language, in culture, and in law will test our postcolonial and often patriarchal present.

We live in a society where there is poverty, extreme inequality, and social injustice rendered invisible by an ethic of excess, a desiderata of comfort, and the false allure of wealth in monetary terms.

Money is what begets more money through speculative investments and passive income. In the meantime, labor can only fetch a fixed wage that often does not even catch up with inflation.

Rather than valorize labor as a human effort, labor in many legal systems is perceived merely as a factor of production. It is falsely viewed as undeserving of partnership or ownership in an enterprise. Security of tenure is feared as an obstacle that increases costs of production, pushing our people to leave our country and go where they can seek resources to give a dignified life to their families.

In the meantime, ownership of successful enterprises are given to passive owners who have the financial capital. We are a society where many of our best workers are scattered in more than 100 other countries. We are a country in the midst of a massive diaspora, with all its gendered and cultural repercussions.

It is this generation where we witness a wave of conservative populism that is gaining ground worldwide. You see the challenges to the institutions that gather and speak truth to power. Journalists worldwide suffer simply because they seek to verify and validate the truth. Those who speak truth to power, even in ordinary social media platforms, experience what it means to be shamed and cyberbullied.

Trolling is also a sad Filipino phenomenon, and it is slowly becoming systemic and organized. Our trolls are not confined to any political color.

Untruths and fake accounts now present the prospect of undermining the promise of an authentically deliberative democracy. It challenges how our people will be represented. Remember that the quality of our democracy determines the quality and relevance of our laws.

We can ignore all of these. It is tempting to simply exist in the protected comfort of our lives, succumb to the status quo, just get rich, do our thing, and allow our existence to be full of material possessions, but meaningless.

But we have a choice. We have the option to discover our courage, live with the discomfort, critically examine our society, and use our profession for a greater purpose that humanity not only survives but thrives with social justice.

It is true that law, as part of culture, and as it is now, constitutes us but we can redefine it. The legal profession can choose to help craft, interpret, and apply the law so that it provides solutions.

Lawyers can either refuse and view events narrowly, and allow the law to further our collective human perdition, or we can collectively use law to liberate. The rule of law is always the rule of just law; it is no code for servility.

Your oath to the rule of law is not an oath of surrender to the unjust and oppressive elements of the status quo. It is not license to further marginalize those who are disadvantaged, those who are poor, those who are abused by power and untruths. Your oath serves as your power to bring about change that is hopefully just, hopefully systemic. Your oath is a promise to empower.

That is what is meant by the nobility of our profession. You do not need to look far for these ideals. Your Constitution mentions human dignity and human rights. It emphasizes the intrinsic worth of every human life. It constitutes our people – all our people, and not only the rich and those in power – as sovereign, capable of demanding accountability, disclosure, information, and space for freedom of expression that does not stifle but shapes all opinion.

It acknowledges that property is a human construction, that it has a social function, and that rights to create ownership as well as wealth should not override our very humanity. Remember that being a lawyer is not primarily about you. Your profession is designed to make the problems of others your problem. A lawyer cannot exist without a client or a cause. Every case, whether banal or politically controversial, will interrogate your ability to discover the ideals of justice, equality, and meaningful freedoms.

Let me be clear about this, your task is not to hope or seek a better world – it is more than that. Your purpose as a lawyer is to use your life to shape law so that it authentically contributes to the achievement of the best society for every human being. It will not be easy. Even with the Atty in your names, it will not be easy. Even when people start to call you Justice, it will not be easy.

The process of building meaningful careers is accompanied with painful experience and soul-searching. Making the right decisions during times of crisis is a challenge. Often, you will choose whether you will put your career on the line. It takes a huge amount of courage, and the same amount of conviction, to do what may seem unpopular, dangerous, inconvenient, but right.

In the course of their careers, many a lawyer or judge or justice or public officer lose their appreciation for the social value of their profession. Somewhere along the way, convenience takes the form of pragmatic silence. They surrender the choice to make the difficult moral and ethical decision, all to placate the status quo. They mistake the public interest with debt of gratitude to the elite and the powerful that continue to provide their wealth and create their careers. Expediency overwhelms conscience.

I repeat what I have said many times: Our silence, when we fall victim or after we serve as accomplices to corrupt acts of the powerful, is also our own powerful political act. Our silence maintains the status quo. It ensures that others will also be victimized. Our silence in the face of abuse skews power to the system in favor of those with resources and against those who need the law more. Our silence legitimizes greed and undermines the power of public trust.

Silence about corruption and abuse of power is not only in itself unjust; our silence when we have the ability to speak is in itself a cause of injustice.

Of what use is the palatial home, the latest car, the designer coffee, the swanky shoes, the fashion bags and clothes, when all these have been purchased on the backs of others’ sufferings?

Of what use is our convenience when our people live in squalor? Of what use are our accolades when we do nothing while the famer’s or fisher’s family becomes hungry?

Doing the right thing is necessary because of the poverty, oppression, and helplessness of many in our society. There are families that live in squalor; there are children who cannot eat 3 meals a day; there are those who live through oppression; there are children raped by their fathers and uncles, and put in danger by the very schools that should provide them with safe spaces; there are those robbed of their youth by dangerous drugs; there are those whose identities make them invisible.

When you find that your situation is too difficult as you follow the noble path, remember these words which I also keep repeating, which I first heard from Lean Alejandro, a good friend and activist in the 1980s. It has become one of my favorite lines nowadays: “The line of fire is always a place of honor.”

Protect those who have less in life. Do not stand for abuse. Be accepting of different identities. Speak up against corruption. Do not succumb to having more than enough. Do not trade kindness for the false badges of success. When you enter public office, discharge it for the public trust that it is.

Do not temper principle with pragmatism. Do not hide behind comfortable acquiescence. Do not use comfort in lieu of integrity. At critical times, do not disguise your complicity. Instead, be at the frontlines. As a lawyer, resist injustice. Make it your passion to resist injustice.

Strive for excellence not only in order to get you more titles, not to land yourself in Top 10 lists of lawyers. Strive for excellence because you need excellence with honor to enable and empower the weak, the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Remain humble. Listen and learn. There is wisdom in the difficulties of our people.

These are your responsibilities. There is a lot to be done out there.

Finally, if there is anything, remember this: Be better than us. Walang magpapalaya sa atin kung hindi tayo mismo. Humayo nang buong giting at tapang, paglingkuran ang sambayanan.

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