In the usually staid institution, she stood out for her candor. During en banc sessions, when all of the 15 justices met, or during their weekly lunches, she was unafraid to ask direct questions without being offensive. She would also make lighthearted quips about some of her colleagues’ rumored unethical tendencies, and the concerned justices would simply let out a nervous laugh.
The public heard of her only through the decisions she penned, because the norm in the judiciary is to be silent and keep away from the media. The men and women in robes speak only through their written opinions.
It was only after Carpio-Morales retired from the Court in June 2011 that she spoke to the press, appeared in non-judiciary functions and let the country in on her work. This time, she spoke as the Ombudsman, the Philippines’ top graft-buster.
President Benigno Aquino III would not let her ride into the sunset. He asked her to be part of his centerpiece anti-corruption program and take on the post of Ombudsman. Aquino was taken by her courage and untainted 28-year stint in the judiciary where she started as a lower-court judge. She was often a dissenter in a high court dominated by appointees of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Already, Carpio-Morales has made history twice. She is the first lady justice to administer an oath to a president of the country. On the bright and sunny day of June 30, 2010, she swore in Aquino at the historic Quirino Grandstand. The new president chose her because she was the lone dissenter in a questionable decision that allowed Arroyo to appoint a chief justice during a period when appointments are banned.
In his letter inviting her to administer his oath, Aquino glowingly wrote: “Your position on the Supreme Court’s decision allowing Mrs. Arroyo to appoint the Chief Justice is a principled stand that is consistent with my beliefs. I admire your audacity on an issue with serious repercussions in the future. You symbolize hope and serve as a shining example for younger generations who wish to follow in your footsteps.”
Later, when she had left the Court, Carpio-Morales couldn’t hide her joy when asked in a TV interview about this momentous event. “Definitely, I was elated,” she smiled. She disclosed that one of her colleagues in the Court advised her to decline the incoming president’s invitation to give way to the chief justice, who is usually the other star in this ceremony. Of course, she didn’t pay heed.
And Carpio-Morales is the first Ombudsman to use a little-heard-of clause in the assets statement of public officials to verify information with government agencies. She took this seriously, and this led to the conviction of Chief Justice Renato Corona.
During the impeachment trial of Corona last year, she asked the Anti-Money Laundering Council, which keeps track of single deposits above P500,000 ($12,265), to share with her office information on the chief justice’s bank deposits. The huge dollar deposits, way beyond a chief justice’s salary, turned out to be the most damning evidence against Corona. He was eventually convicted.
At 71, Carpio-Morales keeps a full schedule, starting her day in the office as early as 6:35 a.m. (she lives in the suburb of Muntinlupa, a long drive to the Office of the Ombudsman in Quezon City) to avoid Manila’s horrendous traffic. Her Saturdays are spent at work, too. Once, reporters caught her in a jogging suit walking briskly with her staff at a park during an anniversary celebration of her office.
It annoyed her that some made an issue of her age when she was being considered for Ombudsman. Aniano Desierto, former Ombudsman, told reporters that Carpio-Morales might not stand the rigors of the job, which he described as “ten times more [demanding] than that of a Supreme Court justice.”
One weekend before she was named Ombudsman, Carpio-Morales, by sheer chance, bumped into Desierto at a mall. She looked him straight in the eye, pointed to her face, and asked: “Is this the face of a 70-year-old?”
Flustered, Desierto replied that he was misquoted by the media.
“Liar,” Carpio-Morales retorted and left him.
She later joked in a TV interview, when asked what made her look young, “Thanks, Estee Lauder, even if you’re expensive.”
What Desierto may have missed was one important qualification to be Ombudsman: courage. Enemies come with the territory.
Last year, a grenade was planted right outside the gate of her suburban home. It was inside a bag that bore her initials, CCM. When reporters asked how she and her family felt, she replied nonchalantly, “They’re cool. That’s part of the trade…” she continued, “If it’s your time, it’s your time. I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m not trying to malign people.”
In a light moment, she described the “package”: “It’s a grenade alright, the pin was there. You have to pull it to make it blow up.”
Grenades and threats will not faze Carpio-Morales, who has a tough job to do. She has repeatedly called on Filipinos to join hands to rid the country of the “corrosive element of corruption…and sustain the momentum in the nationwide campaign to uphold integrity.”
Marites Danguilan Vitug, one of the Philippines' most accomplished and respected investigative journalists, will launch her new book, Hour Before Dawn: The Fall and Uncertain Rise of the Philippine Supreme Court, at the Philippine Center Social Hall, 5th floor, 447 Sutter St. in San Francisco on Thursday April 11 at 5:30 pm. The public is invited to this free event.