Cordilleran Lawyers as Guardians of Justice

Justice Karl
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That was the title of the speech of Justice Karl B. Miranda of the Sandiganbayan last March 16, 2024 during the IBP Kalinga Testimonial Dinner for New Lawyers and Honorees. We reproduce it en toto as it is a treasure trove of lessons for the whole country. Here goes.

When I accepted the invitation to attend today’s activity, the organizers and Atty. Bryant G. Casiw so kindly inquired if I wanted to fly to Tuguegarao on the way here. I replied that I preferred going by land because the 7-hour drive through the Cordilleras, while long, is always an invigorating adventure. We came from Baguio on official business and drove through Benguet and Mountain Province before reaching Kalinga.
The scents, sounds, and sights of a Cordillera trip are exceptional. The best treats, however, are the more than 45 rice terraces clusters of the Cordilleras—-some of which are the Les-eng rice terraces in Benguet, Batad rice terraces in Ifugao, and our very own Buscalan, Lubo, and Bugnay rice terraces in Kalinga.
These magnificent behemoths follow the shape of the mountains. The retaining walls are mostly built by hand with stones and mud. The stones were dug from the mountains or back-breakingly hauled by our ancestors from the great rivers below.
The rice terraces are testaments to the selfless sacrifice, ingenuity, and deep connection of our forefathers with the land. These sustained not only their communities but also the generations that followed. Their sacrifice laid the groundwork for a rich cultural heritage and an agricultural tradition that continues to nourish and inspire through the centuries.
Of late, giant earthworms have threatened these colossal wonders. Reaching about 18 inches long, giant earthworms dig holes into the retaining walls or dikes through which water flows. When the rains come and flood the paddy, the dikes collapse. Swamp eels or rice field eels, which are much larger than giant earthworms, also dig bigger holes into rice terraces and are therefore a greater menace.
The most serious threat, however, is the young generation’s lack of interest in farming the rice terraces which require constant care and maintenance. This has resulted in the gradual erosion and destruction of the terraces’ mud and stone walls.
It is a great privilege to be with you at IBP Kalinga’s Testimonial Dinner for New Lawyers and Honorees whom we toast and congratulate on this special occasion. Cordilleran lawyers, by qualification and the nature of their work, are leaders. While in the past, wealth, courage, and combat skill earned the village’s respect—-today, your education and profession endow you with the community’s high esteem. People seek your guidance. People ask for your help. People turn to you for leadership. With these come power and influence.
Let us be clear—as a leader, what is a lawyer’s duty to the community? It is to uphold the rule of law and ensure that justice is served. It is a duty that every lawyer must not only carry out but live.
It is hard enough to define this duty because justice is an abstract concept for many people. This is especially true considering that a great number of clients have a very simple concept of justice: to win the case at all costs regardless of the truth. It is harder still to live by it because, like all leaders, lawyers live under public scrutiny more so in this age of social media. That is the price for the public’s high esteem. Lawyers as leaders should make sure to ethically and responsibly use whatever power and influence the community’s respect brings, based on the principles of fairness, integrity, and the public good.
The Supreme Court approved on April 11, 2023, the new Code of Professional Responsibility and Accountability (CPRA) which is a modern guide for the conduct of lawyers. It holds them to a higher standard of conduct in and out of the courtroom. Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo says the CPRA is the “bible” for all lawyers and the “compass” that would direct them “towards moral and just conduct.”
Allow me to hammer on this point because the new CPRA was not part of our new lawyers’ bar examinations last year. The same is true with every other lawyer in the room—-especially those who still have to take the new lawyer’s oath under the new CPRA.
While on the topic of ethics, let me show you an interesting book a friend, Atty. Katrina Legarda, gave me. It’s called “The Lawyer’s Book of Ethics”. It has long been on the bestsellers’ list. A book review describes it as “a fascinating study of how lawyers think”. Another says “This book takes you right inside your lawyer’s mind”. The book, however, is nothing but a bundle of empty pages.
It clearly makes the point: that lawyers have no ethics. While we may take exception to such a general characterization, the fact is that many people joke about bad or unethical lawyers. Have you heard that one about the poor kid in Palarong Pambansa who had no running shoes? In the sprint event, she wrapped her feet in packaging tape, drew the
logo of a famous shoe brand on it, ran, and won the race. The story went viral with a tremendous outpouring of public admiration and support worldwide. Not to be outdone, the shoe company’s lawyer immediately wrote the girl and threatened to sue her for trademark infringement.
Kidding aside, let me now take up one of the biggest problems of our country: corruption in government. According to then Deputy Ombudsman Cyril Ramos in 2019, the country was losing around P700 billion, or around 20 percent of the country’s total budget appropriation yearly due to corruption. If his basis and estimate are correct and taking into consideration the General Appropriations Act for 2024 involving ?5.768 trillion, then ?1.1536 trillion could be lost to corruption this year. The amount is indeed mind-boggling. Just how big is it? If we use ?1,000 bills per second to count up to ?1.1536 trillion, it will take about 36 years to do so. Yet, this gargantuan loss to corruption supposedly happens every year. To stress the point, the table below shows what ?1.1536 trillion can pay for:
Unabated corruption is like dipping a sieve, salaan or pagsagatan into the national treasury to pay for government projects. So much of the People’s money, however, drains through holes of the sieve into the pockets of thieves. Corruption not only decreases the number of projects the government can carry out. It also has a direct and serious effect on the quality and safety of government projects that manage to survive the pillage of public funds. Corruption has deeply entrenched itself in both national and local governments. This has seriously affected the integrity and efficiency of public service. Considering our serious internal and external national security concerns, corruption can threaten the very survival of the country and the future of our People. When corrupt practices infiltrate the defense, and law enforcement, their efficiency and fairness are greatly compromised. Their capacity to immediately and adequately respond to internal and external threats is also seriously undermined.
Lawyers have a fundamental duty to fight corruption. It is a duty rooted in their unique position as officers of the court and their commitment to legal ethics and integrity. As guardians of the law, they are particularly equipped to identify, challenge, and prevent corrupt practices in and outside government. Lawyers are expected to conduct due diligence to uphold the rule of law, ensure that justice prevails over illicit dealings, and prevent their services from being used for criminal ends.
Crimes in both the public and private sectors have been committed with the complicity of lawyers who acted either as unwitting enablers or conspirators themselves.
The 5 major causes of rampant corruption have been identified as low salaries, red tape, low risk of detection and punishment, the significance of family and cultural values, and lack of political will. Combating these major causes of corruption requires a multifaceted strategy that addresses its root causes.
Firstly, the salaries of many public officials and employees have been left behind by the private sector. Increasing their salaries can reduce the temptation to engage in corrupt practices by ensuring they receive adequate compensation for their work. For some national government lawyers, however, low salaries might not be a great concern. Several laws have increased the salary grades and pay of government lawyers like solicitors, public prosecutors, and public defenders, over the years. The Supreme Court has, likewise, increased the salaries of judges.
I believe that focus should be given to fighting corruption AND raising the salaries of government employees, both national and local, who have long been left behind by the private sector. Opposition to raising the salaries of public servants is always based on the supposed lack of funds. If the government, however, succeeds in reducing or eliminating corruption, there will be enough funding for salary increases and many other programs. Let me STRESS, however, that low government pay is NEVER an excuse to commit corruption. Those who cannot follow this simple rule have no business working for the People. Simplifying bureaucratic processes and reducing red tape can also lessen opportunities for corruption by making government services more efficient and transparent. Enhancing the risk of detection and punishment is crucial; this can be achieved by strengthening oversight and enforcement institutions and investing in monitoring and auditing technologies. Promoting family and cultural values emphasizing integrity and honesty can strengthen community spirit to fight corruption. Education and awareness campaigns play a significant role here. Finally, addressing the lack of political will requires the commitment of all leaders to prioritize anti-corruption measures
and to lead by example.
I am making an impassioned plea for lawyers—especially Cordilleran lawyers on this occasion —leaders—to rise above apathy and actively undertake the noble task of nation-building and fighting corruption. Nation-building is no different from building rice terraces. In the same way our forebears poured their souls into the earth, constructing the breathtaking rice terraces with nothing but their bare hands, we too are called to a labor of great sacrifice—nation-building. Corrupt practices, on the other hand, are like the giant earthworms and swamp eels that silently destroy the rice terraces, stealthily eroding the foundation of our nation, and threatening to collapse the values of integrity
and honesty. The lawyer-leader’s dual commitment to nation-building and fighting corruption is not just a professional obligation but a moral imperative. This noble mission requires the same collective resolve, courage, selflessness, and tireless effort our forefathers showed in building the rice terraces. In so doing, Cordilleran lawyers honor the legacy of our predecessors of old, ensuring that the terraces of justice and integrity they now help build, will, just like our ancestors, nourish, strengthen, and preserve future generations of the Filipino Nation.
Justice Karl finished his grade school at St. Teresita’s School, Tabuk City and attended his first three years of high school at the Tabuk National High School. He received his B.S. Business Management Degree from the Ateneo de Manila University, his Bachelor of Laws Degree from the University of the Philippines College of Law, and his Masteral Degree in Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government in Harvard University. Justice Karl began working for the Office of the Solicitor General in 1986. He
rose from the ranks and was appointed Assistant Solicitor General in 1999 to head the Sedfrey A. Ordoñez Division. On January 20, 2016 he was appointed Associate Justice of the Sandiganbayan.
During his stint in the OSG, Justice Karl helped handle many significant cases for the Government. Some of these are the defense of the Ombudsman’s finding of probable cause in the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) cases; Sarah Balabagan’s appeal to the United Arab Emirates appellate court; the Flor Contemplacion case where he helped in desperate efforts to stay Flor’s execution in Singapore as well as the subsequent investigation conducted by the Government into the matter which resulted in the passage of the landmark
Migrant Worker’s Act; and the Gulf War Claims of the Republic of the Philippines against Iraq before the United Nations Compensation Commission in Geneva, Switzerland.
In the Sandiganbayan, Justice Karl is the senior member of the 6th Division. He co-chairs the Sandiganbayan’s Budget and Finance Committee and Chairs the Judiciary-Wide Committee on Data Reconciliation. He is also a member of the Judiciary’s Technical Working Group on Sectoral Planning and Budgeting. He also Chairs the Justice Sector Coordinating Council’s TWG on Data Reconciliation and is a member of the Supreme Court’s Sub-Committee for the revision of the Rules of Civil Procedure. Finally, he is a member of the
Philippine Judicial Academy’s Criminal Law Department. Justice Karl’s personal advocacy is to use law reform to attract the best to work for government. He believes that providing civil servants with compensation and benefits packages at par with the private sector is one of the best tools to eliminate corruption in the public sector. In particular, his efforts have helped
contribute to the passage of R.A. No. 9417, the OSG Reform Law, and similar laws for other agencies within the Department of Justice that have raised employees’ salary grades and provided them many benefits.
In his spare time, Justice Karl has been teaching in the college inside the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City where prisoners are studying to earn a college degree while serving their sentences. He assisted in setting up “EDALAW” (electronic dalaw) computerized prison visitation facilities in various jails and prisons around the country. He and his son Lorenzo also helped put up the “Bilibid Puzakals,” the Bureau of Corrections’ first soccer team composed of prisoners.**


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