By Andrew Cohen
Ironically, only the law could slow Reynato Puno’s legal career. Puno ’68, who recently received UC Berkeley’s Elise and Walter A. Haas International Award for outstanding alumnus, stepped down as Chief Justice of the Philippines Supreme Court on May 17, his 70th birthday.
“In my country, that’s the mandatory retirement age for justices,” Puno says. “In your country, of course, it’s a bit different.”
Puno, who describes himself as a “plain citizen again,” has scores of job offers to sift through—including several from top universities. The Haas International Award cites his record of government service that dates back to 1971, and honors the series of reforms he initiated during his 3½ years as Chief Justice.
While the Philippines Supreme Court is patterned after the United States model, one major difference exists: The Filipino Court is granted legislative powers to promulgate rules and regulations. That enabled Puno to enact remedial writs to protect civil and political rights, create a small claims court system, and strengthen environmental protections.
An outspoken champion of human rights, Puno drove an aggressive campaign to end the widespread killings of journalists and activists. Confronting judicial corruption, he established a review process for punishing impropriety throughout the court system.
“Immediately after taking office, I issued an order that banned judges from hiring spouses in their offices,” Puno says. “Then we administratively sanctioned many outlaw justices, and were able to suspend or dismiss quite a number of them.”
Puno also designated special courts to handle environmental cases and strengthened the court’s role in protecting the nation’s ecology. “I think environmental degradation is the number one problem in the Philippines, if not in the majority of Asian countries,” he says. “Experts have been warning us about what they consider the environmental collapse of the Philippines if we don’t take preventive and precautionary actions.”
Widely credited for bringing the judiciary branch closer to Filipino citizens, Puno insisted that his court be called the “People’s Court” rather than the “Puno Court.” Toward that end, he introduced mobile courtrooms that travel to rural areas and jails, where they provide prisoners with legal and medical services.
“I like to think our Supreme Court has done a lot to protect citizens’ rights over these past 3½ years,” Puno says. “I expect continuing political and economic turmoil in the Philippines, which means the country needs a strong and independent judiciary that will spell out the boundaries of powers between and among the branches of government and be able to stand for the people’s rights.”
During his Berkeley visit, Puno was feted at an award luncheon in his honor, where he presented a lecture entitled “Protecting and Enhancing the Three Generations of Human Rights.” For winning the Haas International Award, he received a cash prize of $15,000, an engraved medallion, and travel expenses to Berkeley.
“It’s wonderful to come back and a great honor,” Puno says. “My time here came during a remarkable period. I remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy making visits to campus and radical movements like the Black Panthers. There were even times that Ronald Reagan, who was governor then, couldn’t safely come into the campus.”
Puno adds that his experience in Berkeley “solidified my belief and faith in democracy as the best form of government, and the best way to protect the rights of the people.”