A soldier by heart, the late Supreme Court Justice Fred Ruiz Castro embraced the law as his core value.
In “Primus Inter Pares: A Patriot for the People,” lawyer-friends and family have written essays remembering Castro as a father, member of the Armed Forces, law teacher and judge.
To celebrate his 100th birthday, his youngest daughter, Melisande Veronica “Sandie” Poblador published “Primus Inter Pares” (derived from the Greek meaning of “first among equals”).
Castro is dubbed as the Father of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the official association of lawyers that regulates their practice and supports the judicial system.
Gifted with keen organization skills, he helped to improve the justice system by devising the Katarungan Pambarangay. The system filtered disputes that could be cordially settled on the barangay level. Thus, pending cases need not pile up in the courts and delay the process.
Castro was born in Laoag, Ilocos Norte, in 1914. As a student at the University of the Philippines College of Law, he was known for his eloquence in debate and poetry, and was editor-in-chief of Philippine Collegian.
He was a survivor of the Death March from Corregidor to Capas and was a decorated soldier in the Second World War.
After serving the military court , he pursued higher studies in the US Army Judge Advocate General School, University of Michigan. He was appointed judge advocate general of the Armed Forces of the Philippines at the young age of 32.
Castro married Natividad Hizon, a brilliant writer from the prominent family that was steeped in agriculture and politics in Pampanga. They had five children: Fred Ruiz Jr.; Rowena Cristina Benipayo; Carlos Delano; the late Frieda Teresita, who became his assistant; and Sandie Poblador.
As the executive secretary of President Ramon Magsaysay, Castro coined the famous slogan “Those who have less in life should have more in law.” It underscored Magsaysay’s humane and populist approach.
As a professor of law, Castro said the legal practitioner’s language should avoid legalese; he spoke in a language that is understood by the layman.
A prolific jurist with a clear mind, he authored 920 decisions, opinions and resolutions in the Court of Appeals and 480 decisions and resolutions and 19 dissenting opinions in the Supreme Court.
One of the challenges in Castro’s career was maintaining the integrity of the judicial system while being friends with fellow-Ilocano, President Ferdinand Marcos, during Martial Law.
Justice Alfredo Benipayo wrote: “Chief Justice Castro understood, perhaps better than many others did, that at no other time in the Philippine history had the rights and privileges of the people been as endangered as they were during the martial law era in which he lived. In the face of such a threat, the survival of the Supreme Court became an absolute necessity.”
The Supreme Court adopted the policy of constructive engagement, which meant that it continued its role as an unbiased instrument of the unchangeable rule of law within Martial Law.
Benipayo explained that people could still go to civilian courts instead of the military tribunal.
“Regardless of why Marcos refused to outright dismantle the civilian justice system when he could have easily done so, the subsistence of the Supreme Court remains one of the very few saving graces of that era,” said Benipayo.
Castro said the court was neither extremely liberal nor ultraconservative as perceived by many. It immersed itself in the task of quietly addressing society’s needs.
Poblador recalled that her father kept a small circle of trusted friends and never allowed people to butter up to him. Castro never hankered for the perks of his position. His ultimate high was to receive honorary degrees from prestigious local and international universities.
In 1979 he was supposed to be conferred with the Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, at the Rajasthan University in India. On board, KLM Castro died of a heart attack. He was 64.
“Dad was looking forward to retire and become ambassador to the United Nations. He wanted to leave the country because of the political situation,” said Poblador.
“Primus Inter Pares” includes essays from former President Fidel Ramos, former Prime Minister Cesar Virata, former Senator Edgardo Angara, lawyer Ricardo C. Puno, Rep. Martin Romualdez, to name a few. It also includes Castro’s poems and editorials.
The book will be launched today at the Willow Root of the Manila Polo Club. Proceeds will go to the Chief Justice Fred Ruiz Castro Foundation which offers scholarships to law students. Former Energy Secretary Raphael Lotilla was as a foundation scholar and a contributor in the book.