From Philippine Journal of Education, Vol. 32, No. 2, August, 1953, pp. 70-72, 131.
Quezon, A Personal Appraisal
by Justice Ramon Ozaeta
The first time I was formally introduced to President Quezon was about May, 1938, at a reception and dinner given by him in Malacañan in honor of his old-time friend, General J. G. Harbord. As I approached the reception line Colonel Nieto introduced me to the President who looked at me intensely and exclaimed: “Are you Judge Ozaeta? My goodness, you have been working in my office and this is the first time I see you!”
That was true. He had appointed me Judge of First Instance of Nueva Ecija since November 7, 1936, without ever having seen me personally. I had not been active in politics, and I am sure President Quezon did not know whether I had ever voted for him or against him. That evidently was immaterial to him insofar as my qualifications for the Bench were concerned, His Secretary of Justice, Mr Jose Yulo, who knew me well as a lawyer, recommended my appointment to him and he signed it without finding it necessary to ask me whether I was for or against his administration.
In matters involving questions of law President Quezon always sought legal advice and followed it when convinced it was right. He never asked his legal adviser to back up a desired action of doubtful legality. Let me narrate an incident to illustrate this exemplary norm of conduct of our great President.
In 1939 a group of enterprising farmers of Negros Occidental conceived a plan to acquire, develop, and exploit large tracts of public agricultural land in Mindanao with the financial help of the National Land Settlement Admintstration. General Paulino Santos, manager of the government corporation, favorably endorsed the project. The group of farmers were going to furnish all the labor and a small part of the capital, and the National Land Settlement Administration was going to advance a larger sum to finance the project. The loan was to be repaid in installments when and as the enterprise produced financial gains. President Quezon approved the project, and the contract was prepared. It was to be signed at a meeting of the Cabinet one afternoon. The day before the scheduled meeting and signing the contract was sent to me with a note that the President had approved it but wished me to go over it to see that everything was in order. After studying the proposed contract in relation to the law creating the National Land Settlement Administration I found, and so advised the President, that the project was not authorized by that law. Therefore the National Land Settlement Administration could not legally enter into the proposed contract. After reading my memorandum at the meeting of the Cabinet President Quezon agreed with me and expressed surprise that the legal aspects of the case should not have been studied before hand. I was later told of the chagrin felt by the sponsors of the project, not only because their pet project had been disapproved, but because the President blamed them for their carelessness.
I should like to narrate another incident which to me reveals Quezon’s democratic character:
In 1939, as Solicitor General I directed the prosecution of Benigno Ramos for sedition, upon his return to the Philippines from Japan to which he had fled years before as a refugee from Justice after heading an uprising of Sakdalistas in Laguna and Manila. During the pendency of the sedition case in the Court of First Instance of Manila Benigno Ramos resumed his questionable activities in Laguna, swindling ignorant people by issuing to them identification cards for a fee, telling them that the Japanese would soon come to literate the Philippines from Ameri.ca and would place him in power, and that the possessors of his cards would receive special favors and protection from the Japanese invaders. He was prosecuted in Laguna for estafa or swindling and was convicted. He appealed and was granted bail over my opposition. I secured from the appellate court the cancellation of his bail bond pending appeal, on the ground that he was a refugee from justice and was not entitled to bail after conviction. So Ramos was arrested and confined in Bilibid Prison. One day in the early part of 1940 President Quezon made an inspection tour of Bilibid Prison and there met Benigno Ramos, who knelt before him in tears, pleading for executive clemency. Impulsive and kind-hearted Quezon told him that he could not be pardoned while his case was still pending appeal, but that he would ask the Solicitor General to agree to his release on bail in the meantime. Ramos was very happy and profusely thanked the President. Sometime later Secretary of Justice Abad Santos called me over the telephone and conveyed to me the President’s instruction that I should express my conformity to the petition for bail which Benigno Ramos was going to present to the court. I was flabbergasted. I told Secretary Santos that I could not do that because (1) Ramos’ bail bond had been cancelled precisely because I had asked for its cancellation for good and valid reasons, and because (2) I was convinced that Ramos was a menace to our country’s security and to the welfare of the community. I said that unless I received a written order from the President I could not give my conformity to Ramos’s petition because I would have nothing to show to the Court to justify my change of attitude. I wanted to be able to present such an order or directive of the President to the Court to show that in agreeing to the petition I was merely complying with superior orders. Secretary Santos said he would report my views to the President. Late in the afternoon of the dame day, the attorneys representing Benigno Ramos came to my office with the petition for bail already signed by them, and asked me to sign my conformity thereto, saying that they were presenting it at suggestions of President Quezon, who had promised them and their client that I would agree to it. I asked them to produce the President’s written order to me, and they said the President’s order was verbal. I refused to sign the petition and said to Ramos’s attorneys: “Please tell the President that without a written order from him I cannot sign your petition without destroying my usefulness to the Government; the Court would lose faith in my sincerity and integrity If I should agree now to Ramos release on bail without justification. Tell him I would prefer to resign so that he could appoint someone else who might be willing to sign your petition.” Benigno Ramos remained in Jail until the Japanese armed forces came and liberated him in 1942.
There you have the picture of the President of the Commonwealth whose leadership was unchallenged, who enjoyed the respect and confidence of his people. He could have, if he had wished to, made his will prevail over the opposition of a subordinate, but he did not wish to use his power and authority merely to satisfy his ego and amor propio. He used it oniy in the interest of justice and public welfare. He was indeed a great and exemplars statesman and a faithful public servant.
The last time I saw President Quezon was shortiy before noon of June 17, 1941, when he called me to his rest house in Marikina, As I was ushered into his bedroom he greeted me, smiling: “Judge, . do you want to go to the Supreme Court?” –“I would be happy to serve there if you consider me worthy of the position.” “Well, you are there now; I have just signed your appointment as Associate Justice.” That was an agreeable surprise to me. It was the first time the Solicitor General had been promoted directly to the Supreme Court over the head of the Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeals. And I attribute my good luck to my disobedience of the Prevident’s order to release Benigno Ramos from Bilibid. Although it was the third appointment he had extended to me, that was the first time he had cared to call me and tell me about it. The point is, President Quezon did not consider patronage as his private preserve to be dispensed as gifts among friends and Followers, but as a public trust which he felt duty bound to discharge for the good of the service and the welfare of the country. When he was considering the appointment of the Justices of the newly created Court of Appeals in 1936 from the list of judges and practicing attorneys submitted by the secretary of Justice, he eliminated the names of those who personally promoted their candidacies or who had friends approach him and say a good word for them.
In my observation, Quezon’s unprecedented success as top political leader lay principally in the fact that he did not use his power to promote his personal interest and ambition but to serve the general welfare of the people. He detested sycophants and boot-lickers. He was faithful to his trust as a chosen leader. He kept his oath “to do justice to every man”.