When Delicadeza and Integrity Ruled the Day

By Lina A. Santiago
Panorama, September 30, 2007

Years before the National Assembly was inaugurated, Filipinos had to prove their worth.  During the American occupation, Governor General William Howard Taft declared that Filipinos would have to wait a hundred years for that day.  He had set three golden rules for the country’s emancipation: that Filipinos should no longer be ignorant, that they should be able to conduct a popular self-government with law and order and equal rights for all and that they should genuinely desire complete independence. Only then would Filipinos be set free!

The absence of freedom brought about the hungry yearnings for justice and liberty, followed by the sacrifice of countless individuals who together have made our collective history replete with sacrifice and glorious deeds.  As we look forward to another milestone in history, the inauguration of the National Assembly which took place on October 16, 1907, the predecessor of today’s legislative bodies, we recall some outstanding members of the country’s judiciary during the beginning of the 20th century.

Gregorio S. Araneta

In their honor and memory, we have the Araullo High School, the Arellano High School and the Torres High School. They are named after individuals who were contemporaries of Gregorio Araneta, the first Filipino Secretary of Justice under the Malolos Republic and the Filipino Secretary of Justice and Finance under the American regime.

All three had one thing in common. All were assigned as judges of the civil sala when general Elwell Otis decided in the middle of 1899 to reconvene and reconstitute the Real Audencia de Manila into the Supreme Court during the military regime. They occupied seats together with a Judge Advocate General of the United States Army, General E. H. Crowder. The other Filipinos were Julio Llorente and Dionisio Chanco.

These men were trailblazers. The reaction of the press in the United States regarding the elevation of Filipino lawyers to the Court of Justice was certainly not one of enthusiasm but one of ridicule by some writers. Otis was criticized for appointing Filipinos to the Court with a writer comparing the Philippines to their own self where it was unthinkable at that time to have a Negro judge rule over a white man.

When the Civil Government was established, Araneta could no longer keep this position because it would upset the proportion of Filipinos to Americans in the Supreme Court. A few months later, the Governor General created the Office of the Solicitor General. According to Judge Jose C. Abreu this position was created for Araneta. Abreu further commented that “the most luminous opinions of the epoch emanated from the talent and pen of Mr. Araneta.”  Araneta went on to become Attorney General. It was the highest legal position ever held by a Filipino.

Taft was persistent in wanting to appoint Araneta as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but the same problem of Filipino-to-American ratio still existed and thus, the United States Senate did not confirm his appointment.

Taft took another road and asked Congress of the United States to enlarge the Philippine Commission by one member and to authorize the creation of a new executive department in the insular government. Thus, on July 1, 1908, President Roosevelt appointed Araneta as the first Filipino Secretary of Finance and Justice. It was the first time a commissionership with a portfolio was given to a Filipino. At that time, the Americans did not believe that a Filipino was capable of understanding and solving problems of finance, but Araneta changed that perception.

How did a boy of modest means achieve the stature?

At age 11, Gregorio Araneta left Molo, Iloilo, where he was born, to venture alone to Manila to further his studies. His father Felix was not a member of the landed gentry. Having 17 children, it was said that he had more children than money.

The lack of money served as a challenge.  Away from home, away from parents and siblings, Araneta learned self-discipline, humility and loyalty in an austere setting. He never forgot his family, nor did they. Araneta graduated from the Ateneo with grades that rivalled those made earlier by Jose Rizal and later by Claro M. Recto.  He then enrolled at the University of Santo Tomas as a law student.  He excelled in all his subjects there.

Araneta found a job quickly. He was employed by the most prestigious law firm in Manila headed by Jose Juan de Ycaza. Araneta became involved with the revolutionary activities of Aguinaldo when he was defending the case of Don Francisco Roxas, as well as that of Ambrosio Salvador.

However, hell hath no fury than friars scorned! With the government controlled by the friars, justice could not be served.

Araneta became a member of the revolutionary cabinet of Aguinaldo on September 28, 1898. During the Malolos Congress, Araneta was elected First Secretary and was one of those who were tasked to draft the Constitution. By this time, Araneta was considered a wealthy man which became a liability during the struggle of power that ensued between the illustrados and the katipuneros.

As Secretary of Justice, Araneta was able to extend his influence to protect the Filipino clergy from efforts by Mabini to force the local clergy to break away from the authority of the Spanish bishops and form a national church.  On January 1, 1899, Apolinario Mabini reorganized the government, and the office of the Secretary of Justice was abolished.

Disillusioned and disheartened by the intramurals among those working in the Malolos government, Araneta crossed over to the American lines and worked for the Americans to prove that the capacity of the Filipino was no less than those belonging to the Anglo Saxons.

He did just that! The Americans offered him the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court twice. Twice he turned it down. The first time, Araneta gave way to Justice Araullo because he felt that Araullo deserved the position because Araullo’s seniority. Once again, Araneta was offered the position, but he turned it down because of delicadeza. Araneta would not have even a speck or hint of impropriety dim the brilliant light that he had set a flame.

Araneta chose honour before glory.

To his children, he left a legacy of leaving the Department of Justice and Finance with the recognition that during his incumbency, the judiciary earned the highest esteem of the Americans who doffed their hats saying, “The Philippine bench was even better than that of their own country.”

Araneta taught his children and his students to be passionate about justice, charity and stewardship.  Araneta was a master in the art of advocacy.  To him, what was important in life was not the possession of money but the command of ideas that shape destinies.  Araneta’s own rule of conduct was never to be disappointed or downhearted in the midst of the greatest adversaries.  That was the secret of his success.