The Serafin Cuevas school of law

Posted at 02/10/14 4:44 PM

Cuevas: Mick Jagger, Yoda of Philippine law

MANILA - For many lawyers, their law education would not be complete if they had not been schooled in the so-called Serafin Cuevas School of Law.

Cuevas was so proficient in the rules of law and litigation that the often white-suit-clad lawyer was once called the “Mick Jagger of Law.”

There were younger men in the defense team during the impeachment trial of former Chief Justice Renato Corona, but it was Cuevas whom the girls wanted to have their pictures with.

“We would always tease him, because all the girls wanted to take pictures with him. We would not let him out of the defense [office], but he would tell us, ‘Why let them wait?’ We tell him that he should first introduce us to the girls,” recalled lawyer Judd Roy, who was mentored by Cuevas even before they teamed up for the Corona trial.

Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Serafin Cuevas' facebook page

Cuevas even had to open a Twitter account and Facebook page in order to accommodate his thousands of fans.

Cuevas was already 83 years old at that time, but he still managed to conquer an audience every time he entered a room.

During the Corona trial, the Serafin Cuevas school of law momentarily shut down when he took two days off to heal his vertigo. “He was not one to be easily disturbed by pain,” recalled Roy. He said Cuevas would even call him at 1:30 in the morning to discuss the impeachment case.

One of his colleagues and contemporaries, veteran lawyer Jose Flaminiano Sr., said he was shocked to learn the death of his “barkada." Flaminiano, one of Cuevas' partners in the December 2000-January 2001 Estrada impeachment trial, said “just last week, I remembered him. I asked a friend and I was told that he was still actively [working] in the legal circle.”

It was the Supreme Court, where Cuevas served as an associate justice from June 1, 1984 to April 16, 1986, that announced his death on Sunday night.

Many of his colleagues and friends still can’t yet get over the fact that one of the Philippines' legal luminaries is already gone.

Father, mentor

For Roy and other members of the Corona defense team, he was like Yoda, the oldest and most powerful Jedi master in Star Wars, a father, and a mentor. “He was a seasoned master warrior…He had a very strong personal presence, very intellectual, had a natural charisma.”

In separate interview with ABS-CBNnews.com, lawyer Tranquil Salvador said: “He was a true litigator. He had a mastery of the rules of court, more particularly the evidence and the allowable objections. In formulating his theory, he saw to it that it was within the boundaries of the law and jurisprudence. It was an honor to work with him.”

Even though they lost in the impeachment trial, the defense lawyers of Corona are glad they were on the side of Cuevas.

Roy remembered joking with the elderly Cuevas that he had an ambulance waiting at the Senate grounds. “He told me, ‘lintik kang bata aka, sinasabi mo bang mamamatay na ako?’ I told him, ‘Kailangan ang ambulansya pagkatapos ng bloody massacre,’” Roy said, referring to the other lawyers in the prosecution side who looked like students still learning the ropes vis-a-vis Cuevas.

When some senator-judges would lambast and twit the prosecution team for their lack of knowledge in the trial, Cuevas would just smirk. He was no bully, but the other side always looked edgy and nervous whenever they faced off.

“I am sorry if I appeared that way [condescending]. I would not have done so if they did not act like law students,” Cuevas once said.

During the trial, House prosecutor Rep. Elpidio Barzaga engaged his former professor about the rules of court. Barzaga was objecting at the speed by which Cuevas was cross-examining a witness.

“The witness should be first permitted to answer the previous question…That’s basic, your honor, and I learned that from my remedial law professor, who happens to be no less than the defense counsel,” Barzaga said.

Cuevas immediately retorted at his student in Far Eastern University, “Maybe you were absent when I discussed that.”

This was just one of the clashes where Cuevas “murdered” the opposition during the Corona impeachment trial.

Salvador recalled, “During the first few days of the impeachment when he was able to successfully cross-examine the first witness of the prosecution, we joked that it called for a ‘blow out’. To our surprise, he agreed.”

Cuevas was always unselfish. Flaminiano remembered that his senior--Cuevas was one year ahead of him in UP College of Law--would always treat them to “merienda.”

Defense lawyers welcome the return of Attorney Serafin Cuevas (center) the chief of the defense panel in the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona. Cuevas missed the trial for a couple of days due to vertigo. Photo by Alex Nueva España, Senate Pool.


It wasn’t the merienda that brought him his audience, however. Flaminiano reminisced that he and the Erap defense team would always wait for Cuevas before a meeting would start “and he would always prevail.”

Cuevas was always dapper in his white suit amid a sea of black suits preferred by most lawyers.

Former Supreme Court Justice and now Philippine Judicial Academy Chancellor Adolf Azcuna said, “he was always well-dressed, in an old-school style. He was very helpful to younger colleagues. He was then a trial court judge of Manila and I appeared before him. He was a fair and efficient judge.”

The Corona team had always thought that the white suit was their mentor’s tribute to actor-dancer John Travolta’s Saturday Night Live days. Roy said, however, “that he would say he feels inspired in white. He would say it’s the purity of the purpose.”

Cuevas did not always win his cases, but it was his style and intelligence that people would remember him for.

Roy said he last saw Cuevas shortly before Christmas of 2013. It was a sort of reunion among the lawyers of Corona, especially after Senator Jinggoy Estrada alleged there was money given to senator-judges who voted for the ouster of Corona. The fund was thereafter named as the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).

Vindicated, Roy remembered saying during the impeachment trial that Malacanang was trying to bribe the senator-judges. For insisting on this, he was cited in contempt by the senator-judges during the trial.

During their pre-Christmas get-together, some lawyers suggested that Corona raise anew the issue of the legality of the Corona impeachment trial. Roy said Cuevas stood up and again became the voice of reason.

“He [Cuevas] said it was already a futile attempt and that Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno would not just easily give up the post,” Roy said. “Even after the impeachment, he continued to share with us the wisdom of his experience by discouraging talk of reviving the impeachment, because of the unpopularity of Corona.”

Roy said he will greatly miss Cuevas, whom he fondly calls “JC”.

For everyone else, Cuevas is a great loss.