Estelito P. Mendoza: Forester of Nations

Published October 4, 2021, 12:12 AM

by Jaime Laya


The man embarked on his career as a U.P. law professor, numbering among his students three who rose to be Chief Justices of the Philippines. Now at age 91, Estelito P. Mendoza continues in the practice of law.

In between, from 1972 until 1986, he served as solicitor-general, minister of justice, legislator (as member of Batasáng Pambansâ), and provincial governor of Pampanga, for many years in a concurrent capacity.

Written by the late Adrian E. Cristobal and former Senator Francisco S. Tatad, both similarly distinguished public servants, Mendoza’s biography is more than the story of an exemplary personal and professional life, it illuminates a critical half century of Philippine political and economic history.

President Ferdinand E. Marcos had heard of the unassuming and gentle-mannered UP law professor and decided to invite him to join government as solicitor-general, a critical post tasked to represent government in proceedings not only criminal and civil in nature, but also involving treaties, laws, executive order or proclamation, citizenship cases, land registration, etc. etc.  

Mondoza personally argued more than 600 significant cases for the State, and won all. It attests to the width and depth of his learning, cited for lucidity, logic, eloquence, and reasoned analysis.

As government lawyer, Mendoza’s cases included numerous issues: the expiration of US Parity Rights, the Bill of Rights and Martial Law, land reform, all related to law as an instrument of social change.

In 1971 he was Philippine delegate to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of the Sea Bed and Ocean Floor … and spearheaded discussion on the rights of archipelagic nations like the Philippines over the open seas that eventually led to agreement over a 200-mile exclusive economic zone for maritime countries that now, 50 years later, is a major issue.

The opening of ties in 1975 with the People’s Republic of China caused problems for Filipino-Chinese who were sympathetic with Taiwan. This led to the issuance of LOI No. 270 that enabled naturalization by administrative means.

Most Filipinos now alive would find it hard to imagine the chaos of the 1960s. A communist rebellion was raging with ambushes, bombings, terrorism in the countryside and in Manila, daily marches to Malacañang, Congress and the U.S. Embassy. A political rally in Plaza Miranda was bombed. UP Diliman was taken over by leftists. All these led to the suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus and eventually the declaration of Martial Law.  

Mendoza himself had no hand in preparing Proclamation No. 1081 but his biography contains a riveting account of subsequent Court proceedings—yes, the Supreme Court was functional and pronounced on attendant Constitutional issues, argued by Mendoza.

Uncertain times faced the bureaucracy starting in February 1986 when Mrs. Corazon C. Aquino assumed the presidency. Like many other Marcos appointees, “I felt that it was inappropriate for me to declare for the Enrile forces. The act would be viewed as one of convenience. It would appear degrading. I then thought it better to withdraw from the conflict…”

“… [F]amily and friends worried about the extreme emotions the ‘revolution’ unleashed. It produced a chaos of vengeance.” Mendoza therefore left not clandestinely but using his own name and on a scheduled flight to Los Angeles where he remained for a few months.

The situation stabilized and he decided to return and resume law practice. Mendoza had no clients, no law office or facilities, and had to contend with a strong anti-Marcos feeling. He said he was unsure how the courts would appreciate his appearance on behalf of clients and indeed avoided using his name in his first cases. Then interesting cases landed on his doorstep.

He avoided handling any cases involving ill-gotten wealth but represented clients whose assets were unfairly sequestered, including those of Lucio Tan and his tobacco company, Eduardo Cojuangco’s 20 percent ownership of San Miguel Corporation bought from Enrique Zobel, and properties of Jesus Hipolito (public works minister) and Roberto Ongpin (industry minister) who were wealthy before they joined government.

There is an extensive discussion of Mendoza’s defense of President Joseph Ejercito Estrada who was being tried for impeachment. Mendoza’s arguments are detailed but which, he concludes, were ultimately overpowered by public opinion.

The citizenship of presidential candidate Fernando Poe was questioned and Mendoza successfully demonstrated that he was in fact a natural-born Filipino.

The mysterious sounding tag, “forester of nations” is from the play, The Man for All Seasons, where the lawyer St. Thomas More declared that he could not “navigate the currents and eddies of right and wrong …but in the thickets of the law …I am a forester … where no man alive could follow me…” Indeed, Mendoza’s career goes deep into the forest of the law. He rightly deserves being considered “the most accomplished and most sought-after legal practitioner in the Philippine Bar and legal fraternity.”

Note: This article is based on Adrian E. Cristobal and Francisco S. Tatad, Estelito P. Mendoza: Forester of Natons & The Last Resort (Manila: 2021).

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