The author and her father, Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio. His world of lawyers and politics was a mystery to her growing up.
Culture Spotlight

My father, Supreme Court justice and man of mystery

As Tony Carpio retires as one of the longest-serving Supreme Court justices in the country this October, his daughter writes about their atypical dad-child connection, his passion for work, and how she never resented his being an absentee father knowing he was out there for the greater good
Audrey Carpio | Jun 16 2019

The world that my dad inhabited—the world of lawyers, government, and politics—was always a mystery to me growing up. As he nears retirement age, I’ve started to get a closer look at his life, viewed through the eyes of an adult daughter, and tried to see my place in this timeline.

In the early ‘80s when Antonio Carpio was around 30 years old, he decided to put up his own law firm with a few of his friends. He borrowed P100,000 to start what would come to be called Carpio Villaraza and Cruz Law Offices, dedicating all of his time to building up the young company which he envisioned would challenge established law firms like ACCRA.

 

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My dad was a classic workaholic who spent seven days a week at the office, always the first one in and the last one out. He demanded as much from his peers and employees. I read an anecdote in the firm’s 25th anniversary coffee table book that recounted a meeting wherein a law partner, who was pregnant, started going into labor. My dad allegedly told her, “Wait, let’s just finish the meeting.” It ended at 8:30pm, and she gave birth at midnight.

He also had two young children.

I hardly saw my dad at home, but I remember the few weekends or holidays he would sometimes come home with Andok’s litson or a stash of McDonalds, and this would be a late-night feast for me and my brother. In 1986 when people started massing on EDSA, I watched the events unfold on TV with a six-year-old’s awareness that something significant was happening. My dad was compelled to join the throng of protesters and took only my 10-year-old brother with him, though I had begged to come along.

"I can’t say that we have any sort of typical parent-child relationship. That’s not how he is."

By the early ‘90s, CVC was a top corporate law firm, and we moved out of our first home, which we had shared with various relatives at various times, to our own new place in Alabang. Nineties kids will remember how difficult it was to get a new landline, or a dial tone if they did have one. Whenever I needed to make a phone call, I had to go to the Town Center and use a payphone, a great hampering to the tweenage telebabad habit.

In Alabang, my dad was introduced to Fidel Ramos and ended up working on his campaign for the presidency. When FVR won, he appointed my dad as his Presidential Legal Advisor, setting him on a path where he could do more for the country than if he had remained in private practice. I attended my dad’s swearing in, but after that he disappeared into the maws of the government, ready to smash some economic reforms. The president had launched a campaign to deregulate the phone monopoly and other monopolies that have been putting a stranglehold on progress. My dad provided the legal firepower, drafting an Executive Order which required PLDT to connect with all new cellular phone companies.

As a solipsistic teenager, I wasn’t abreast of current events and hardly read the papers. But I knew his name started appearing in the news and not always in a good way, as a few pundits volubly doubted my dad’s intentions. CVC also forever came to be known as The Firm, shadily reputed for its close ties to political power.

One day, my dad gave me a Globe Handyphone. It was a walnut-colored Nokia 2110 with a retractable antenna, and I could use it to send SMS messages. I figured my parents wanted to keep track of my whereabouts, since I started going out at night and often broke my curfew (previously I had a pager, but those were easily ignored). At the time, I didn’t realize the significance of having a cellular phone, and being one of the first among my friends with one. The decades-long phone monopoly had been dismantled by 1995, allowing new players to compete in the telecoms industry and forever changing the way we socialized, communicated, did business, and kept track of people.

My dad left the government in 1996 due to an irreconcilable difference with President Ramos. As required by law, he was barred from returning to his practice for a year. During this period, I suppose he had more free time to spend with the family, but it wasn’t always a welcome development. I was in my senior year of high school and up to a lot of mischief, and suddenly here was my dad, after years of non-involvement, trying to impose rules and generally getting in my business. My brother was already living in the US, so I bore the brunt of familial expectations. Fortunately, neither I nor my brother were ever pressured to take up law, something his own father convinced him to do as a fresh graduate. My brother showed an aptitude for computers early on, and I, well, I seemed to be more of a lawbreaker.

I was in my senior year of high school and up to a lot of mischief, and suddenly here was my dad, after years of non-involvement, trying to impose rules and generally getting into my business..

Things started to shift at the turn of the millennium. During the impeachment of President Estrada, I finally got to take to the streets. All the events leading up to the second EDSA woke something in me, and I started to become more invested in what was happening to the Philippines. When GMA ascended and appointed my dad to the Supreme Court, swearing him in on his 52nd birthday, both my mother and I sighed with relief that he could finally be of use to the nation again, instead of tinkering around with random hobbies and generally getting underfoot in the house.

His years in the Court were long and sometimes uneventful, but he has been central to several landmark decisions that were of tremendous consequence to the country, whether as the majority opinion or a forceful dissent. He certainly upset a lot of influential people, but proved he was independent and that the only thing he owed loyalty to was the Constitution. Ever since he took up the cause of the West Philippine Sea, his name has constantly been in the headlines. For someone who was passed over three times for the position of Chief Justice, he has gone above and beyond his role as a magistrate in raising the flag for Philippine sovereign rights.

Everything I learned from my father was not through him personally imparting words of wisdom over the dinner table, but from me reading about his decisions, his deeds, and his dreams in the news

I can’t say that my dad and I have any sort of typical parent-child relationship. Though he’s mellowed out over the years—he’s adopted my two cats and takes care of two more dogs, something that would’ve been unthinkable during his law firm years—he can still be pretty opaque. Most of what I learned from my father was not through him personally imparting words of wisdom over the dinner table, but from reading about his decisions, deeds, and dreams as they are reported in the news, in books, or in opinion columns. I learn about him from my mom, who gives the best layman’s explanation of complicated political and legal machinations. My mom is also the conduit through which I find out whether he’s upset with me for something (and if he doesn’t like this article, I’ll definitely hear it from her).

Though he was an absentee father who rarely made it to school events, it didn’t bother me. My dad always provided for his family and let me attend the best schools I could get into. He left the parenting to my mom because that was just beyond the realm of his knowledge, which is already quite vast. As a parent myself, I’ve come to realize that a fulfilling life isn’t just centered around the needs of your own family. Being a patriot and a citizen of the world requires some sacrifice and a lot of work. I’ll never be as single-minded as he is in pursuing certain goals, but at least I know firsthand, and without a doubt, what a principled life looks like. He retires this October as one of the longest-serving associate justices in Philippine history, but he’ll be my dad for much longer.

 

 Photographs courtesy of the author.