MANILA, MARCH 24, 2010 (STAR) By Edu Punay - Jose Midas Marquez stands at the podium with the logo of the Supreme Court in the background. That has become a very familiar picture over the past months, since the high court has been the scene of many hot and contentious issues, and Marquez, spokesman of the Supreme Court (SC), has had to face the media and answer questions that often test the integrity and independence of the institution dubbed the last bastion of the nation’s democracy.

Last Wednesday’s decision on the question of the appointment of a chief justice during the period of the Constitutional ban on appointments was but the latest in a string of controversial issues that were brought before the tribunal.

Even in the most heated of situations, when he is bombarded with questions, Marquez keeps his cool and often surprises everyone with a joke. For Marquez, the task to speak for the Supreme Court isn’t as hard as it seems simply because the institution and its officials are credible and highly respected.

He shares with STARweek three basic rules on how to effectively explain the rulings and handle controversies hounding the Court: always tell the truth, provide a bay window to the public on court rulings and processes, and do what is best for the institution.

He considers transparency the cardinal rule in his job as SC spokesman, especially since his role is to protect public’s respect for the Court. “It’s not really difficult for me because we have a Supreme Court that is already credible and a Chief Justice (Reynato Puno) who is highly respected. So my task really is to keep that and just build on it,” he admits.

Marquez explains that another main task for him is to build and keep a bridge between the High Court and the ordinary Filipino people, to get more public confidence for the Court and bring the judiciary closer to the people.

He reveals that the most difficult challenge he has had so far in his three-year stint as chief of the public information office of SC is explaining decisions that were closely contested by justices. “It’s difficult really to explain to the public conflicting views of justices in rulings with split votes – especially when the chief justice is among the dissenting votes. In cases like this, I do what is best for the institution because no one among us here is above the Supreme Court and the Constitution. With this in mind, you can’t go wrong,” he explains.

Accessibility to media is also important, and Marquez tries to make himself available to the media without discrimination. He accommodates requests for interviews from provincial newspapers and from radio networks at all hours. He admits that he takes advantage of invitations for interviews because the Court “does not have funds for press conferences.” He takes his role as the “face of the Supreme Court” seriously, and is always dapper when facing the media. This 44-year-old basketball addict, who confesses that he once had long hair to below the shoulders, shops for clothes at Nike, Topman, Zara and G2000.

“People are mystified by the justices, so I provide them with a face. When you’re able to explain decisions and actions of the Court, you also provide the Court a face,” he explains.

Before he speaks to media, he asks himself one question: “Am I protecting and defending the Constitution?” This reminds him that apart from being the spokesman of the Court, he is a lawyer who is duty-bound to protect the fundamental rights of the people.

He admits that there are times when his personal views differ from that of the Supreme Court, but he insists, “When you’re called to this duty, you lose your personal agenda and hidden motives.”

But Marquez finds it easy to speak for his boss, the Chief Justice, whom he describes as “very private person.”

“I already worked for him for about three years before he was appointed chief justice. I know how he thinks and how he handles different situations. If I’m not sure, especially when it comes to big issues, I consult him,” he reveals.

But he clarifies that he also considers all other justices of the Court as his bosses, and makes himself available when called upon by the other magistrates.

Marquez has become so visible that he can no longer stroll around the mall without being recognized. He takes a break from his job by joining his staff for dinner and a few drinks, and in his free time, he plays basketball.

But for the past 15 years, he has been hooked on the art of bonsai. “I really find it therapeutic,” confesses Marquez, who has over 500 bonsai, including one that is 10 feet tall. A few of them are displayed in his office at the Supreme Court.

He started this hobby when he was reviewing for the Bar exams. “I was then going to exchange notes with a classmate who lived near Cartimar in Pasay. I went there early so I decided to kill time and looked around at the pet shops. Right beside was a nursery. I chanced upon a bonsai and bought it for P600. At home, I ended up looking at it painstakingly. I moved it around and around,” he recalls, describing bonsai as “miniaturized nature.”

From the initial single plant, he got six more from his grandmother, and then continued to collect more. It is not a cheap hobby – especially for someone who has had no formal training and had to rely on books. “You have to be patient. Sometimes you have to wait six months for (the plant) to grow and then direct the growth of its branches,” he explains. Today, he has learned enough that he can provide pointers on how to cultivate bonsai, including how to choose the right tree. “What is important is that the trunk is good. When it branches out, you’ll know what to prune and what to leave behind,” shares Marquez, a member of the Philippine Bonsai Society. “If you have a red balete, you have to make sure that the leaves are red in time for the exhibition. A leaf is red when it first comes out.”

But with his schedule at the SC, he no longer has time to join exhibits, and only enjoys looking at his collection after a day’s work.

Marquez finished his Juris Doctor degree in 1993 at the Ateneo de Manila, where he also obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree, major in Economics, in 1987. He was admitted to the Bar in March 1994.

A political activist in his college days, he was a founding member of Lakas ng Atenista, the counterpart of the League of Filipino Students. He used to join rallies in Mendiola Bridge along with classmates like Risa Hontiveros and Erin Tańada, who are now lawmakers, and experienced being dispersed by tear gas and water cannons.

Marquez says he once considered going to business school but opted to follow the footsteps of his father. “If there’s someone in the family that my father expected to be a lawyer just like him, it was me,” recalls this middle child.

He started his career in the SC in 1991 as a law clerk for now retired Justice Abraham Sarmiento. He then moved to the office of then Senior Justice and former Philippine Judicial Academy Chancellor Ameurfina Melencio-Herrera, and served for many years in the office of retired Senior Justice Josue Bellosillo. When Bellosillo retired in 2003, he was set to leave the judiciary to take another career path. But that was when Puno, who was still a senior associate justice then, offered him a position that made him decide to stay in the Supreme Court.

“Looking back, that was a really providential moment for me,” he says. Marquez admits he was surprised by the invitation from Puno “because from 1993 to 2003 we worked in the same building but there were only two instances when we bumped into each other, and those were really short encounters.”

When Puno was appointed chief justice in December 2006, Marquez was designated chief-of-staff of the chief justice and acting chief of the Court’s public information office. Marquez is the second person to serve as official spokesperson of the Court, the first being Ismael Khan under Chief Justices Hilario Davide and Artemio Panganiban. He was also tapped as director of the Supreme Court-UNDP project on Justice and Development from 1998-2000, which was the forerunner of the World Bank-assisted projects of the Court and the present Action Program for Judicial Reform.

He has also published a couple of books, including “The Constitutional Philosophy of Philippine Jurisprudence: The Writings of Senior Associate Justice Reynato S. Puno” (2005) and “League of Life, Love and Law: A Biography of Senior Justice Josue N. Bellosillo” (2003). Proceeds went to charitable institutions.

In March 2007, he was unanimously chosen by the justices as assistant administrator of the Court, then promoted to Deputy Court Administrator in August last year.

Marquez considers his recent appointment as Court Administrator as a “more challenging” task, since he oversees the concerns of over 2,000 judges and 27,000 court employees all over the country. The personal challenge, he says, is to prove that the justices did not make a mistake in unanimously choosing him for the post over eight other candidates despite his relatively young age.

“I consider my age as an advantage because I believe I can do more,” he quips. Marquez took the place of Jose Perez, who was appointed associated justice of the Supreme Court last December. Another former court administrator who is now an SC Justice is Presbitero Velasco.

As court administrator – a position on the same level as that of a presiding justice of the Court of Appeals – he oversees programs in the judiciary, including the decentralization of court management and measures to depoliticize ties between judges and local government officials. He admits he did not expect his new assignment, and reveals that he was in fact considering retiring along with Chief Justice Puno.

Asked what he considers the most important lesson he learned from Puno, Marquez replies: “Always do what is right.”

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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