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The legacy of UP Law Dean Merlin Magallona

By: ATTY. DENNIS R. GORECHO - Columnist/CDN Digital | January 04,2022 - 08:00 AM

Merlin Magallona

The legal profession  lost one of  its Filipino luminaries in the field of international law, as former UP College of Law Dean Merlin Magallona passed away in his sleep on the evening of  New Year’s Day, January 1, 2022. He was 87.

Although I was not his student, he had a major role in my legal studies at the UP Law when I entered as a  freshman in 1992 until I took the bar exams in 1998.

He was the “co-pilot” serving as Associate Dean from 1991 to 1995 and later as the ”head pilot” from  1995 to 1999 as the Dean. He was also Director of the UP Law Center’s Institute of International Legal Studies from 2000 to 2001.

Despite the fact that he was not my professor, I was able to understand the legal mind of Dean Magi, as we fondly called him, through  his books, papers, and publications on international law.

There were many giants in the UP Law Faculty who mentored us, and Dean Magi is certainly one of the most loved among these “giants”.

He spent decades teaching international law to generations of UP Law students, who have since become renowned scholars and leading practitioners of international law themselves.

As students at the UP Law, the imposing words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. welcomed us to Malcolm Hall: “The business of a law school is not sufficiently described when you merely say that it is to teach law or make lawyers. It is to teach law in the grand manner, and to make great lawyers.”

With excitement and trepidation, Dean Magi was there to guide us as we pursued the dream of becoming (great) lawyers.

Traversing the path of legal education was hard to the exponential power, as we immersed ourselves in law books and cases, faced terror professors, pore through volumes and pages of SCRAs, lined up for photocopying at the law library, hurried through classes, reviewed and crammed through lessons, and survived recitations.

Encounters with law professors during the dreaded recitations involved answers that range from direct lifting from the SCRAs “in the original,” for those who studied, to inventions through guess work for those who didn’t.

Despite the torture, most of the memorable moments in law school were funny blunders during class recitations, as reminisced by some of his former students.

“He was, for the most part, the most bewildering and at the same time entertaining professor we ever had…because his ideas were so different from what we were reading in the assigned cases”, according to Professor Theodore Te.

Te added that “the forest is barer at the moment because a great tree has fallen. But the seeds he has sown have become fruitful and will soon produce many new trees to try and fill the void.”

Professor Antonio La Vina said Dean Magis’s “language was dense and not easy to understand” because of the ideas and the framework, “When we  recited in his class, we really were not sure we understood what we were mouthing. And in his poker face, which was as calm as his voice, he did not give us a hint whether our answers were correct.”

“An intellectual giant and an irrepressibly good person,” says bar topnotcher Joan de Venecia-Fabul who now teaches PIL like Dean Magi, adding that “ I still have a long way to go before I can even begin to approximate his greatness.”

In the landmark case of Magallona vs. the Executive Secretary (G.R No. 187167,  August 16, 2011), Dean Magi led the petitioners questioning the constitutionality of Republic Act No. 9522, or “An Act to Define the Baselines of the Territorial Sea of the Philippines.”

Petitioners submit that RA 9522 “dismembers a large portion of the national territory” because it discards the pre- United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) III demarcation of Philippine territory under the Treaty of Paris and related treaties, successively encoded in the definition of national territory under the 1935, 1973 and 1987 Constitutions.

Petitioners argued that this constitutional definition trumps any treaty or statutory provision denying the Philippines sovereign control over waters, beyond the territorial sea recognized at the time of the Treaty of Paris, that Spain supposedly ceded to the United States.

However, the Supreme Court upheld by a unanimous decision the amendment to the country’s archipelagic baselines to conform to the UNCLOS.

He served as a resource person for the constitutionality of the Bangsamoro Basic Law and pushed for the Philippines’ territorial sovereignty on multiple occasions.

His works are reminders that the safest course for our nation is that which is most faithful to the Constitution.

Dean Magi made international law real and as a tool which allows smaller states to stand up to superpowers.

Dean Magi accomplished many things. He was master teacher and mentor, academic leader, renowned scholar, and passionate advocate.

(Peyups is the monicker of University of the Philippines. Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email [email protected], or call 09175025808 or 09088665786).

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