Chief Justice Roberto Concepcion is remembered as one of those who refused to legitimize one-man rule by Ferdinand Marcos. His was the heavy burden of seeking to preserve the Supreme Court’s independence from the dictator’s attempts to control it.
He was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court when martial law was declared by Marcos in September 1972, and when, shortly afterward, a Constitution tailor-made for his illegal rule was promulgated and “ratified” by a “show of hands” in so-called people’s assemblies.
Though it was Marcos himself who had appointed him (in 1966) to head the highest court of the land, Concepcion denounced the imposition of martial law, and asked his fellow justices to declare the proclamation of the 1973 Constitution as null and void. However, the majority of the justices chose not to side with him: the final decision held that although there were “flaws” in its ratification, there was “no judicial obstacle to the [Marcos] Constitution being considered in force and in effect.”
The court’s resolution on the issue became final on March 30, 1973. One week after, on April 8, 1973, Concepcion resigned – one month and 10 days ahead of the date when he would have been compulsorily retired. He was delivering a message to a regime that was not listening.
After leaving the Court, Concepcion continued to express his commitment to the rule of law by supporting human rights causes through legal assistance to the poor. He also continued to teach.
With the downfall of the dictatorship in 1986, he was appointed to serve as a member of the Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 Constitution. He made significant contributions toward reforms in the judiciary, and most notably, he is credited with providing safeguards against a recurrence of Marcos-style dictatorship.
Throughout his 40-year service in the judiciary, Roberto Concepcion was consistent in his defense and advocacy of civil liberties, the rights of the accused, nationalist policies and legislation. He showed exemplary conduct in upholding ethical standards in his personal and public life.
Born in Quiapo, Manila, Concepcion learned the value of hard work and discipline from his parents (his father owned a small business). He graduated summa cum laude from University of Sto. Tomas law school in 1924 and topped the bar examinations in 1924. He first entered government service in 1929 as an assistant attorney in the Bureau of Justice, rising through the ranks until he was appointed to the Supreme Court as associate justice in 1954.
He died in 1987 at age 83, still involved in the task of helping craft a new charter for the nation.