Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s passion for her work cost her her marriage years ago.
Today, a college friend, Judge Marilou Runes-Tamang, is not surprised that De Lima is again risking everything for the job that she vowed to do.
“She believes in what is right and she speaks from the heart and what she believes in. And she will die for it,” Tamang, who has known De Lima for over two decades, told the Inquirer on Friday.
The two women cofounded the Lambda Rho Sigma Sorority at the San Beda College of Law.
On the phone on Saturday with the Inquirer, De Lima described herself exactly the way her friend did.
“It’s always been my tack to focus on a particular thing or challenge that confronts me, and I really try to do the right thing. I gather enough will to do what I believe I am supposed to do,” she said.
De Lima, 51, candidly admitted as far back as 2007 that her concentration on her career and passion as a lawyer had led to the collapse of her marriage.
But she and her former husband remain friends, and they are “coparents” to their two sons, Israel and Vincent.
Israel, who has autism and who inspired his mother to push for the rights of persons with disabilities while she was the chair of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), stays with his father during weekdays because his school is near his dad’s place, De Lima said. Vincent and his family stay with her.
After the past politically charged days, De Lima makes sure her family is safe. Malacañang has taken the initiative to beef up her security starting Nov. 19, she said.
De Lima said she continued to believe that her purported defiance of the Supreme Court was “legally and morally justifiable.”
She said she was aware of the “flak” she had been getting from the legal community, but was standing by her decision.
Her father, former Elections Commissioner Vicente de Lima, has always been her confidante and guiding light, especially when it comes to making “major decisions.”
In this current controversy, her father advised her “to be strong.”
“He told me to do what is the right thing to do. It will hold ground,” De Lima said, adding, however, that her mother was worried.
De Lima felt a vindication of sorts when on Friday, the Supreme Court voted that one of the conditions of the temporary restraining order (TRO) it had issued—which lifted the travel ban on former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her husband—had not been met and was thus not yet effective.
“Technically, that vindicated me because there was nothing to defy. The TRO was not effective,” she said.
Judge Tamang, who presides over a Metropolitan Trial Court in Pateros, said she sent her friend via text message a mouthful about the ruckus triggered by the TRO.
But she knew that De Lima would not budge, and that the justice secretary would henceforth be known as the one-woman barrier that prevented the Arroyos from leaving the country.
Watching the goings-on in Manila from New York City, topnotch lawyer Theodore Te told the Inquirer that De Lima simply “had to do what she had to do and defend it basically by herself,” owing to the absence at that time of President Aquino.
“It also was her opportunity to show the President that she could be ‘trusted’ to run the show,” Te said on the phone.
Te believes that De Lima has so far been the only “consistent” performer in Mr. Aquino’s Cabinet.
But if there’s anything he wants, it’s for the justice secretary to keep her media-savvy nature in check: “I just wish she would not ‘try’ cases by press con… She’s been very visible in the media. When you’re the final approving authority for criminal charges that have not been recommended yet, you shouldn’t go on air acting as if they have been filed because you run the risk of diluting the cases on ground of bias.”
While an electoral sabotage case had been filed in court against Arroyo, many still believe that the Aquino administration could have moved faster in making the former President accountable for her alleged misdeeds.
“The administration has two years to prepare a case that, if airtight, could not have been prevented even by lawyers’ delays. But of course, we know Gloria prepared for this, so evidence will not be easy to obtain,” Te said.
Critics claim that De Lima wants to be visible in the media to make a head start for her supposed plan to seek a Senate seat in 2013. (De Lima has admitted that some quarters were trying to convince her to run for senator, but said she had yet to decide.)
Tamang said that she did not think De Lima had any political inclinations, and that her friend was simply being who she was.
“She says what she feels in her heart… Walang preno magsalita (No holds barred),” Tamang said, laughing.
De Lima defended herself by saying she had always been an accessible source for the media, even when she was the CHR chair and when she was still an election lawyer.
“I believe in transparency, but I would also know what I cannot say. What I will dispute is what others say—that I am publicity-hungry. I don’t think it is my fault that the media would ‘ambush’ me morning and afternoon,” she said.
Tamang said the justice secretary was a friend who would regale one with stories and was herself always interested to hear one’s stories.
“She laughs a lot! Todo bigay tumawa!” Tamang said.
She said the grandmother of two had a sense of humor and would still “blush” when teased about being introduced to men.
Tamang said that at their sorority and fraternity events, De Lima would let her hair down and would always be the first to urge everyone to get on their feet to sing and dance.
She said De Lima also had a “compassionate, soft” side to her even if many saw her only as the “tough-talking justice secretary.”
“I know Sundays are reserved for her family, especially spending time with her kids and grandkids,” Tamang said.
She added that De Lima was a “very simple person who would rather have a boodle fight” with friends than lunch at a fancy restaurant.
On Saturday, even while nursing a fever, De Lima went about her usual weekend chore—going to the market and the grocery.
Expectedly, people came up to her and said they were “supportive of what I did,” she said.
Tamang said, however, that De Lima did not show that “feisty” side when they were in law school.
“As with her job now, she was very focused on her studies. She would be too engrossed with studying that it was difficult to talk about sorority matters with her. She’s not a nerd, though. Just very intelligent. In fact, I passed commercial law because of her. I borrowed her book where she had all these marginal notes that contained [the professor’s] questions and the answers,” Tamang said.
De Lima topped the bar exams in 1986.
Tamang said what she wanted for her friend now was to develop a “peripheral view” of the world she now moved in, “for her own protection.”
“She trusts the people around her and as a boss, would really take full responsibility for everything that happens under her watch,” Tamang said, adding she wanted De Lima to be cautious these days.
“This is what I want to tell her: Be very, very careful kasi nilalaglag ka din naman (because sometimes you get betrayed),” Tamang said.
De Lima admitted that the thought that some people she was working with might have other agenda had also crossed her mind.
“But that’s not my problem anymore,” she said.
If she does find herself in the situation that Tamang had suggested, she said, “I would know what to do.”
De Lima maintained she would continue having the “mindset” about the people around her, whether in the Palace or at her own department—the presumption of good faith on their part.
And more than anything else, the trust and confidence of the President is important to her, she said.
With all these, the country can expect De Lima to continue to be at the top of her game.
First posted 2:30 am | Sunday, November 20th, 2011