ALMOST two years ago to the day, Atty. Romeo T. Capulong delivered what might have been his swan song as “a people’s lawyer.”
“Alternative lawyering,” he said in a speech before a congress of lawyers, was his own “treasured journey of self-fulfillment.”
On Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012, Romy faced the lie of life and succumbed to a lingering illness. He was 77.
Romy T. Capulong — or Judge RTC to colleagues and close friends — was more than just the titles he had earned or the cases he had defended.
As chairman of the National Union of People’s Lawyers and president of the Public Interest Law Center (PILC), Romy had defended political prisoners (like he once was in the early years of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos), farmers, workers, students, informal settlers, militants, leftists, and Filipinas conscripted as sex slaves (comfort women) to Japanese soldiers during the last war.
Romy founded PILC in 1989, after returning home in 1986, post-EDSA 1, from seven years of political asylum in the United States. No client was ever so small or so puny of stature, or even so deep in penury to not deserve his quick and full attention. In truth, the smaller of stature and the deeper in penury they were, Romy was more ready to offer his services.
A colleague at PILC, Atty Marie Yuvienco, wrote in a 2008 column about the big clients, the big cases, and the big causes of Romy. By all accounts a most accomplished man and militant, Romy was a lead lawyer in the class suit that human rights victims filed against the Marcoses, and in a string of cases, counsel to Flor Contemplacion, Jose Ma. Sison, General Raymundo Jarque, and many others accused of rebellion.
There’s more, according to Marie. Romy, she wrote, was “the advocate for the urban poor and labor unions”; challenger of the constitutionality of the Visiting Forces Agreement; prosecutor in the Estrada impeachment trial – the track record is long and getting longer, but the feats are not the man, and he is not some impervious Hercules.”
He had, of course, served in high and important positions for the lowly and the powerless. He was a member of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal, and a counsel to the farmers of Hacienda Luisita.
Marie talked about Romy’s “caffeine diplomacy” at endless meetings that were “never just another powwow but performance pedagogy complete with gesticulation and appearances by strange animals.” The meetings continued from one to another venue, and even inside the car, with Romy unperturbed by the absence of a white board.
Wrote Marie: “Romy would simply write on the windshield, and on the side window if need be, using his finger. Tireless digits they were: once, he wrote from Manila to Nueva Ecija where we spent one working weekend at his farm.”
Once at his farm, Marie said Romy served them a huge cauldron of milk, as well as the source of the milk herself. He summoned to the breakfast table “a gigantic carabao named Kalaki’an that had the longest lashes.” It turned out that, “like a dog, this bovine was taken for a walk every morning after breakfast,” Marie wrote.
“We weren’t sure if the milk’s warmth was due to its freshness, but it was an apt metaphor for the unpasteurized opinions Romy let loose that morning.”
Romy had made no secret of his Leftist leanings, leading a magazine to once label him “The Communist Lawyer.” Romy had admitted he had studied the 10-point program of the National Democratic Front, and saw “room for debate on the means (armed struggle), but I cannot argue with the program.”
But in Marie’s mind, Romy was also “a classy leftist.”
She wrote: “…I disclose this with love in my heart and tongue in cheek – I never felt it was my place to compliment him on his Bally shoes. A leftist with capitalist taste in footwear is a role model Nikita Khrushchev probably would not approve, but any lingering dissonance I felt would soon be banished by the grandés of café latte at Starbucks where he loved to hold meetings, always picking up the tab.”
Yet still, in his speech before fellow lawyers on Sept. 18, 2010, Romy had humbly wished he would be remembered most simply as “a people’s lawyer.”
Romy spoke about how “lawyers have often been stereotyped as rude, self-cheating, ambitious, opportunists, and defenders of the status quo.” He said the martial law years have shown that these lawyers are “the exemptions rather than the rule.”
“By nature,” according to Romy, “lawyers are sensitive to social and political conditions… injustice and human rights violations… We generally respond to challenges by helping the poor… and working for a just and humane society.”
He was perhaps telling his own story. Toward the close of his speech, Romy was so overcome by emotion he took a hanky to wipe his eyes.
And despite his declining health at the time, Romy proclaimed most vigorously his life’s faith. Alternative lawyering, he said, was “a treasured journey of self-fulfillment… I know it will be the same for all those who will choose to tread this path.”