By William B. Depasupil, Reporter
Every year, law graduates take the Bar examinations as a screening device to determine who among the examinees are fit to practice law in the Philippines. For all the controversies that have hounded the institution of lawyering in the Philippines, nothing compares to the exhilaration of passing the rigorous Bar exams.
The first Philippine Bar Examination was held in 1901 with 13 examinees. The Supreme Court (SC) has no record though on the identities of the first batch of Bar examinees and those who took the exam 11 years thereafter.
The 2007 Bar exam was the 106th year the test had been conducted. Starting in 1913, there were a total of 94 examinations, interrupted only by Japanese occupation in 1942 and 1943.
The 94 Bar examinations, from 1913-2007, produced a total of 96 Bar topnotchers. There were two first placers in 1944 (former Senate President Jovito Salonga and former Senator Jose Diokno, tied at 95.3 percent) and also in 1999 (Deputy Executive Secretary Edwin Enrile and law professor Florin Hilbay, tied at 88.5 percent).
Of the 96 Bar topnochers, 47 were graduates of the University of the Philippines; 19 were from Ateneo de Manila University; six from San Beda College; five from Philippine Law School; four from the University of Manila; and three each came from the University of Sto. Tomas and Far Eastern University.
Manuel L. Quezon University had two topnotchers; and one topnotcher each came from the University of the East, Escuela de Derecho, University of Bohol, University of the Cordilleras and Baguio Colleges Foundation.
Two took the Bar in what could be considered special cases. They did not finish law, but were allowed to take the exam during the few years that even non-law graduates were allowed to take it.
All 96 Bar topnothcers are veritable superstars in their own right. Some rose to extraordinary prominence following their entry into politics, and by what they had done, whether good or bad, as well as their contributions to the country while in government service.
Three Bar first placers made history as President of the Philippines. One become a vice president, and several others became senators, congressmen, chief justices or associate justices, or were appointed to important government posts.
Manuel Roxas, grandfather of Sen. Mar Roxas of Capiz, made history in 1913 when he topped the 1913 exam with a grade of 92 percent. Roxas, a UP law graduate, was the first president of an independent Philippine Republic.
Roxas was elected president on April 23, 1946. The Philippines achieved its independence from the United Sates on July 4, 1946. Prior to his election to presidency, Roxas was also House Speaker and Senate President.
Following Roxas’ footsteps was Diosdado Macapagal, father of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. He was elected as 9th president of the Philippines in 1961.
Macapagal, a graduate of University of Sto. Tomas, topped the Bar in 1936. His dedication to public service earned him the monicker “The Incorruptible.”
Macapagal, however, failed in his reelection bid in 1965, losing to Ferdinand Marcos, who topped the Bar in 1939 with a rating of 92.35 pecent. He graduated cum laude from the UP College of Law. He was also a former congressman and Senate President.
As a law student in UP, Marcos was indicted and convicted for the murder of Julio Nalundasan, who twice defeated his father for a seat in the then National Assembly.
He reviewed for the Bar in detention. He appealed and defended his case before the Supreme Court, and later got an acquittal for murder.
Arguably, Marcos is the most famous among the Bar topnotchers to date. President for 20 years (1965-1986), he was ignominiously removed from office in 1986 through the EDSA People Power for alleged abuse of power and corruption.
Emmanuel Pelaez, the Bar’s superstar of 1938 with a rating of 91.3 percent. He was elected vice president in 1961, with fellow Bar topnotcher, Macapagal, as president. He concurrently served as secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs from 1961 to 1963.
Pelaez received his law degree from the University of Manila in 1938. He was congressman in his home province of Misamis Oriental from 1949 to 1953, and senator from 1953 to 1960.
Pelaez was again elected as congressman in 1965 and two years later as senator, a post he held till the declaration of martial law in 1972.
San Juan Rep. Ronaldo Zamora, who served as the executive secretary of former President Joseph Estrada, and Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr., a former three-term congressman from Tarlac, also topped the Bar in 1969 and 1989 respectively.
Others who became senators were Jovito Salonga and Jose Diokno, both topnotchers in 1944 who later became among the country’s staunchest human rights advocates, and Lorenzo Sumulong (1929).
Retired Supreme Court Justice Florenz Regalado, a 1954 examinee, holds the highest score of 96.7 percent in the 106-year history of the Bar examination, while Adolfo Brillantes obtained in 1920 the lowest score for a Bar topnocher at 84.1 percent. He was a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 Constitution.
On the other hand, the first woman to break men’s dominance of the Bar exam was former Senator Tecla San Andres-Ziga. She took the exam in 1930 with a score of 89.4 percent.
The second woman to top the Bar and the first to be appointed as Supreme Court justice was Cecilia Muñoz-Palma. She took the Bar in 1937 with an average rating of 92.6 percent. She was appointed to the High Court by Marcos on October 29, 1973, but later became a leading force in the opposition against the martial law regime. Prior to her appointment at the SC, Muñoz also served at the Court of Appeals.
After her retirement, she was elected assemblywoman in the defunct Batasang Pambansa and later appointed by former President Aquino as president of the 1986 Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 Constitution.
Ameurfina Melencio Herrera, the 1947 Bar topnocher, was the second woman associate justice elevated to the SC. She filled the seat vacated by Justice Palma.
Carolina Grino-Aquino followed Herrera at the High Court as associate justice in 1988. She topped the Bar in 1950 with a 92.05 percent rating.
Since then, 11 women have topped the Bar, including the 2007 topnotcher, Mercedita Lara Ona, 27, of Ateneo de Manila University, with a score of 83.55 percent.
Three Bar topnochers also made their way to chief justice. They were Roberto Concepcion (1924), Claudio Teehankee (1940) and Pedro Yap (1946).
The 1974 Bar topnocher, Arturo Brion, is also an incumbent justice of the SC. He was also a former CA justice and was secretary of the Department of Labor and Employment before President Arroyo appointed him last month to fill SC’s last vacancy.