When Cayat couldn’t hold his drink

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By Ramon Dacawi

Benchwarmer

Friday, February 1, 2013


(We yield to some former shot glassmates’ request for a retelling of one man’s woes with the spirit of the colonial law that once governed Native Americans and Igorots alike. This retelling is a tribute to the visionary Igorot lawyer Sinai Carino Hamada, the founder of the oldest existing Baguio weekly –the venerable Baguio Midland Courier. - RD)

IT MUST have been terribly cold this season 76 years ago for Cayat to have tried to go for the old reliable: a shot of gin and, if warranted, another. For literally holding his drink, the fellow with one name was booked and brought before the justice of the peace. The court found him guilty and meted out a five-peso fine or imprisonment in case of inability to pay.

Court records didn’t reveal if the crime was driven by the need to insulate one’s self from the temperature dip. What was clear was that Cayat’s arrest was anchored on his identity as a “native”. Perhaps the singularity of his name that didn’t sound Spanish or colonized was what gave him away.

Aside, of course, from his tight grip on the damning evidence.

Cayat was an Igorot, although his specific tribal affiliation was not indicated in the Supreme Court decision. The ruling just identified him as “a native of Baguio, Benguet, Mountain Province”, in accordance with the political geography of the time.

Sinai Hamada, then a young Ibaloi lawyer who studied and was student paper editor at the University of the Philippines, took on Cayat’s defense until the highest tribunal. “My father told me he didn’t know Cayat until the fellow needed a lawyer to defend him,” recalled Hamada’s daughter, Brigitte Pawid, now the chair of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.

Client and counsel pleaded before the Court of First Instance for dismissal of the case for lack of evidence. The CFI, however, upheld the verdict of the justice of the peace. It also upped the fine to P50, again with “subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency”.

Cayat was found guilty of an offense no longer deemed criminal today: possession of a bottle of commercially produced gin.

The information read: “That on or about 25th day of January, 1937, in the City of Baguio, Commonwealth of the Philippines, and within the jurisdiction of this court, the above-named accused, Cayat, being a member of the non-Christian tribes, did then and there willfully, unlawfully, and illegally receive, acquire, and have in his possession and under his control or custody, one bottle of A-1-1 gin, an intoxicating liquor, other than the so-called native wines and liquors which members of such tribes have been accustomed themselves to make prior to the passage of Act 1639.”

Section 2 of Commonwealth Act 1639 made it “unlawful for any native of the Philippine Islands who is a member of a non-Christian tribe…to buy, receive, have in his possession, or drink any ardent spirits, ale, beer, wine, or intoxicating liquors of any kind, other than the so-called native wines and liquors which the members of such tribes have been accustomed themselves to make prior to the passage of this Act…”

Cayat’s legal hold on and intake of alcoholic drinks was limited to the rice wine commonly produced by Igorot tribes: “tafey in Ibaloi, “tapey” in Kankana-ey and “bayah” in Tuwali Ifugao.

Maintaining his innocence, Cayat, through attorney Hamada, went to the Supreme Court to challenge the constitutionality of the law. Counsel argued that the Act was discriminatory and denied the equal protection of the laws, that it violated the due process clause of the Constitution, and that it was an improper exercise of the police power of the state.

“Counsel for the appellant holds out his brief as the ‘brief for the non-Christian tribes’,” the High Tribunal pointed out. “It is said that as these less civilized elements of the Filipino population are ‘jealous of their rights in a democracy,’ any attempt to treat them with discrimination or ‘mark them as inferior or less capable race and less entitled’ will meet with their instant challenge.”

The SC, however, ruled that the guarantee of equal protection of the laws was not violated by a legislation based on reasonable classification. Act 1639, it said, satisfied the requirements for a reasonable classification, in that it must rest on substantial distinctions, must be germane to the purposes of the law, must not be limited to existing conditions only, and must apply equally to all members of the same class.

“The classification rests on real or substantial, not merely imaginary or whimsical distinctions,” the final decision said. “It is not based upon ‘accident or of birth or parentage’, as counsel for the appellant asserts, but upon the degree of civilization and culture. The term ‘non-Christian tribes’ refers, not to religious belief, but, in a way, to the geographical area, and, more directly, to natives of the Philippine islands of a low grade of civilization, usually living in tribal relationship apart from settled communities.”

The court took note that “the exceptional cases of certain members thereof who at present have reached a position of cultural equality with their Christian brothers, cannot affect the reasonableness of the classification thus established.”

So the judgment was affirmed, with costs against Cayat the appellant.

Looking back at the case, Baguio lawyer and now Supreme Court Justice Marvic Leonen noted in a paper:

“The irony was that the most basic principle on non-discrimination – that no person shall be denied equal protection of the law – enshrined in no less than the Philippine Constitution was construed to limit the freedoms of significant populations of indigenous groups.

“Legal advocates in the Philippines realized quite early that the more general the textual bases of rights, the less chances there are for an interpretation in favor of ‘minority’ or ‘marginalized cultures’. Judicial tendency might be to treat the usual state of affairs as the norm. Or, quite simply resources of those who are privileged by the dominant interpretation of a legal system simply dwarf the ability of those in the margins.”

Leonen noted Cayat was lucky that a young enterprising lawyer took his case, “but the formal adjudicatory system was simply not ready to expand its existing notions of non-discrimination”.

The colonial milieu in which Cayat got caught in had since changed. The gin brand used as evidence against him is no longer being distilled. Today, any person of legal age, regardless of tribal or ethnic background, can hold his gin, perhaps as antidote to the current cold spell.

Tapuy, which some drinkers swear is more potent and inebriating than gin, has also come of age. It is now being pasteurized, bottled, sealed, labeled and sold in the market.

If it’s any vindication of Cayat and his Ibaloi lawyer, Act 1639 was repealed by Commonwealth Act 476 two years after the Igorot’s conviction. The repealing law, a single sentence that didn’t explain the reason why, took effect on June 18, 1939, recalled legal luminary and human rights lawyer Pablito Sanidad, the former national chair of the Free Legal Assistance Group.

That law should not have been repealed but amended, said Sanidad who, for years now, has been a pro bono counsel of Baguio journalists facing legal suits. That law, he qualified, is needed to rein in members of the Baguio media who cannot hold their drink.

(e-mail: mondaxbench@yahoo.com for comments).

Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on February 02, 2013.

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