Retired but not tired

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

Early this week the man who taught me Constitutional Law, Supreme Court Justice Antonio Eduardo Nachura, retired. He was, is, someone I literally owe (along with Dean Mariano Magsalin, Jr.) my legal career -- encouraging me to continue my law studies after a series of disappointments almost made me want to stop, had supported my going to Cambridge, and with incredible generosity gave me, a then mere 39-year-old, the opportunity to become Bar Examiner for Political Law and Public International Law in 2009.

The newspaper accounts of his retirement ceremonies made much of the fact that he was given tokens that were symbolic or representative of his career: "a brass shingle, a photo album, a Philippine flag, a judicial robe, a book of court decisions, and a medallion, as well as a Supreme Court pen, flag, and seal." Mention was also made of the fact that Justice Nachura had the rare honor of serving in all three branches of government.

But even then, that doesn’t remotely capture what really makes him special. He will forever be for his students (and we will always just be his students) the personification of the lawyer we all want to be: pragmatic but scholarly, intellectual but easygoing, a serious man but of constant good humor, of high position but of down-to-earth humility. We would imitate him in class, trying to perfectly capture his distinct way of speaking, the ever present exhortation of "na-master niyo na iyan, kayang kaya niyo iyan!" This would be then followed by a shake of the head, a rueful smile, and a soft "ay naku ..." Any lawyer could say that he had the honor of learning constitutional law from so and so expert. But I think we, Nachura’s students, could claim the distinction that we actually had fun and looked forward, loved even, learning law from him.

This makes me truly doubt the wisdom of having a compulsory retirement age for Supreme Court justices. Why make it mandatory to retire somebody who is mentally alert, healthy, and with energy just because he or she reached a certain number? And I remember the other justices whose "early" retirement caused the Philippine judiciary to be deprived of their wisdom, experience, and intellect: Cesar Bengzon, who would go on to serve for years at the International Court of Justice, Florentino Feliciano, who would go on almost single-handedly to shape the judicial process of the World Trade Organization’s Appellate Body, Romeo Callejo (another professor of mine and who now teaches at Ateneo). The list goes on and on.

It just simply doesn’t make sense. Considering that the average life expectancy for Filipinos have steadily risen through the years (better nutrition, health care, lack of wars, etc.), why impose retirement at what is effectively quite young ages? This is all the more significant when one considers that global fertility rates are mostly declining (including that of the Philippines). The private sector has a general retirement age of 65. The military has an even more ridiculous retirement age: 56. Just when an officer (or even Chief of Staff) is reaching quite admirable levels of maturity, he is then told to go.

The Economist
, commenting on the matter (Pensions, April 7, 2011), declared: "many governments have started to deal with the ageing problem. They have announced increases in the official retirement age that attempt to hold down the costs of state pensions while encouraging workers to stay in their jobs or get on their bikes and look for new ones. [Accordingly], working longer has three great advantages. The employee gets more years of wages; the government receives more in taxes and pays out less in benefits; and the economy grows faster as more people work for longer. Older workers are a neglected consumer market, as our briefing on the media’s ageing audiences explains."

Other countries have certainly heeded the times. The US Army, for one, changed the mandatory retirement age from 55 to 62. The US Supreme Court currently has 4 (out of the 9) justices past 70: Scalia (74), Kennedy (73), Ginsburg (77), and Breyer (71). In the private sector, the UK is reportedly upping the retirement age to 68, the US to 67.

The Economist
actually presented (Schumpeter, April 7, 2011) three ways to get more efficient productivity out of senior folks: "The first is to treat them as mentors. Westpac, an Australian bank, has dubbed some older staff ‘sages’and asked them to codify the company’s informal knowledge. The second is to recognise that they respond to different incentives: they may be less interested in money and promotion and more concerned with flexibility. The third is to treat retirement as a process rather than a sudden event. Some employers offer older workers ‘bridge jobs’ between full-time work and retirement."

Indeed, considering the present dearth of talent in this country’s public service, we need all the Nachuras that we can get.