MERLIN M. MAGALLONA: A Giant of His Time, A Man Ahead of His Time

Rommel J. Casis and Theodore O. Te
UP College of Law

When a great tree falls, the forest is a bit bare and a lot emptier.

At the dawn of this year, the 10th Dean (1995-1999) of the University of the Philippines College of Law (UP Law), Merlin M. Magallona (August 6, 1934-January 1, 2022), left the forest barer and emptier as he entered immortality.[1]

He was, bar none, the pre-eminent scholar of his time, and foremost teacher of International Law in the country. He served as Dean of UP Law from 1995 to 1999) and as Associate Dean from 1991 to 1995. For many years, he headed the International Studies Institute of the Philippines (ISIP) as its founding Director — later to become the International Institute for Legal Studies (IILS), at the UP Law Center. There, he led pioneering work in international law, publishing works on various topics such as Philippine Territorial Issues, Use of Force and International Security, Philippine Practice of International Law, Globalization, Law of the Sea, and many others. His most recent publications include:

  • Problems and Prospects in International Law (2019);
  • Globalization and Sovereignty: The Republic in Crisis (2017);
  • Legal Education: The Search for its Strategic Center in the Filipino Cultural Development (2016);
  • The Philippines in the International Law of the Sea (2015);
  • The Philippine Constitution and International Law (2013);
  • Dictionary of Contemporary International Law (2011);
  • Supreme Court and International Law: Problems and Approaches in Philippine Practice (2010); and
  • Fundamentals of Public International Law (2005).

In addition to his academic writing, Dean Merlin was instrumental in promoting international law through the many institutions he joined. He was a founding member of the Asian Society of International Law and was a member of its Executive Council (2007-2009). He was instrumental in setting up the Philippine Society of International Law and the Philippine Yearbook of International Law which he also led as Editor-In-Chief. Prior to this he was Editor of the IBP Journal for a considerable number of years. From 2001 to 2002, he served as Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs. He was a member of the Expert Group on the Legal Aspects of the New International Economic Order established by the UN Institute on Training and Research in 1992 and was also listed as an Expert in Human Rights of the UN Human Rights Commission. He served as a member of the arbitral tribunal of the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris, France. Until his voluntary retirement from service at the Philippine Judicial Academy (PHILJA), he was Chair of its Department of International Law and Human Rights.

He was the only Filipino to argue twice before the International Court of Justice (ICJ): first in the Request for Advisory Opinion submitted by the World Health Organization on the Legality of the Use by a State of Nuclear Weapons in Armed Conflict in 1995[2] and the second in the application for permission to intervene in the Case concerning Sovereignty over Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipadan (Indonesia/Malaysia) in 2001.[3]

Above all, Dean Merlin inspired an entire generation of scholars and researchers in public and private international law not only at Malcolm Hall but in other universities, as well. Many professors and legal experts today consider him as their mentor and inspiration.[4] His legacy can be traced in the works of a line of professors and researchers he taught and mentored. Many of his former students, branded as “Anak ni Magallona” — because they could follow his unique line of reasoning — considered it a distinct badge of honor and many have continued his work in scholarship, research, and education. As such many students today, even those who did not have the chance to be in his classes, are impacted by his brilliance. He not only blazed a path, but he also made sure there would be people who would be able to continue the work he started.

Aside from the initial shock at his passing, a common thread runs through the tributes and accolades offered to Dean Magallona in the wake of his passing — he was an intellectual giant of his time but also a man ahead of his time.

Here is how Dean Merlin is described by some of his colleagues and former students in the faculty:

Raul C. Pangalangan: “…Dean Merlin … was a pillar of his discipline, Public International Law, and his influence will live on through his students and his writings.”[5]

Marvic M.V.F. Leonen: “My mentor and my second employer (Haydee Yorac being the first one) just passed. Dean Merlin Magallona, you have shaped many of us. Thank you and we carry on with your legacy.

I fondly remember reading the difficult articles he required. I thought I understood them until he started to interrogate us … during his class. His memorable quiz: take a sheet of paper, draft your international law question, and answer it. Low grades.”[6]

Rommel J. Casis: “He was an intellectual giant in the field of international law and constitutional law, … He was the professor of many of the legal experts today.  For me, the most important lesson I learned from him was how to study law. How I teach law today has been greatly influenced by him. As a member of the faculty, I had the honor of working with him as Director of IILS (a position he himself pioneered) and as a member of the Asian Society of International Law, the Philippine Society of International Law, and editor of the Philippine Yearbook of International Law. I remember that it was often difficult for us to understand him in class because his mind was light years ahead of our own. To this day, we are still trying to catch up.”[7]

Tanya Lat: “Dean Magallona was a visionary and a true teacher and mentor who was generous with his time, knowledge, and wisdom. Rommel Casis and I are extremely blessed to have been mentored by him: first as his students in PRIL, then as members of the 1999 Jessup and 2000 Asia Cup moot court teams (we pretty much swept all the Asia Cup awards that year), and as his research assistants at IILS. In addition to his IL work, Dean Magallona had other important legacies. He wrote extensively about legal education reform, asserting the vital role of legal education in nation-building. He also envisioned a Philippine version of the Jessup IL competition, where every Filipino student could dream of pleading before the Philippine Supreme Court. The Supreme Court National Moot Court Competition (NMCC) which was held in 2002 on the occasion of the SC’s centenary was his brainchild.”[8]

Jackie Espenilla: “Dean MM was our PRIL prof. His brilliance was both intimidating and inspiring. … (He) had a lasting impact on so many of us.”[9]

Joan De Venecia-Fabul: “An intellectual giant and an irrepressibly good person, Dean Magi, as we fondly called him, was my Public International Law professor who encouraged me to try out for Jessup Moot, and who recommended me for a Fulbright scholarship and admission to NYU Law. My classmates would joke that I was the only one who “got” him and his dry humor. I considered this a badge of honor.”[10]

Therese Guiao: “I always thought Dean Merlin Magallona’s name suited him so very well. He was a legend, an absolute legal wizard in the field of international law. I took both his international law classes and came out of both feeling  lacking (as most law students do) and interested/determined/excited to learn more (which was a feat, as in law school you would rarely find me excited about anything.)”[11]

Dean Merlin was also a man with a colorful history of involvement with struggles for meaningful freedoms; stories about his activities at the onset of martial law (with some professors of UP) are now urban legend (especially those stories involving the use of disguises and code words). Beyond his official retirement from the University, he remained deeply curious and involved with contemporary issues of the day, often offering his profoundly insightful comments in his occasional “memos” which he would send to former students and colleagues. Active well beyond his official retirement, Dean Magallona would remain a source of wisdom and guidance to those who would seek it; even to the Supreme Court where his last appearance was as an amicus in the oral arguments on the constitutionality of the LSAT requirement of the Legal Education Board (LEB) in 2019.

Although often seen with a stern mien, Dean Merlin was not always serious. He was a man of great wit and good humor who enjoyed a good joke and found a lot to laugh about. When he found something funny, he would often start with a soft conspiratorial chuckle and end with loud shoulder-shaking guffaws. Unknown perhaps to him, his off-the-cuff remarks during student recitations delivered in his distinct accent and syllabication with a deadpan expression would be the funniest punchlines in his repertoire, remembered by all who passed through his classes (except perhaps the student on deck for recitation).[12]

When a student was stumped and could not answer his question, Dean Merlin would break the silence by asking: “Mr. Dela Cruz, are you trying to communicate by mental telepathy?”  When a student would fidget and squirm during recitation, Dean Merlin would quip, “Ms. Castro, are you trying to communicate using body language?”  When a student approached him to clarify an exam question, he would say “Understanding the problem is part of the problem.” To this day, an “Integrated Outline” conjures memories of Dean Merlin and his usual response to questions on what it was, “finding out what it is, is part of knowing what it is.”

To this day, we remember these legendary exchanges with fondness because more than being a brilliant and distant legend, Dean Merlin was authentic and personal. He was generous with his time and his wisdom, often volunteering comments on issues or articles he had read.  Two members of the faculty recount their experiences with Dean Merlin’s generosity:

Therese Guiao: “I vividly remember approaching him regarding my SLR (supervised legal research) paper, …on cultural heritage and international humanitarian law. After prefacing our meeting with ‘I am not an expert on cultural heritage,’ he then proceeded to give me a two-hour lecture on what I could explore and write about in relation to the topic. I came out of the meeting dazed, with copious notes, wishing I had brought more paper and a recorder with me.”[13]

Ted Te: “I had the privilege of writing on his seminal paper on legal education reform as my entry piece for the Philippine Law Journal editorial board competition in my third year; I counted myself privileged to have conversations with him about my article much later when I joined the faculty. In typical Magallona fashion, with an impish smile on his face, and in his distinct accent and syllabication, he started by saying, ‘Ted, you had some interesting points on legal education in your article; may I share some thoughts…’ and promptly launched into his views, transporting me back to my third year of law school trying to take as many notes as possible while he spoke (I wish I had recorded what he said because his off-the-cuff remarks were enough material for an entire legal article).”[14]

He was, for one of his stature, an extremely relational person. He often greeted colleagues and former students with his warm, welcoming smile, and a sincere “kumusta ka?  A recent graduate of UP Law, Leslie Torres, remembered Dean Merlin fondly in her FB post:

“I wasn’t the most hardworking student in law school but I read all your readings in full text at least twice and aimed to get a grade I was told you didn’t give anymore. It was such a privilege to have been taught by an incredible legend. Thank you, Sir! I will forever remember all the times you would pass by and I would say, ‘Good morning, Dean!’ I would almost shout across the hallway or wait in Bocobo just to greet you because no matter how long it took, you would always look at me and smile. You always smiled.

My friends would say I had two lolos in law school I loved dearly. I lost one today. Thank you for the privilege, Sir.”[15]

Dean Merlin, we grieve at your passing not so much for you, because you are now reunited with your beloved wife Miriam for eternity, but for us who are truly bereaved by your leaving. However, in our grief, we are consoled by our memories of you, strengthened by your legacy in academe and government, and inspired by your life and service.

The forest is a bit barer and a lot emptier now because a great tree has fallen. But the seeds that you have sown, through the students you have mentored and trained and the lives you have inspired, have borne fruit and will soon produce many new trees to try and fill the void you have left.

Rest in peace, Dean Merlin. You will be greatly missed.



[1] “When a great tree falls, we are surprised to see how meager the landscape seems without it.” – Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
[4] Ambassador Eduardo De Vega, a former student, posted on Facebook that “(y)ou couldn’t say you took up public and private international law at the UP College of Law if it wasn’t under him. His ideas were so profound that no one could understand them! …(he) may have confused us all in class, but as we learned later as we practiced our professions, all he did was sharpen our minds.”
[5] Raul C. Pangalangan, former Judge, International Criminal Court; Professor of Law and former Dean, UP College of Law; posted on the faculty viber thread.
[6] Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; former Professor of Law and former Dean, UP College of Law; tweeted at 8:26 AM, January 2, 2021. Justice Leonen was a research assistant of Dean Magallona while he was in law school.
[7] Rommel Casis, Associate Professor, UP College of Law, Director, UP Institute of International Legal Studies; posted on his Facebook page.
[8] Tanya Lat, Professorial Lecturer, UP College of Law; posted on the Faculty Viber thread.
[9] Jackie Espenilla, Assistant Professor, UP College of Law; posted on the faculty viber thread.
[10] Joan De Venecia-Fabul, Professorial Lecturer, UP College of Law; posted on her FB page.
[11] Therese Guiao, Professorial Lecturer, UP College of Law; posted on her FB page.
[12] A recurring line is about telepathy not being one of his skills, in his riposte to tongue-tied students unable to articulate a coherent response; another is about his originating the grade of 5W (which means a warning, thus the W and is often given with a passing grade of 3, meaning that the next time the student took the course under the same professor, she or he should not expect leniency) because he was not allowed to give a grade of “6.”
[13] Therese Guiao, Professorial Lecturer, UP College of Law; posted on her FB page.
[14] Ted Te, Assistant Professor, UP College of Law; posted on his Facebook page.
[15] Leslie Torres, posted on her Facebook page.

  • Post category:News
  • Post last modified:January 7, 2022