In fact, Salonga introduced the idea of running for public office to the young Hilbay. “It was really Senator Salonga who introduced me to the possibility of using law for politics, for good governance issues, those anti-corruption issues. In fact, in 2004 he wanted me to run for Congress,” Hilbay says. “I said, no I’m not interested, I’m not a politician, that’s not my thing. I really saw myself as an academic doing activist work through Bantay Katarungan. That was my life.”
Hilbay took a break in 2004 to take up a scholarship at Yale for his masters degree, and returned to the Philippines to continue working at Bantay Katarungan with Senator Salonga until 2010, after which Hilbay was named director of the Institute of Government and Law Reform, the policy arm of the UP College of Law. In 2013, he rejoined the Office of the Solicitor General, then headed by Francis Jardeleza.
Under Jardeleza’s OSG, Hilbay argued the case for the Reproductive Health Law in front of the Supreme Court. When Jardeleza was appointed to the Supreme Court, President Benigno Aquino III asked Hilbay to take over as solicitor general. At 40 years old, Hilbay was the youngest ever in Philippine history to have been named to the position. As solgen, Hilbay handled everything from the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement to the Grace Poe disqualification case and the West Philippine Sea arbitration.
By the end of his term as solgen, Hilbay was ready to live a life of semi-retirement. “I thought I had already done my part. Three years in the OSG is a lifetime of experience,” he laughs. But then, 2016 rolled around—“Then Duterte happened,” he says wryly. Hilbay found that his language and his views were especially welcome on Twitter. “I started commenting on Duterte’s policies, especially his drug war, his language, his attitude. So I became branded as an oppositionist, as someone critical to the administration.”
ESQUIRE: Would you say that you are still running on a legal platform? You spoke about returning the rule of law as the big idea behind your candidacy.
FLORIN HILBAY: I think that’s part of it. Because my background is legal, and I teach the Constitution. And I think many of the institutions of the Constitution have been undermined by the Duterte administration. Institutions of free speech, independent judiciary, freedom of the press, independent foreign policy have been severely challenged by Duterte’s policies.
But I think also people are looking for new voices. Given my background, given my story, I think that’s the kind of story that will resonate to ordinary people. The university crowd can easily be enthralled by the paper qualifications: the academic qualifications, being a professor of law, being a bar topnotcher, being a very young solicitor general, etc. But if you want to reach a broader audience, you must appeal to them on a more emotional level, and I think my story, my background, as someone who has seen different worlds, the world of poverty, the world of academic privilege, the world of power—that’s a rather unique perspective. A person who has seen those different worlds would have a very different perspective.
So I still don’t see myself as a politician. I’m very awkward as a politician. If you ask me to do a lecture on law, I can talk for hours and hours. But if you ask me to talk as a politician, I can probably only talk for 10 minutes tops. But I can tell you about myself, about why I’m running.
ESQ: How has your growing up in Tondo informed, say, your attitude towards law?
FH: It’s kept me really grounded, kasi iba yung hugot. So I don’t think theoretically… I’m generally seen as a theoretical constitutionalist in the university, but I think my theories are heavily grounded in my experience here in Tondo.
I spent the first 30 years of my life in Tondo, even when I was a lawyer I would still go home here to Tondo, so I think my normative views about law are heavily shaped by my experience. I’m the poor guy talking about his experience, and using that experience to explain what the law is all about. Compared to someone who is middle class or upper class who is trying to help the poor—there’s that separation between the activist and the people he is helping. When I talk about the poor, I am talking about my own experience. I am one of them.