13 October 2017

Cecilia Muñoz-Palma: the Bauan-born 1st Female SC Justice who stood up to the Marcos Regime

Justice Cecilia Muñoz-Palma and the commemorative stamp issued in her honor.  Image credit:  Kahimyang.com and Wikipedia.
“Ingrata.” This was how then-Secretary of Justice Vicente Abad Santos was supposed to have called Supreme Court Justice Cecilia Muñoz-Palma. An ingrate; somebody ungrateful. The year was 1975; and it had been almost three years since that fateful day in September when then-President Ferdinand E. Marcos declared a state of martial law in the entire archipelago.

The occasion was a gathering to celebrate Law Day. Speaking before fellow justices and members of the bar, Muñoz-Palma called for a return of the rule of law. Her famous words struck a nerve among those present, “We shall be judged by history… not by what we want to do and can’t (but) what we ought to do and don’t1.”

She ended her speech to resounding applause and a standing ovation, excepting the Justice Secretary, who was supposed to have remained seated. Implicit to her call was that there was no rule of law, which of course there was none; and if there was, it was a tainted version. But it being the martial law years, it took a brave man – or, in this case, woman – to say this out in public.

It was, of course, Marcos who appointed Muñoz-Palma to become the first-ever woman to become Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in October of 19732, just over a year since the declaration of martial law in the country. Hence, Abad Santos’ supposed epithet against her, easy enough to understand given the patronage nature of Philippine politics, and particularly so during martial law, the very notion of which was built on the fabric of loyalty from those in government.

But Muñoz-Palma’s loyalties, or so Ma. Ceres Doyo wrote in a 2006 article, were “to God and the Filipino people whom she had sworn to serve.” Her appointment to the Supreme Court was likely made with the belief that she would toe the line. Instead, she stood up for her beliefs and principles, as a true Batangueña would.

This, Muñoz-Palma was; a true Batangueña, that is. She was born in November of 1913 in the town of Bauan to Pedro Muñoz and the former Emilia Arreglado. Her father was a former congressman representing the second district of Batangas. No different from other Batangueños of the era who were sent to Manila for their education if their parents could afford it, she was sent to St. Scholastica’s College for her basic education. She graduated valedictorian of her secondary class in 19313.

She took up law at the University of the Philippines, where she would become the College of Law’s first-ever female Student Council President in 1936. She graduated the following year and took the bar exam and topped it with a grade of 92.6%. Afterwards, she would go to the United States to study for a Master of Law degree, and this she obtained from Yale University.

In retrospect, perhaps it was not surprising that Muñoz-Palma became the first woman ever to be appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Her life, after all, was a story of firsts. In 1947, she was appointed by President Manuel Roxas to be the first female prosecutor of Quezon City. In 1954, she became the first female judge of the Court of First Instance.

She was the second ever female appointed Associate Justice of the Court of Appeals in 1968; but then returned to being first when she was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1973.

Apart from her call for a “return to law” in 1975, Muñoz-Palma also stood up to the Marcos government by writing a dissenting opinion on former Justice Secretary Jose W. Diokno’s petition for habeas corpus. Diokno, born in Manila but whose family was originally from Taal4, had become among Marcos’ staunchest critics and was incarcerated without charges filed against him.

The dissenting opinion was not made public at the time because Diokno was released following an order from Marcos himself, thus rendering the Supreme Court decision moot. It would, however, have been an embarrassment to the administration.

She also opined that Marcos’ referendum to legitimize martial law “can be of no far-reaching significance as it is accomplished under an atmosphere or climate of fear” and issued a dissenting vote against a petition to allow Marcos to “propose amendments to the Constitution by himself.”

Muñoz-Palma stepped down from the Supreme Court in 1978 upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65. In 1984, she entered politics for the first time and was elected to the Batasang Pambansa5, Marcos’ version of a parliament, serving until the body was abolished in 1986.

She was instrumental in finally toppling down Marcos after the famous People Power Revolution that same year; and was appointed by the newly-sworn in President Corazon C. Aquino to become a member of the commission tasked with drafting a new constitution for the country. The commission promptly elected her President.

Despite her advancing age, she continued to serve the Filipino public and occupied key posts through two more administrations after Aquino stepped down from the presidency. She was appointed member of the Council of Advisers of the Moral Recovery Program by President Fidel V. Ramos in 1992; and Chairperson and General Manager of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office in 1998 by President Joseph Ejercito Estrada.

She finally passed away in January of 2006 at the age of 92, after having lived a life of opening doors to government service in advanced positions for fellow Filipinas and fulfilling her duties with the courage of a true Batangueña, backed as she was by a firm belief that the life she had was a gift from the Almighty.

Notes and references:
1 Along with other details of this article, from “Justice Cecilia Muñoz-Palma: Beloved Ingrata,” by Ma. Ceres P. Dayo, published 2006, online at Human Face.
2 Along with other details of this article, from “Cecilia Muñoz-Palma,” Wikipedia.
3 Along with other details of her personal life, from “Cecilia Munoz-Palma: Biography, Contribution/s, and Reflection of the Hero,” a paper written June 2015 by Calvin Paulo A. Mondejar.
4Jose W. Diokno: The Scholar-Warrior,” by Jose Dalisay, Jr., published 2011, online at Jose W. Diokno, Nationalist.
5 Along with other details of this article, from “About Justice Cecilia Muñoz Palma,” online at the Justice Cecilia Muñoz-Palma Foundation, Inc.

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