This month, we remember Justice Cecilia Munoz-Palma, the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court. Were she alive today, she would have turned 95.
A Marcos appointee, she and Justice Claudio Teehankee formed the dissenting bloc in the 1973 Supreme Court, which was assailed as widely pro-Marcos. The chief justice then was Enrique Fernando.
Constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas cited Palma as an exemplar of independence in the recent launch of the citizen search committee of the Supreme Court Appointments Watch (SCAW). SCAW is a consortium of civil society and legal groups that pushes for transparency in the selection of Supreme Court justices.
The Supreme Court, as former Judicial and Bar Council member Sen. Francisco “Kiko” Pangilinan said, is at the center of an “unusual period in the history of our country.”
Seven justices, starting with Justice Ruben Reyes, would retire before Pres. Arroyo steps down in 2010. Their respective replacements would have been appointed by a sole authority, the executive.
Bernas said that such reality would test the independence of the next Supreme Court justices. He said that Palma underwent a similar test. “She asked me for advice as one of the questions to be asked in the selection is “are you loyal?” he said. “I didn’t know what she answered, but when she was appointed to the Supreme Court, she became a fierce dissenter.”
Munoz-Palma’s notable dissensions are reflected in the cases of Sanidad v. Comelec, De Llana v. Comelec, and Peralta v. Comelec cases, where she called for the lifting of martial law.
In Sanidad v. Comelec, she assailed presidential directives ordering a national referendum-plebiscite that would have paved the way for amendments to the 1973 Constitution, opening her dissent with the lines: “Generally, one who dissents from a majority view of the Court takes a lonely and at times precarious road, the burden being lightened only by the thought that in this grave task of administering justice, when matters of conscience are at issue, one must be prepared to espouse and embrace a rightful cause however unpopular it may be. “
Palma finished law at the University of the Philippines in 1933, and topped the bar exams in 1937 with 92.6 percent. She went on to become the first woman prosecutor in Quezon City in 1947 and the first woman district judge in Dumaguete, Negros Oriental in 1954.
She hang her robe in 1978 upon reaching the then mandatory retirement age of 65. In 1984, she was elected to the Batasang Pambansa and represented the United Nationalist Democratic Organization, the political party of the opposition.
When then Pres. Corazon Aquino formed the 1986 Constitutional Commission, Palma was elected as its president.
In 1998, she supported the candidacy of Joseph Estrada for president. She would later be appointed as chairperson of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO), where she served until 2000.
Her granddaughter, Emily Palma, worked for her in the PCSO. The experience etched memories in her mind, as she saw how her “Nanita,” took on tasks with wit and superb professionalism.
“She was very disciplined. But she did not nag us or force us to do things in a specific way,” she said.
Her Nanita also supported her choice to work and study at the same time. “She understood that I want to finish my studies at Ateneo Law then,” she said.
Palma died of a heart ailment in January 2002. Three years later, she was inducted by the International Women’s Forum, a network of women leaders worldwide, into its International Hall of Fame.
In her memory
Her family and friends formed the Justice Cecilia Muñoz Palma Foundation, to “continue what she started,” Emily told Abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak.
The foundation, which will be launched on February next year, will offer vocational and college scholarships to poor students. Aside from this, they plan to conduct annual legal forums to address the need to improve access to justice.
Come 2009, Palma’s birthday will be marked by an award to be given in her memory. The foundation aims to give the Justice Cecilia Muñoz Palma award to men and women who strove for advancement in legal service and governance.
Emily, who sits as the deputy executive director in the said foundation, said that they also plan to help strengthen the independence of the judiciary. “We hope that we could come up with something. The independence of the judiciary is very important,” she said.