Justice Palma, 92

- Perseus Echeminada -
She led a life of firsts and blazed a pioneering trail for women in the judiciary and the legal profession.

Former Supreme Court Justice Cecilia Muñoz-Palma died after suffering cardio-pulmonary failure at the St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City yesterday. She was 92.

Her remains will be taken to the Mt. Carmel Church in New Manila, Quezon City.

Palma was the first female justice appointed to the High Court in 1973. She also became the first female president of a constitutional commission in 1986, where she helped craft what has since been called the 1987 Freedom Constitution.

Fondly called "Celing" by her intimates, Palma was a woman who has blazed a trail many women lawyers seek to follow: She was the first woman to top the Philippine Bar with a score of 92.6 percent in 1937 after graduation from the University of the Philippines College of Law.

Palma also served as the country’s first female prosecutor in 1947 and the first woman judge of the Court of First Instance in the 1950s.

She was one of the women who made a difference, and not just figuratively — Palma was included in the International Women’s Hall of Fame as part of the elite global list of Women Who Make a Difference in October last year.

Past recipients of this international recognition include former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Katherine Graham of The Washington Post, mother of the US civil rights movement Rosa Parks, journalists Barbara Walters and Christiane Amanpour, chef Julia Childs, actress Audrey Hepburn, US astronaut Sally Ride, retired US Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor and heads of state Margaret Thatcher (Britain), Gro Harlem Brundtland (Norway), Violeta de Chamorro (Nicaragua), Mary Robinson (Ireland) Hanna Suchocka (Poland), Eugenia Charles (Dominica) and former President Corazon Aquino.

Palma and Aquino are the only two Filipinas and Asians on this list of the world’s most influential women by the International Women’s Forum (IWF).

Due to poor health, Palma was unable to make the trip to Washington D.C. Palma’s daughter Pearl received the award on her mother’s behalf.

In the dark years of martial law, Palma’s convictions and courage came to the fore when she "dared to expose what she believed to be the shortcomings of the military regime and openly criticize its disregard of constitutional principles and disrespect for the human rights of the weak and the oppressed," former SC justice Jose B.L. Reyes said in an interview with Starweek magazine published Oct. 16, 2005.

Her retirement from the SC in 1978 did not stop Palma’s crusade for truth and justice. She ran for and won a seat in the 1984 Batasang Pambansa, representing Quezon City.

When then President Ferdinand Marcos called for snap elections in 1985, Palma issued a call for volunteers to campaign for Marcos’ nemesis, a housewife named Corazon Aquino.

On the day Palma’s appeal appeared in print, a crowd gathered in front of the Palma residence in the burroughs of New Manila and the crew of volunteers swelled into a formidable campaign force, all on the strength of Palma and Aquino’s credibility.

She was the beacon that lit the path of the Cory Aquino for President Movement (CAPM) that led a housewife to victory in the snap elections and who helped keep that victory from being wrested away from Aquino during the 1986 EDSA revolt.

Yet she was also known as a woman who valued small things and had been quoted as saying that "grandiose acts are not the measure of greatness; it is the small things that we do in the name of love and service to God, country and fellow men that really counts."

Palma set new parameters and raised the bar of excellence not just for women or for Filipinos, but for all who serve in government.

She consistently faced the strongest and most threatening opposition with strength of character and unflinching belief in the truth that served — and will continue to serve — as a shining light for those around her.

"In numerous Supreme Court opinions, (Palma) eloquently and succinctly argued her point, sometimes packing her family off to her native Batangas to write these opinions in seclusion, away from the reach of those who would intimidate her," Reyes said.

In 2001, a compilation of Palma’s selected decisions, opinions and speeches was published as a reference for law students and in 2003, Palma was honored as an outstanding citizen of Quezon City.

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