In these days when women are breaking glass ceilings and reaching higher than ever for their goals, it pays to remember one Filipina who smashed through her own capiz ceiling in the 20th century.
Cecilia “Celing” Muñoz Palma, who would have been 107 years old last Sunday, Nov. 22, was the first woman to be appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in the Philippines, where she served from 1973 until 1978, when she retired at the age of 65 (it was compulsory).
Having reached adulthood in the ’80s, the seething years that finally found their tipping point in the EDSA people power revolution of 1986, I knew of this Iron Lady that refused to be cowed by the dictatorship.
“Confronted with cases which involved presidential powers during the Marcos martial law regime, Justice Palma voiced her strong dissent to violations of the Constitution and the Rule of Law, and desecration of the individual’s basic rights to freedom, justice and due process,” wrote Lulu Tesoro in a profile of Justice Palma. “She championed an independent judiciary, free from the clutches of political power. Justice Palma’s unflinching courage earned her the people’s admiration and gratitude, and she was given the accolade of being the only ‘man in the Supreme Court’ during her time.”
In 1984, Justice Palma was elected to the Batasang Pambansa (House of Representatives) where she served until the legislature was dissolved in March 1986 by the revolutionary government of President Corazon Aquino. As assemblywoman, she was chairman of the Committee of the Opposition, which drafted and filed impeachment proceedings against then President Ferdinand Marcos.
Cory’s eldest daughter Ballsy Aquino Cruz recalls that what her mother truly admired in Justice Palma — an alumna of St. Scholastica’s College Manila like Cory herself — was the latter’s “katapangan.” (Justice Palma then took up law at the University of the Philippines College of Law and in 1937, topped the Bar Examination with a score of 92.6 per cent).
Nothing, not even a brief asthma attack, would deter her from marching in the streets in protest.
“One day Justice Palma was going to join the march, so she went to my mom Cory’s office. I remember many were so excited to be marching with her, given her courage and good name — not to mention her age! Everyone in the group was ready to march — they didn’t care about the heat of the afternoon sun. Neither were they worried it would suddenly rain. Then, all of a sudden, someone noticed Justice Palma was having an asthma attack. Cory brought her to her room so she could take her medicines and rest. I remember Cory thanking her profusely for wanting to join the march and telling her that maybe it would be best for her to just go home. But after a couple of puffs from her inhaler and resting a while, Justice Palma stood up and said she was ready to march! And everyone with her felt more pride walking with her that day,” Ballsy recalls.
The feisty Batangueña was appointed by President Aquino as a member of the Constitutional Commission of 1986, which was tasked to draft a new Constitution. The Commission elected her president and under her leadership, the new Constitution was completed in October and ratified by the Filipino people on Feb. 2, 1987.
In 1998, at the age of 85, Justice Palma was appointed chairman and general manager of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office by President Joseph Ejercito Estrada.
Celing was married to Rodolfo C. Palma, a native of Tagbilaran, Bohol. Rodolfo was a Law graduate of the University of the Philippines in 1935. They had two sons and a daughter.
Here are tributes to Justice Palma:
Vice President Leni Robredo: What I admire most about Justice Palma is her character, her integrity. Because for me, character is the well from which all other things about a person spring. She was appointed during the time of dictatorship, and yet she showed, time and again, that her highest loyalty was to the rule of law and to the Filipino people. She risked so much without question when it would have been so much easier and more convenient to stay silent and toe the line.
That’s why we need more people like Justice Palma today. We need people who always understand that democracy is never just given. It is always fought for and protected.
Justice Adolf Azcuna: A balingkinitang beauty and brains from Batangas, she went on to grace the Philippine judiciary with her brilliance and steadfast pursuit of law and of righteousness. She reached the Philippine Supreme Court, the first woman to do so, and proceeded to set an unparalleled example of fearless defense of the Constitution and the rule of law. She crowned her legacy to our people with the 1987 Constitution, fashioned under her firm yet gentle leadership and truly her handiwork and dream come true.
For all these, her undying example of a life of truth, justice and courage, I deeply miss her.
Justice Harriett Demetriou: My memory of the great lady justice is her unflinching adherence to the rule of law, notwithstanding political odds or repercussions.
Former health secretary Dr. Carmencita Reodica: When Justice Palma was appointed as chairperson of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) by former President Estrada, she appointed me as a consultant.
During this time, I came to know her better, not only in an official, but also on a personal basis. Behind that soft-spoken personality was a strong and fearless woman. A woman of substance and steel! We settled differences in opinion in an open and constructive manner. She was hardworking. She was very strict and stern when it came to work. She would praise you for a job well done but would not mince a word when you fell short of her expectations. But, it only took small gestures to make her smile.