Cecilia Muñoz Palma’s legacy lives on

Published November 29, 2020, 11:46 AM

by Deedee Siytangco

First Female Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines

When we speak of strong women leaders in this country, there is one who stands out as “Most Outstanding” and who would have been 109 years old last Nov. 22. 

She was Justice Cecilia Munoz Palma, jurist, civic leader, constitutionalist, human rights advocate, and crusader for justice.

Former senator Rene Saguisag had this to say of his heroine: “In the book Mirror of My Soul of Justice Cecilia Muñoz Palma (2001), of which she very kindly sent to me a complimentary copy, there was this grace note by hand: ‘June 8, 2001 – To the crusading believer in the Rule of Law, Atty. Rene Saguisag. With my admiration for the courage to defend the cause without regard to personalities. Cecilia Muñoz Palma.’ She was a reason I, as a young obscure lawyer, a household name only in our own household, focused on human rights and re-democratization.”


The man who has confidence in himself gains the confidence of others.

Hasidic Proverb

Happy birthday, Ka Celing—and Ninoy Aquino. (Nov. 27)! We won’t ever forget how lucky we were blessed to have you as paradigms.

Now, from a younger generation on his memories of Justice Palma, let’s hear from Pierre Martin Reyes, Ateneo Law Schools, batch 2013, and the managing partner of Weigand and Partners.

He told us that he did not know her personally, but that “Through her notable opinions and dissents, which were discussed during my freshman year at the Ateneo Law School, I feel I know her well. And we all admired her. Her tenure in the Supreme Court was defined by her courageous dissents that stood up for the Constitution, the rule of law, and the Filipino’s fundamental rights to freedom, due process, and equal justice. This was at the time of martial law and she was one of the first few to break the silence. In her dissenting opinion in Sanidad v. Commission on Elections, she wrote ‘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.’ Justice Muñoz-Palma served as an inspiration to young lawyers like me to become essential agents of the administration of justice and to be the guardians for human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Filipino people.” 

Pierre also noted that other than being a true champion for the rule of law and human rights, “Justice Muñoz-Palma is notably the first to shatter several glass ceilings in the legal profession, being the first woman prosecutor of Quezon City, the first female trial court judge, the second woman to the Court of Appeals, and the first woman to be appointed as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.

Justice Palma and Pres Corazon Aquino sharing a light moment

Justice Palma was appointed by President Corazon C. Aquino as member of the Constitutional Commission of 1986, which drafted a New Constitution for the country after the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in February 1986. That June 2, the Constitutional Commission elected her president and under her leadership, the New Constitution was finished on Oct. 15, the same year and ratified by the Filipino people on Feb. 2, 1987. She was then appointed by President Aquino as member of the Council of State, the highest advisory body to the country’s chief executive.

In recognition of her non-political leadership, in 1992, President Fidel V. Ramos appointed Justice Palma as a member of the Council of Advisers of the Moral Recovery Program where she was elected as vice chairman.

In 1998, Justice Palma, then 85, was appointed chairman and general manager of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office by President Joseph Estrada. There she served with generosity and prudence.

Justice Palma was a member and officer of various socio-civic, academic, and professional organizations. Celing was married to Rodolfo C. Palma, a native of Tagbilaran, Bohol, who was a law graduate at the University of the Philippines in 1935. They have two sons and a daughter. Justice Cecilia Muñoz Palma attributes all her successes and her entire life as gifts from Almighty God from whom she invoked divine guidance in her everyday work.

Born in Bauan, Batangas, Celing studied at St. Scholastica’s College in Manila and was the valedictorian of high school Class 1931. She then took up law at the UP College of Law. As a student, she distinguished herself not only in academic honors but also in extracurricular activities. She was the first woman to be elected as president of the student council of the College of Law (1936-37), president of the Portia Club, first place in the first oratorical contest held by the U.P. Debating Club (1934), and recipient of the Dr. Mendoza-Guanzon medal for excellence in oratory and the Justice Abad Santos medal for excellence in debating. In 1937, Celing topped the Bar Examination with a score of 92.6 percent.

She was the first woman to be appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court where she served from 1973 to 1978 and retired at the compulsory age of 65. Her cases involved Presidential powers during the Marcos martial law regime. Justice Palma bravely 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. More important, she championed an independent judiciary, free from the clutches of political power. Justice Palma’s unflinching courage earned her the accolade, the only “man in the Supreme Court.”

Before her elevation to the Highest Tribunal, she was the first woman prosecutor appointed by President Manuel Roxas (1947-1954), first woman judge of the Court of First Instance appointed by President Ramon Magsaysay (1954-1968), and second woman associate justice of the Court of Appeals appointed by President Ferdinand Marcos (1968-1973).

In 1984, Justice Palma entered the political arena and representing the political opposition party, she was elected to the Batasan Pambansa (House of Representatives) where she served until the legislature was dissolved in March 1986 by the revolutionary government of President Aquino. During her legislative stint, she was chairman of the Committee of the Opposition, which drafted and filed impeachment proceedings against President Marcos.

Justice Palma headed the Unification of the Political Parties in preparation for the historic snap presidential elections of 1986, with Cory Aquino running and winning against the incumbent dictator. The rest is history. 

In recognition of her non-political leadership, President Ramos in 1992 appointed Justice Palma to the Council of Advisers of the Moral Recovery Program where she was elected as vice chairman. 

Today there is a Justice Cecilia Munoz Education Foundation in her honor. The trustees led by Dr. Mina T. Gabor as the chairman just turned over computers for the teachers of the Justice Cecilia Munoz Palma High School in Payatas, Quezon City.