Thursday, January 5, 2006

Justice Cecilia Munoz-Palma: Beloved ``ingrata’’

To honor Justice Cecilia Munoz-Palma (a fellow Scholastican) who passed away at 92 two days ago, I re-edited the piece I wrote in 2001 when she launched her book ``The Mirror of My Soul’’. Here it is.

Ingrata. That was how Munoz-Palma had been harshly called by a high government official. Ingrate. Ungrateful. The Spanish word reeks of contempt and condescension. You do not bite the hand that fed you.

It sounds even harsher in Filipino. Walang utang na loob. A person who receives help or is accorded honors, even if she deserves them, is presumed deeply indebted and when the time comes, is expected to stand by the favor- or honor-giver. Only the brave in our culture would dare go against this onerous unwritten contract.

But we are not wanting in brave and debt-defying civil servants, one of whom was Munoz-Palma, the first woman to sit in the Supreme Court (1973-1978). Although the appointing power in her case happened to be a dictator, a.k.a. Ferdinand E. Marcos, she showed him and the sycophants that she owed him nothing. She owed only God and the Filipino people whom she had sworn to serve. By defying expectations and pursuing the rule of law as her conscience dictated, all the more it was evident that this gentle and soft-spoken Batanguena was destined to sit above the throng.

Well, ingrata because as an associate justice speaking before her peers and members of the bar on the occasion of Law Day, she pleaded for the return of the rule of law. That was in 1975, the third year of martial rule and the lady told her audience: ``We shall be judged by history...not by what we want to do and can’t, (but) by what we ought to do and don’t.’’

For her guts, she received a five-minute standing ovation. But Justice Secretary Vicente Abad Santos was neither pleased nor amused. He remained seated. Ingrata, he called her. She took that as a compliment, a badge of courage.

Ingrata because she wrote a dissenting opinion on the habeas corpus case of former senator and nationalist Jose W. Diokno. Her opinion would have had embarrassed Marcos but before it could be presented, it was ``frustrated’’. Munoz-Palma’s written opinion (that had leaked) jumped the gun on the other justices and Marcos too, and paved the way for the release of Diokno who had been detained for more than 700 days without charges.

Munoz-Palma called the Diokno case her baptism of fire. And although her dissenting opinion did not see the full light of day as the habeas corpus petition became moot and academic with Diokno’s sudden release, it illumined the legal path during those dark and dreadful days.

Munoz-Palma’s ``frustrated dissenting opinion’’ could be read in full in her book ``The Mirror of My Soul: Selected Decisions, Opinions, Speeches and Writings’’ (883 pages!) which she gave away for free on the occasion of the Supreme Court’s 100th anniversary. Her opinion on the Diokno case (with which Associate Justice Calixto Zaldivar concurred) is simple enough for non-lawyers but it emits a luminous glow if read in the context of those dark years.

She ended that opinion by defending woman power thus: ``In closing, I am bothered by the thought that some of my colleagues may attribute my approach to Diokno’s petition to my being a woman, and I may even be accused of allowing my emotions to overpower my reason. If there is such an assumption, I would say that it is incorrect. However, if it is indeed true that my being a woman led me to take this stand...then I am happy and proud that I was born a woman.’’

More riveting is the intro to that case where Munoz-Palma describes how she wrote it while in hiding and how she later cloistered herself among the Benedictines of St. Scholastica’s College, her alma mater. (She was valedictorian of H.S. 31, after which she went to UP for law studies. She passed the bar in 1937.) If at all she gave in to a colleague who knew what she was up to, it was to erase the words ``arbitrary and oppressive’’ in her dissension.

There was life after the Supreme Court. Munoz-Palma led the anti-Marcos opposition and ran in the 1984 Batasan Pambansa elections and won by a landslide. Her battlecry: ``One Marcos cannot stop us all.’’ She later became the president of the Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 Constitution. She headed the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office where she again displayed her being ingrata when she did not cover up for the alleged wrongdoing of the president who appointed her.

``The Mirror of My Soul’’ packs courage. Said the late Chief Justice Marcelo Fernan: ``I can still see her standing on the floor of the Batasan...No one can equal the passion with which she fought Amendment No. 6--that curse of presidential usurpation of legislative powers. She was also one of the few among us who dared file articles of impeachment against the then head of government.’’

Munoz-Palma tells readers that they ``will not find literary gems or grandiose or loftily-worded judicial and legal pronouncements’’ in her book, only ``plain words...thoughts and ideas and principles emanating from my conscience and reason on faith, truth, justice, freedom and the Rule of Law.’’

The rule of law--these words were like her mantra. Her ``A Plea for the Rule of Law’’ that earned her the ingrata label(and where she also said much about womanhood) is a good read. But one can’t miss the spiritual theme that also runs through her writing. Indeed, this woman had always hearkened to a higher power, a higher law.