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The making of women ‘with balls’

How right was Eleanor Roosevelt when she said, ‘A woman is like a tea bag. You can’t tell how strong she is until you set her in hot water’?”

That was retired senior associate justice of the Supreme Court Flerida Ruth Romero talking recently about “Morality and Courage in the Legal Profession.” That her focus was on the role that singular women played in sustaining the Court’s record as an institution of integrity is perhaps explained by the fact that she was addressing the UP Women Lawyers’ Circle (Wiloci) on its 70th anniversary.

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Of all the traits needed not just to survive or thrive in the legal profession but also to hold true to oneself and truly make a difference, perhaps the most rare and difficult to come by is courage, especially if it means defying conventions and putting at risk the rewards and recognition that come with success in the profession, Romero said.

There is “no lack of courageous women in the Wiloci,” she said.

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Romero’s first example was the late justice Cecilia Muñoz-Palma, “she who shattered many a glass ceiling long before the term came into vogue. In her 31 years in government, 24 of them in the judiciary, she was the first woman fiscal, the first woman CFI judge, the second woman Court of Appeals justice and to top it all, the first woman justice of the Supreme Court. But of course, she was immensely qualified as she was valedictorian of her class and was No. 1 in the 1937 bar examinations.”

But it was during the martial law years, when the entire machinery of government, including the military and police, was set to operate in mockery of the law, when Justice Palma’s “mettle” was tested.

“In the three so-called martial law cases, she registered her impassioned dissents with Justice Claudio Teehankee, vigorously criticizing the oxymoron that was Marcos’ ‘constitutional authoritarianism.’ In the famous Diokno habeas corpus case, her opinion was one that was written ‘on the run.’ She fled to her son’s house to write it, taking with her all her notes; submitted it to the Chief Justice and to avoid the importuning of the other justices who were trying to head off its publication, hid in the cloistered halls of her alma mater, St. Scholastica’s College. When her husband, the late Dean Rodolfo Palma, learned the reason for her ‘disappearing act,’ he stoutly declared that the family would go with her even if she were to go up the mountains. Such unseemly courage, coming from a woman, earned her the appellation which has stuck ever since, the only justice with ‘balls.’ As she memorably once said, ‘When matters of conscience are at issue, one must be prepared to espouse and embrace a rightful cause, however unpopular it may be.’”

But through the years, the Wiloci, the legal profession, the country itself have never really lacked for women “with balls” who defied the powerful and the expectations of society, said Romero.

“Another woman of unusual courage—Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Aranal Sereno. The fifth-ranking in Philippine officialdom, she recently faced off with the No. 1, the most powerful official in the government, in regard to the raging issue of the day, the extrajudicial killings, otherwise known as EJK.

“And now, the ‘flavor of the month,’ she who just added the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award to her collection, given to her ‘for her moral courage and commitment to justice.’ Indeed, it needs guts and daring to expose the high and mighty in the government and in high society. Ombudsman Chit Carpio Morales rightfully deserves the title of No. 1 graftbuster for her amazing record of ferreting out corruption and so many corrupt officials in government during the brief period that she has held the position. The media, having overused the word ‘feisty,’ now coined the term ‘Three Furies’ in referring to her and our other Wiloci sister, [former Commission on Audit chair] Grace Pulido Tan.”

Added Romero: “You will please pardon my immodesty for my bragging rights when I say that these courageous ladies were all my students. With pride, I now bask in their reflected glory.” As with the teacher, so with the students!

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TAGS: Cecilia Muñoz-Palma, conchita carpio-morales, Flerida Ruth Romero, Grace Pulido-Tan, Legal Profession, Lourdes Sereno, UP Women Lawyers’ Circle, Wiloci, women
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