House panel: Sereno lawyers can't cross-examine in impeachment hearing

SERENO IMPEACHMENT HEARING. Mindoro Oriental 2nd District Representative Reynaldo Umali, chair of the House committee on justice, presides the hearing on the determination of probable cause in the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on November 22, 2017. Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

SERENO IMPEACHMENT HEARING. Mindoro Oriental 2nd District Representative Reynaldo Umali, chair of the House committee on justice, presides the hearing on the determination of probable cause in the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on November 22, 2017.

Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) – Voting 30-4, the House committee on justice on Wednesday, November 22, disallowed Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno's lawyers to cross-examine witnesses against her in an impeachment case being tackled by the panel.

Sereno had requested the panel several times  to allow her lawyers to participate in the committee hearing by asking questions from resource persons. (READ: For 3rd time, Sereno asks House panel to allow cross-examination)

The committee is deliberating if there is probable cause in the complaint. It earlier determined that the complaint, filed by lawyer Larry Gadon, was sufficient in form, substance, and had sufficient grounds. 

The chief justice’s lawyer left shortly after, since they would not be able to participate in the hearing anyway. 

Before Sereno's counsel left the heating, Oriental Mindoro 2nd District Representative Reynaldo Umali, chair of the justice committee, assured the Sereno camp that the chief magistrate would not be denied the right to cross-examine witnesses.

"We are not depriving the respondent of the right to cross-examine but they (her lawyers) should do it through any of the members, including through the chair kung meron silang gustong iparating sa committee na ito (if they have anything they want to relay to the committee)," Umali said.

Debate

The debate began with a position paper of Quezon City 6th District Jose Christopher Belmonte, who argued that an accused has the right to counsel and therefore, Sereno’s lawyers should be able to conduct the cross-examination on her behalf.  

Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas did not agree with Belmonte, since the committee hearing was akin to a preliminary investigation, with the sole purpose to determine probability of guilt. Fariñas, a lawyer, said cross-examinations are not allowed in a preliminary investigation. 

In the Philippines, an impeachment complaint is initiated at the House of Representatives. The justice committee is tasked to deliberate on it and either reject or recommend impeachment. The House plenary then votes on whether to impeach an official or reject the committee recommendation. It’s the Senate that will try the official, sitting as an impeachment.  (READ: FAST FACTS: How does impeachment work?)

Fariñas, an ex-officio member of the committee, also noted that non-members of the committee would not be allowed to participate in the deliberations, what more private lawyers?

Fariñas said that if Sereno’s lawyers have questions, they could course it through members of the committee, such as Liberal Party (LP) members Belmonte and Dinagat Representative Kaka Bag-ao.

SAGIP Representative Rodante Marcoleta agreed with Fariñas but raised another point: Does Sereno’s request to have her lawyers ask questions on her behalf mean they are better than her? He also said Sereno “wasted” the chance the committee gave her when she skipped the hearing and sent lawyers on her behalf. 

Belmonte responded by saying that even if a person is a brilliant lawyer, an accused should have the right to counsel. “My point is, this is a political process. This is not simply administrative or criminal. Our work is a constitutional duty. It’s only right that we be liberal in interpreting our rules.” Belmonte’s manifestation drew applause from the crowd. 

When it was time to divide the House, an overwhelming majority rejected Belmonte’s position. Only 4 lawmakers – Belmonte, Bag-ao, Siquijor Representative Ramon Rocamora, and Agusan del Norte 1st District Representative Lawrence Fortun – voted in favor of allowing Sereno’s lawyers to participate in the hearing. 

For over an hour, the committee discussed procedural matters. Prior to voting on the motion to allow Sereno’s lawyers a role in the committee hearing, lawmakers tackled a motion to allow non-committee members to participate in the impeachment proceedings. 

Voting 30-4, the committee rejected the motion. While lawmakers who don’t belong to the committee are still allowed to attend the hearings, they are not allowed to ask questions or vote. The committee has 50 regular members and over 33 ex-officio members of ranking House leaders.  

Gadon is accusing Sereno of making decisions without consulting the Supreme Court en banc, and for allegedly misusing her office’s money.  – Rappler.com