Umali warns House committee can have CJ Sereno arrested

MANILA, Philippines – Face the House panel, or face a warrant of arrest.

This is the message of House justice committee chairman Reynaldo Umali to Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno as the hearing on the impeachment complaint against the top magistrate resumes on Monday, November 27.

Kung mayroon talagang mga bagay na dapat siyang testiguhan, marahil magi-isyu ang komite ng subpoena. Kung hindi sinunod, ma-oobliga na tayo na mag-isyu ng warrant,” Umali said in an interview on radio dzBB Sunday morning, November 26. (READ: Sereno camp: Gadon is using House to 'fish' for evidence)

(If there are issues she need to testify on, the committee will perhaps issue a subpoena. If she doesn’t obey that, we will be obliged to issue a warrant.)

“She will be prudent and proceed on the basis of the advice of her counsel,” is all that Sereno’s spokesperson lawyer Carlo Cruz said in response on Sunday.

Cruz also appealed to Umali to observe the principle of separation of powers.

“She is hopeful that the Committee on Justice would likewise proceed with similar prudence and remain faithful to the principle of separation of powers, as provided for in our Constitution,” he said.

Can they order her arrest?

Rules allow the House to issue warrants, which shall be signed by the Speaker.

The House of Representatives has resorted to these threats before, the last subject of it being Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos during the investigation of the committee on good government and public accountability on the alleged misuse of provincial tobacco funds. Marcos showed up in the next hearing.

In 2016, the House committee on justice proceeded to order the arrest of Ronnie Dayan during the investigation on the alleged drug proliferation inside New Bilibid Prison.

It will be the same for Sereno. As Umali said, if the committee sees the need to subpoena Sereno to the hearing and she doesn’t show up, the warrant of arrest will follow.

Sereno’s camp strongly insists that she has the right to be represented by her lawyers in the proceedings. The House panel has already denied their request to cross-examine witnesses.

Among possible witnesses are SC Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-De Castro and Noel Tijam, SC Public Information Chief Theodore Te, and SC Clerk of Court Felipa Anama.

An SC resolution from 2012 states that justices cannot be compelled to testify in an impeachment proceeding. Sereno's spokesperson lawyer Winnie Salumbides said that should De Castro's testimony push through, the chief justice's defense will still be rock solid.

Sereno’s lawyer Alex Poblador challenged the House of Representatives to impeach the Chief Justice now so they could proceed to the trial at the Senate.

Judiciary vs Legislative

These kinds of pronouncements from House members reignite tension between the two independent branches.

In June, the House Committee on Good Government and Acountability issued a show cause order against 3 justices of the Court of Appeals asking them to explain why they should not be held in contempt for ordering the release of Ilocos Norte officials.

It prompted a joint statement of Sereno and then CA Presiding Justice (now SC Justice) Andres Reyes reminding the House of Representatives of the separation of powers.

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) expressed concerns that there might be a public perception of consitutional crisis, and asked the lower house to "act as light bringers and advocates of sobriety." Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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