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House panel bars Sereno lawyers from cross-examining witnesses.

By Charissa Luci-Atienza, Ben Rosario, and Ellson Quismorio

The House Committee on Justice on Wednesday thumbed down the motion of Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno to cross-examine the witnesses against her through her battery of lawyers.

Voting 30 in favor and four against, the House panel, chaired by Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali, approved the motion made by AKO Bicol party-list Rep. Alfredo Garbin that Sereno's motion asserting her right to counsel and cross examine the witnesses against her through her lawyers be denied. The motion was seconded by Majority Leader and Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Farinas, but was rejected by Siquijor Rep. Rav Rocamora, a former prosecutor.

"We wish to inform the lawyers, and members of this committee that we are not sitting here as an impeachment court... I move that their motion to cross examine the witnesses be denied," Garbin said.

Farinas said he was "surprised" that Sereno and her lawyers filed a motion asking that they be given the right to cross-examine the complainant.

"This (impeachment deliberation) is not akin to criminal proceedings. In the case of Estrada vs Ombudsman case, the Supreme Court held that Senator Estrada does not even have the right to demand copies of the complaint and Chief Justice Sereno concurred in that," he said.

He even noted that even sitting Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr. and Juan Ponce Enrile, who wereunder detention, were not even given the right to cross examine, because it may come during the trial.

"If we allow the lawyers to cross examine the witnesses, we will not be able to bring this to the impeachment court," he said.

To further prove his point, the majority leader also noted that even the late Chief Justice Renato Corona had not been allowed a preliminary hearing in his own impeachment "because he did not have the right."

"Nag-iimbestiga pa lang kami dito, gusto nyo nang mag-cross-examine. (We are just investigating here, you want to immediately cross examine). Gagawin nyo agad trial dito (You want to have the trial here). We were not in trial yet. For all she knows, we may dismiss this," Farinas said.

"Allowing cross-examination at this point might end in absurdity," he said.

For his part, Umali said, "We are not depriving Sereno of her right to counsel, but their participation is a different matter."

But, Rocamora said the lawyers of the Chief Justice, led by Atty. Alexander Poblador, should be allowed to cross examine the witnesses. "If we're really interested in expediting these proceedings, in my experience as a public prosecutor, I allow the lawyers to ask directly, why can't we do this?" he said. Aside from Rocamora, Dinagat Islands Rep. Kaka Bag-ao, Quezon City Rep. Kit Belmonte, and Agusandel Norte Rep. Lawrence Fortun opposed Garbin's motion.

1-SAGIP partylist Rep. RodanteMarcoleta criticized Sereno's absence, saying that sending her lawyers to the hearing gave them the impression that the Chief Justice is "incompetent" to cross examine the witnesses.

"Sila po ba ay mas magaling mag-cross-examine kaysa sa Chief Justice? Unless she is willing to issue an affidavit that she's incompetent to cross examine herself. She is the Chief Justice, ngayonkung di sya makakapag-cross examine, lumilitaw na mas magagalingang mga lawyers nya. This only shows that she is weak," he said.

Opposition Rep. EdcelLagman (LP, Albay) scored the Malacanang-backed supermajority bloc members of the Committee on Justice for denying Sereno's appeal to allow her legal counsels to cross examine witnesses.

"The supermajority has defied and defiled the Constitution and the Rules of the House in denying the Chief Justice the right to have her counsel confront and cross-examine the adverse witnesses even as it jettisoned the erstwhile unbroken tradition that House Members who are not members of the committees have the right to participate in deliberations of such committees, including the Committee on Justice conducting proceedings with "right of voice and not of vote," he said.

See you at Senate

With rejection of cross-examination, Sereno's lawyers said they are "looking forward" to have the impeachment case brought before the Senate Impeachment Court.

Poblador, Sereno's lead counsel, said they are "considering all options" as he maintained that the Chief Justice will not relinquish her post as the country's 24th chief magistrate.

The House panel also decided to prohibit non-members of the House Committee on Justice to participate in the impeachment proceedings.

Voting 30 in favor and three against, the panel approved the motion made by Deputy Speaker and Cebu Rep. Gwendolyn Garcia that only panel members are allowed to participate in the deliberations.

During the hearing, Lagman and Akbayan party-list Rep. Tom Villarin insisted that the House rules do not prohibit the attendance and participation of non-panel members in the impeachment hearing.

"This is more than an ordinary legislation. We are deciding here on the fortune and fate of an impeachable officer," Lagman said.

Responding to Lagman, Farinas said, "Non-committee members may attend, but if they will be allowed to speak, we may never be able to finish."

"You have the right to attend all committee hearings and even participate in certain committee hearings,but this is a constitutional committee. We are not holding an ordinary hearing here. The committee is tasked to hear impeachment cases," the majority leader said.

Those who voted against Garcia's motion were Bag-ao, Belmonte, and Rocamora. Makabayan lawmakers staged a walkout to protest the 30-3 voting.

There were 31 panel members present during Wednesday's impeachment hearing, out of total 50 committee members and 33 ex-officio members.

All SC justices invited

Umali's committee also approved a motion to invite all justices of the Supreme Court in its impeachment hearings against Sereno.

The invitation covers Sereno, whose legal team told House reporters a day earlier that she would be skipping the committee proceedings. At that time, Sereno's counsels were still insisting that they be permitted to face their client's accuser in Gadon and cross-examine his witnesses.

Due process

Umali assured that the "due process of law" will be observed in the impeachment proceedings of Sereno, saying that as head of the co-equal branch of the government, the Chief Justice's rights will be respected.

"She is the head of the co-equal branch of the government. We will observe the due process of law in the impeachment proceedings," he said in a radio interview two hours before the House panel put to vote the motion of Sereno's camp and appeal of some lawmakers to respect the Chief Justice's right to counsel and right to cross examine the witnesses through her counsels.

Today, the panel will allow lawyer Larry Gadon, who filed the impeachment complaint against Sereno, to substantiate his allegations.

Gadon claimed that the Chief Justice purchased a P5.1-million brand-new and high-end 2017 Toyota Land Cruiser with a reported P4-million bullet-proofing job, and failed to include in her statement of assets, liabilities and networth (SALN) the "exorbitant lawyer's fees" amounting to $745,000 or P37 million. Gadon's complaint was endorsed by at least 25 lawmakers.

"Today is more of the presentation of witnesses or documentary evidence by the prosecution," Umali said.

Gadon had earlier claimed that up to six SC justices may testify against the Chief Justice in the impeachment hearings.

Senior Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo De Castro, and three SC officers are reportedly included in the list of Gadon's witnesses.

Umali branded as "premature" Sereno's pronouncement that nobody is safe in the Philippines if the Chief Justice is removed from office because of false allegations.

"That's her opinion and she is the respondent here. The members of the House Committee on Justice will be given the opportunity to thresh out the allegations and we will weigh in everything. We haven't reached that point yet. It is only today that we are asking and requiring our complainant to substantiate his allegations. I think that is premature," he said.

Sereno's camp maintained that Gadon's allegations in the complaint were "baseless" and "totally false" and were based on "hearsay and newspaper clippings." It said the Chief Justice did not commit culpable violation of the Constitution, did not betray public trust, and did not commit corruption.

On September 13, 2017, the House Committee on Justice, voting 30 in favor and four against, found the impeachment complaint filed by Gadon sufficient in form and substance, citing that the complaint is verified and based on authentic records.

Regret

Gadon expressed regret over the failure of Sereno to attend the House Committee on Justice's impeachment hearing on Wednesday even as he refused to believe that the chief magistrate is preoccupied with her judicial duties.

The mover of the impeachment complaint against the Chief Justice said it appears that Sereno is not really interested to attend the hearing which prompted her to execute a Special Power of Attorney authorizing her lawyers to exercise and protect her rights and interest in the impeachment proceedings.

"I regret that Chief Justice Sereno chose not to come because she is very busy," Gadon told reports in Filipino, before the start of the impeachment hearing.

Gadon said the proceedings should have been expedited if Sereno opted to attend the hearing.

"At least siya na mismo ang matatanong, at dito, lalabas talaga ang mga kasinungalingan niya. (She will be directly asked and all her lies will come out)," he said.

Rules on confidentiality

Sereno's counsels have accused Justice De Castro of violating the Supreme Court's internal rules on confidentiality of sessions of its members and its internal documents.

In a press statement issued by Sereno's spokersperson, Josa Deinla, the chief justice's camp noted that Gadon pointed to De Castro as the source of information of an SC Internal Memorandum presented as evidence at the impeachment hearings.

"Atty. Gadon's disclosure that his source of information for Supreme Court Internal Memorandum is no other than Senior Justice Teresita De Castro, if indeed true, reveals that Senior Justice De Castro clearly violated the Internal Rules of the Supreme Court," Deinla said.

She added: "Specifically, the Supreme Court sessions are executive in character, with only the members of the Supreme Court present. The Supreme Court deliberations are confidential and shall not be disclosed to outside parties, except if authorized by the Supreme Court."

The camp of Sereno decried the denial of her motion to be represented by a counsel and to cross-examine witnesses through her lawyers saying the event was a "sad day for justice."

"This is a sad day for justice in this country that the Chief Justice, who has fought steadfastly to uphold the Constitution and the right of the citizens, has now been denied her own constitutional rights," said Deinla, also a Sereno lawyer.

"The Chief Justice is eager to defend herself consistent with her rights and looks forward to her trial before the Senate, where she is hopeful her rights will be fully respected," she said.

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Title Annotation:National
Publication:Manila Bulletin
Geographic Code:9PHIL
Date:Nov 23, 2017
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