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CJ Sereno camp wants to cross-examine impeachment witnesses

Bea Cupin
CJ Sereno camp wants to cross-examine impeachment witnesses

(UPDATED) 'There are alarming indications that she will be denied the right to cross-examine,' says Sereno's camp

MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) – Citing the House of Representatives’ rules of impeachment, the camp of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on Thursday, September 28, asked that they be allowed to cross-examine witnesses who will be presented against her, should the impeachment process reach that stage. 

Sereno’s lawyer filed a letter before the committee on justice. 

Her camp, in a statement issued by her spokespersons, said the Chief Justice “has been more than cooperative throughout the process of her own impeachment… despite the perjurious nature of the complaint and the dubious method of obtaining documents.” (READ: Sereno impeachment: Supreme Court OKs release of documents to aid VACC complaint)

“Despite the short amount of time, she complied and filed her answer, responding to all points and attaching all necessary documents,” they added. (READ: How Sereno answered her impeachment complaint)

Asked why they were filing this letter in the first place, Sereno’s spokesperson cited information from sources, including “friends [and] allies.” 

“There are alarming indications that she will be denied the right to cross-examine,” said her camp. 

“We humbly submit that under the House Rules, persons who would testify during the hearing would not be considered mere ‘resource persons’ who would be questioned solely by committee members. Those persons would be full-fledged witnesses, who would be examined by a proponent, and cross-examined by an opponent,” Sereno’s lawyers said in the letter. 

‘Fake news’ 

They also insisted that the complaint must be junked in the first place. 

Earlier, referring to allegations about non-disclosure in her Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth, her spokesman, lawyer Carlo Cruz said, “All the documents are there, the income tax returns and everything, these would show the public that these particular allegations of Atty (Larry) Gadon appear to have been made perhaps on misinformation.”

“She maintains that the complaint is baseless, malicious, based on conflated hearsay, even contrived. It is a purveyor of fake news…there is no place for fake news in any civilized society and Congress, for that matter,” said lawyer Josa Deinla in a chance interview after they filed the letter. 

Lawyer Anzen Dy, a member of Sereno’s legal team, added: “Cross examination is a very important tool in finding the truth…this is not just for [Sereno] but for the committee to find out the truth.” 

Her team cited Section 6 of the House’s impeachment rules which state that “the Committee, through the Chairperson, may limit the period of examination and cross-examination.” Sereno’s team said that it does not makes sense to impose limits if the option to conduct direct and cross-examinations don’t exist in the first place. 

While the House Rules state that the Rules of Criminal Proceedure under the Rules of Court also apply to impeachment proceedings, Sereno’s team contended that this contradicts Section 6, which makes a reference to direct and cross examinations. Under the Revised Rules on Criminal Procedure, examinations and cross-examinations are not allowed. 

Justice committee chairperson Oriental Mindoro Representative Reynaldo Umali had earlier said himself that Sereno would have the “Constitutional right to confront the witnesses.” 

Sereno’s camp is also asking that they be allowed to object to “improper questions” during the direct examination of the witnesses. They also want copies of evidence submitted before the committee in support of the charges against Sereno.

Impeachment process

The first verified impeachment complaint against Sereno, filed by Gadon, was declared sufficient in both form and substance by the committee on September 13. They junked a second complaint against the chief justice. 

Sereno filed her reply to the complaint on September 25. Gadon is expected to file his own reply on September 28. Once all pleadings, affidavits, and counter-affidavits have been filed, the committee will then vote on whether there is sufficient grounds for impeachment. 

If the committee finds there are sufficient grounds for impeachment, it shall conduct a hearing, according to the House rules of impeachment. Once the hearing is over, the committee will then vote and submit to the House its findings and recommendations. 

If, through a majority vote, the committee finds there is probable cause for the complaint, it will submit to the House a resolution containing the Articles of Impeachment. Otherwise, it will be dismissed.

A one-third vote from all members of the House is needed to move the complaint forward. Even if the complaint is junked by the committee, a one-third vote from all House members can override this. 

It then moves on to the Senate, sitting as the impeachment court.

In a statement, Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman supported Sereno’s request. “While an impeachment proceeding is a political process, it is imbued with a judicial nature akin to a criminal prosecution,” he said. Lagman is not a member of the justice committee.

Bayan Muna Carlos Zarate, who is part of the committee, likewise supported Sereno’s request. “The Chief Justice should be given the opportunity to confront the witnesses against her, even at the level of the House of Representatives in the determination of probable cause,” he said.

Zarate added that it would also benefit the House since allowing Sereno to cross-examine witnesses would help members in fleshing out the truth. 

“At the same time, the proceedings in Congress are highly political, therefore we should prevent a situation where the Congress would be accused of being one-sided and unjust,” said Zarate, a member of the Makabayan bloc.

Not allowed? 

Umali, however, said only Sereno – and not her legal team – would be allowed to do the cross-examination. He said that if the team has questions for resources persons, they could ask through him, the chairman. 

Ultimately, however, Umali said the committee would decide.

In another statement, Lagman said Umali “may have misinterpreted the rules on impeachment” in saying that only Sereno herself could conduct the cross-examination.

“The right to counsel by the accused or respondent is enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the right of cross-examination through counsel is protected under Philippine jurisprudence. Nowhere in the Rules of Procedure in Impeachment Proceedings is the right of cross-examination limited to a party who is represented by counsel of choice,” he said.

The veteran lawmaker said Sereno’s counsels should not be barred from participating actively in the proceedings, unlike in inquiries in aid of legislation. “The role of the respondent’s counsel in impeachment proceedings is vastly more important and proactive than that of a counsel appearing for a resource person or witness in investigations in aid of legislation,” he added.

Akbayan Representative Tom Villarin, who is also part of the House opposition, said it was “highly irrational” to ask that Sereno to the cross-examination herself. “She is the highest magistrate and has to perform her duties as well. While the House has the right to hear the impeachment complaint, in the determination of probable cause, it is sufficient that her lawyers do the cross-examination of Atty. Gadon,” he said.

The legislator added: “It demeans her office and any Tom, Dick and Harry can hail an impeachable official to the House and ‘shoot them at close range’ even if the charges later are deemed unimpeachable. We know what can happen in a House hearing and we’ve seen what questions can be thrown, especially to women. While impeachment is a political process, it should not be subject to the absurd and ridiculous.”

Villarin is not a member of the committee. – 

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.