On Wednesday, November 22, the House committee on justice, chaired by Representative Reynaldo Umali, conducted its first hearing on the impeachment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
After preliminary considerations, the justice committee then proceeded to resolve some pending incidents such as whether or not non-members could participate in the committee hearing to which the said committee, upon the motion of Representative Gwen Garcia, ruled in the negative. It also ruled in the negative on the issue of the right of Sereno’s lawyers to cross-examine the witnesses against her. The lawyers, led by Alex Poblador, had no choice but to excuse themselves. With such blatant disregard of constitutional rights, what choice did they have?
It only got worse. As the hearing progressed, it became clear that the complainant Larry Gadon had committed perjury, that in fact, the House justice committee should not have approved this complaint as being sufficient in form.
The Gadon complaint consists of allegations of culpable violation of the Constitution, betrayal of public trust, corruption and other high crimes, grounds cognizable by the Constitution for impeachment. He listed numerous acts supposedly committed by the Chief Justice that would support his allegations.
I have already written that, even if proven, those acts are clearly not impeachable. Culpable violation of the Constitution means a specific constitutional provision was intentionally transgressed upon by the impeachable official. Betrayal of public trust, even if it has a broader scope, implies a seriousness that rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors that are also grounds for impeachment. Mistakes of judgments, especially on administrative matters and management decisions, do not rise to being impeachable.
Such grounds must be read in conjunction with the element of deliberate, malicious, and evil intent. They are not magic words that can be invoked at the drop of a hat to make a public official, irritating he or she might be to some, disappear. In other words, there must be prima facie evidence showing that the act – to be considered betrayal of trust or culpably violative of the Constitution – is done with deliberate or malicious intent.
As the hearing progressed yesterday, it became clear that Gadon clearly is wrong also about the facts, definitely committing perjury as he obviously did not have personal knowledge of the acts supposedly attributed to the respondent, something he attested to when he filed the complaint. This was repeatedly pointed out by some members of the committee when it was disclosed by Gadon himself that he acquired his information from other people. This is hearsay evidence and therefore inadmissible.
This, despite Gadon’s statement in the verification, that he has personal knowledge of the acts complained of. But then again how could Atty Gadon substantiate his allegations if he has no personal knowledge of the supposed illegal and impeachable acts by the respondent; when other people could better testify on the matters raised and not the complainant himself who, as already said, has no personal knowledge of his very own allegations?
One committee member aptly observed that Gadon should not be the complainant in this case but some other personality who can better testify on the allegations.
For instance, in the alleged falsification of Supreme Court resolutions and a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) by Sereno – Gadon, when asked whether he could personally substantiate his claim, could only mumble the names of other persons such as Associate Justice Teresita de Castro or newspaper reporter Jomar Canlas who supposedly talked to her.
At one juncture, when pressed for the names of his sources, the complainant said that he could no longer remember their names, while he charges the respondent with tampering and or falsification. Gadon curiously failed to present documentary evidence to prove the allegation, such as the copies of the resolutions and decision allegedly falsified. This prompted the committee chair to require the complainant to submit a list of his sources and/or documents that may be subpoenaed.
Again some allegations, such as the supposed purchase of a Toyota Land Cruiser, are matters pending before the Supreme Court, which are internal to the Court and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the committee. Matters internal to the Court must be resolved by the Court itself and not by the House pursuant to the principle of co-equality.
As defined in case law, probable cause is the existence of such facts and circumstances as would excite the belief in a reasonable mind, acting on the facts within the knowledge of the prosecutor, that the person charged was guilty of the crime for which he was prosecuted. Probable cause is a reasonable ground of presumption that a matter is, or may be, well founded on such a state of facts in the mind of the prosecutor as would lead a person of ordinary caution and prudence to believe, or entertain an honest or strong suspicion, that a thing is so. The presence or absence of probable cause to impeach the Chief Justice is what the committee is set to establish bearing in mind the yardstick set by case law.
While it would be difficult at this juncture to make a reasonable prediction as to what would be the verdict of the committee since based on my understanding a few more hearings will be conducted before the committee can come up with a resolution, the complainant’s performance during the said hearing falls woefully short in substantiating his allegations, such that if a decision were to be reached on that single hearing, the committee should dismiss the complaint for lack of probable cause. But then again, we will see in the next hearings whether the complainant can “improve” his performance by presenting more cogent proof, documentary or otherwise, to support his claims.
Ideally, the determination by the House committee of probable cause at this stage is a constitutional duty and should not be tainted by partisanship or partiality. The resolution must hinge solely on the evidence presented by the parties and never be dictated upon by partisan politics. The proper and regular performance by the House of this duty is a sacred constitutional obligation that will determine the fate not only of the impeachable official subject of the impeachment complaint, but also of the integrity of the democratic traditions of this country.
Unfortunately, the committee on justice is clearly failing in that obligation. Its denial of Sereno’s right to confront witnesses and right to counsel is so brazen that it can be a ground for dismissal when the impeachment complaint goes to the Senate. In my view, as the proceedings in the committee continue, those grounds will accumulate.
The truth is that the House of Representatives can decide to forego any process and can just send this to the Senate for trial. If that is the intention, it might be best to do that. But if the intent is to continue an unfair process in the House to embarrass the Chief Justice, such a strategy would clearly backfire.
In my view, there is no chance that impeachment will prosper in the Senate. All the senators will act independently and with wisdom and fairness here, and because of that, I am confident Sereno will not only get the minimum votes so the two-third’s majority for conviction is not reached, but in fact, will get a majority of senators to vote for her acquittal. But to bring the impeachment to the Senate for trial, where there is no basis for the charges, is going to be an abuse of power. Hopefully, the chair and members of the committee on justice and the House of Representatives as a body will see that and end this process quickly.
The chief complainant has showed his contempt for the House of Representatives and the country by filing a perjurious complaint. There is time still for our representatives to do the right thing. Otherwise, as Gadon crumbles, the House falls. – Rappler.com
Tony La Viña is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government.