THE chairman of the House committee on justice said Sunday that the rules of impeachment proceedings in Congress do not allow lawyers representing an impeachable official to cross-examine witnesses against the accused.
“The right to counsel happens in the actual trial,” said Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali, referring to a bid by Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno to have her lawyers question witnesses against her in the House hearings. “We are still not yet at the trial [stage]. The right of the accused to counsel has not yet been established. And unfortunately, under our rules, we do not allow lawyers to speak.”
Speaking to radio dzBB, Umali added that should Sereno seek legal relief from the Supreme Court to stop the impeachment complaint against her, a constitutional crisis could ensue.
An impeachment trial is political in nature, he added.
“I hope the Supreme Court and the judiciary will listen to reason. When we talk of... impeachment cases, that is the sole jurisdiction of Congress as representatives of the people,” he said.
He urged Sereno not to ignore the committee and instead defend herself against the evidence that would be presented on Nov. 22.
Her absence at the hearing would be considered a waiver of her right to confront the witnesses, he added.
“If she is telling [us] that all the accusations against her are not true, the more she must face [the committee] so she could lay down all her defenses,” he said.
But two members of Congress said they believed the House committee on justice cannot compel Sereno to appear.
Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III and Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel said they believe in the separation of powers of the judiciary system and legislative body.
Both pointed out, however, that Sereno’s failure to face the committee on justice would bea big loss to her defense.
“We can’t compel her to attend. There is separation of powers,” Albano said.
“The investigation on the Chief Justice must be made in an orderly fashion to show the public that we are doing it in accordance with law and not to trample her rights,” he added.
Sereno’s spokesperson lawyer Josa Deinla said that it was the chief magistrate’s position, even before the House panel’s invitation was issued, not to attend the hearing because she has a lot of official duties to attend to as chief justice.
Nonetheless, Deinla admitted that Sereno’s lawyers are still studying what course of action to take following the issuance of the invitation to the chief justice.
“It’s still under discussion, they are still deliberating on how to handle it and how to respond to it. But at this point, we don’t know yet if the position of the chief justice will change,” she said.
Reacting to Umali’s statement that Sereno’s decision to snub the hearing would mean waiving her right to face her accuser, Deinla said the lawmaker cannot say that Sereno is waiving her right to defend herself by allowing her counsels to attend the hearing for her.
Sereno’s spokesperson said the chief justice is merely exercising her constitutional rights under the Constitution and that her absence from the hearing does not mean she is waiving such rights.
“No one can take that away from her,” she said.
Lorenzo Gadon, a lawyer, filed an impeachment complaint against Sereno for culpable violation of the Constitution, betrayal of public trust, corruption and other high crimes.