LAWYERS for Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno left the impeachment hearing in the House early after the committee on justice refused to let them cross-examine witnesses in her absence Wednesday.
Voting 30-4, the committee, headed by Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali, prevented Sereno’s lawyers from cross-examining witnesses against her, after the chief justice skipped Wednesday’s hearing.
“We are not depriving the respondent of the right to cross-examine but they [her lawyers] should do it through any of the members, including through the chair if they have anything they want to relay to the committee,” Umali said.
Sereno’s lead counsel, Alex Poblador, urged the committee to immediately transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial, if the lawmakers believed there is a strong case against the chief justice.
“It is our inclination to have the proceedings in the committee expedited. If they (members) believe that the complainant has evidence then by all means prepare and file the articles of impeachment,” Poblador told reporters in an interview.
With permission from the committee, Poblador and other members of Sereno’s legal team left the hearing early after the panel voted to deny their motion to cross-examine the complainant, Larry Gadon, and his witnesses.
At the same time, the House justice committee agreed not to allow non-panel members participate or speak during the deliberation of Sereno’s impeachment case by a 30-3 vote to the motion of deputy speaker and Cebu Rep. Gwendolyn Garcia.
Lawmakers who were not members of the committee led by Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman appealed to the panel that they be allowed to participate. “This is more than ordinary legislation. “This will decide the fate and fortune of impeachable officers,” Lagman said.
But Majority Floor Leader Rudy Fariñas said the committee would not be able to finish deliberating on the Sereno impeachment case if all 293 House members were allowed to participate. “This is a constitutional process. If it is allowed, that will be a dangerous precedent,” Fariñas said.
The House justice panel maintained its position that only Sereno would be allowed to crossexamine the witnesses―a view the chief justice has opposed. Sereno had executed a special power of attorney and submitted it to the committee Tuesday asking the panel to allow her lawyers to represent her as a matter of her constitutional right.
Umali also said the committee, which deliberated on the probable cause of the impeachment case leveled against Sereno, will respect the decision of the chief magistrate not to participate in the impeachment process at the House. Umali said the invitation to Sereno to participate in the hearings was “continuing,” but said if she chose not to participate, “it is her own lookout.” Fariñas also said that since Sereno’s lawyers will play norole in the impeachment proceedings,they could just coursetheir questions and other concernsthrough members of the House justice committee.
The four lawmakers who voted for the motion to to allow Sereno’s lawyers to cross-examinewitnesses and complainant wereReps. Kaka Bag-ao of DinagatIslands, Christopher Belmonteof Quezon City, Lawrence Fortunof Agusan del Norte and RamonRocamora of Siquijor.Belmonte said Sereno’s lawyersshould be able to conduct the cross-examination on her behalf as any accused has the right to counsel.
“My point is, this is a political process. This is not simply administrative or criminal. Our work is a constitutional duty. It is only right that we be liberal in interpreting our rules.” Belmonte said. Rocamora, also a lawyer, echoed Belmonte’s view. “If we are really interested in expediting these proceedings… allow the lawyers to respond directly, to save time,” he said. Gadon accused Sereno of culpable violation of the Constitution, betrayal of public trust, corruption, and other high crimes for her alleged litany of lapses including untruth.