MANILA - Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno will not be attending the impeachment hearings as she insisted it will be unconstitutional for the House Committee on Justice to deny her lawyers the right to cross examine her accusers, a spokesperson said Wednesday.
“She elects, yes, that it is her lawyers that will be doing (the questioning)…for the reason that she does not want to be distracted from her duties as the Chief Justice," said lawyer Josa Deinla.
"Please remember, as the Chief Magistrate of the Supreme Court she’s wearing so many hats--meron pa siyang 6 na mga tungkulin, ibang opisina kung saan gumagagampan siya ng mahahalagang responsibilidad. These tasks exact or demand full attention at 'yun 'yung nais niyang ibigay kahit na dumadaan pa siya sa ganitong klaseng mga pagdinig," she added.
Deinla said their camp disagrees with House Justice Committee Chair Reynaldo Umali's statements in news reports that "the Chief Justice as respondent and not her lawyers can speak and conduct cross examination during the impeachment hearings."
The lawyers argued that the impeachment rules of the 17th Congress do not prohibit the Chief Justice’s lawyers from speaking or conducting cross examination.
“Why not? Because to do so would violate the constitutional right to counsel and to be heard through counsel.”
Deinla added that since impeachment proceedings are akin to criminal proceedings, Sereno is also entitled to these rights which are guaranteed by the Constitution.
“These rights would be rendered useless and would have no meaning if, as Chairman Umali says, the Chief Justice's lawyers are not allowed to conduct cross examination, much less speak, during the hearings that may be conducted by the committee on justice," she said.
"It would be setting an unfair, if not dangerous, precedent to rule that the lawyers of an officer subject to impeachment cannot cross-examine witnesses, let alone speak during the proceedings," she added.
Deinla maintained that Sereno's request to "be treated fairly and that her rights be fully respected" was made in the spirit of fairness and would ultimately be for the public benefit "if the truth behind these baseless and perjurious accusations are revealed.”
In an interview with ANC Wednesday afternoon, Umali said lawmakers are still looking at the possibility of allowing the Chief Justice to conduct the cross-examination herself.
"We are looking at that possibility of allowing the Chief Justice herself to conduct the cross-examination because she is a lawyer and, likewise, the complainant is a lawyer," Umali said.
In a letter by the defense panel filed before the Committee on Wednesday, lawyers Alex Poblador, Dino Vivencio Tamayo and Anzen Dy said that limiting Sereno's right to cross-examine would “effectively deny the Chief Justice her fundamental right to appear and be heard through counsel and to confront and cross-examine witnesses against her through an independent counsel of her choice.”
The lawyers cited the sections of the 1987 Constitution which states the right to be heard through counsel and outlines the rights of a person under custodial investigation.
“We find no comfort in the statement that the right to cross examine witnesses may be done through the congressmen or through the chair of the committee," the lawyers added.
"Plainly understood, the right to cross examine is traditionally exercised by counsel for an adverse party… Moreover, as we have stated in our 28 September 2017 letter, it would not be acceptable for committee members to conduct the cross-examination themselves because at this stage of the process they are judges or quasi-judges whose duty is to determine probable cause," they said.
The House Justice Committee will convene on Thursday to decide on the sufficiency of the grounds of the case.
"After we consider all of these pleadings, we will vote upon it, then we will move to the next stage which is determination of probable cause," explained Umali.
Umali said he has noticed gaps in the complaint and the answer of Sereno and would seek clarification on these matters on Thursday's hearing.
"We’ve seen that there are gaps in the complaint and the answer, some of which were not directly responded to by the Chief Justice," he said.
The Sereno camp has no notice or invitation to the hearing, but the legal team understands that the proceedings are limited to lawmakers.
"To tell you frankly, we still have to decide how we will deal exactly with the invitation or notice of the House committee on justice. We understand... the House committee will now proceed to the stage of deciding the sufficiency of the grounds; that exercise is really to be done among the members of the committee," they added.
Justin Mendoza, also among Sereno's lawyers, meanwhile reiterated the bid to dismiss the complaint, saying there is "no use in having a hearing" and that it would be only "a waste of public funds."
Complainant Lorenzo Gadon said he would abide by the House rules and the interpretation the chair of the committee.