MANILA - Lawyers of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on Monday asked the House Committee on Justice to let her legal counsel confront the witnesses against her in the impeachment proceedings.
In a motion, the lawyers asked the panel to "recognize her constitutionally guaranteed rights to be represented by a legal counsel and to confront the witnesses against her through lawyers representing her," as they sought confirmation that persons testifying as witnesses or as “resource persons” against the Sereno may be “cross-examined by her counsel on her behalf.”
They also want to be able to "object to improper questions" during direct examination and be furnished with all the documentary and testimonial evidence in support of the charges against the Chief Magistrate.
“The confirmation was sought in light of public pronouncements by some members of this Honorable Committee, and in order to be clarified and assured that the procedure which the Committee would adopt during the hearings would respect the basic rights of the Chief Justice as a respondent in an impeachment proceeding,” Sereno’s lawyers, led by Alex Poblador, stated in the motion.
Committee Chair Oriental Mindoro Representative Reynaldo Umali was previously quoted by media as saying that Sereno herself must cross-examine the witnesses against her, and not her lawyers—a clear violation of her fundamental right to be heard through a legal counsel, the right to confront the witness and the right to due process before a fair and impartial tribunal.
Umali said Sereno’s right to confront her accusers cannot be extended to her lawyers.
He added that the justice committee may allow Gadon and lawmakers who endorsed the Gadon complaint to question Sereno. A total of 25 lawmakers have endorsed Gadon's complaint.
The House Committee on Justice has found impeachment complaints against Sereno filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon sufficient in form and substance, despite the use of newspaper clippings as evidence.
The panel, with the same vote, declared "sufficient in substance" the complaint, which accused Sereno of culpable violation of the Constitution, betrayal of public trust, corruption, and other high crimes.
The Chief Justice's lawyers previously wrote to the committee, telling them "the right to be heard and be defended by counsel in all stages of a criminal proceeding is a very basic right of an individual, which not even this Honorable Committee, indeed Congress, can take away from a respondent in an impeachment proceeding."
The Constitution and the Rules of Criminal procedure, they said, guarantees the right to counsel of every person, including the Chief Justice, even as early as investigation for any offense.
“There can be no due process accorded an accused if he is not be given the right to be heard through counsel or assisted by counsel,” they said.
Umali’s statement that committee members will not allow Sereno’s lawyers to do cross-examination on behalf of the Chief Justice because the rules of the House do not allow it, the lawyers said, is "alarming" as there was no provision in the Rules on Impeachment or the House’s own rules that prohibits the counsel for the respondent in an impeachment proceeding from conducting cross-examination.
“Indeed, it makes little sense to recognize the right to cross-examine, and limit the exercise of such right to the person of the respondent alone,” the lawyers said in their October 3 letter to the committee.
They said the “prerogative to decide how to exercise the right to cross-examine, whether in person or through counsel of his or her choice, should be left to the respondent, as law and common sense dictate.”
The Sereno camp also said they were "bothered" by Umali's pronouncement that the representatives or the committee chair may cross-examine the witnesses in lieu of the Cheif Justice's lawyers.
The lawyers said it would not be acceptable for committee members to do the cross-examination themselves, because at this stage of the process, they are "judges or quasi-judges whose duty is to determine probable cause."
“The committee members will become prosecutors and not mere investigating officers only when the impeachment process reaches the Senate which will act as the impeachment court,” the lawyers said.
“What is more, the Chief Justice’s right is ‘to have competent and independent counsel preferably her own choice. Obviously, the committee members are not the ‘independent counsel’ of the Chief Justice’s own choice," they added.