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House finds ground in CJ impeach case

There are “sufficient grounds” to pursue the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, the House committee on justice ruled yesterday in a vote of 25-2. SC PIO/Released, File

MANILA, Philippines — There are “sufficient grounds” to pursue the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, the House committee on justice ruled yesterday in a vote of 25-2.

“The chair hereby declares the complaint sufficient in grounds. There is sufficient ground to impeach… that the complaint alleges sufficient ground for impeachment and we will now move to the next stage, which is the determination of probable cause,” committee chairman Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali said after the voting.

He said the committee would begin scrutinizing 27 allegations against Sereno cited by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon in his impeachment complaint.

“In determining grounds, we take into consideration the pleadings filed by both parties, if there are sufficient grounds to conduct further hearings,” Umali said.

He said lawmakers are still discussing whether to allow Sereno herself to cross-examine witnesses, possibly including six of her colleagues in the 15-man Supreme Court.

As he had stated, Umali said Sereno would be given the chance to cross-examine the witnesses but only upon approval of committee members. Sereno’s lawyers earlier said they – not the Chief Justice – would attend any impeachment hearing.

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“This may be an interesting proceeding that may happen before this committee because, if we allow cross examination by either party, then this will enrich our proceedings,” said Umali.

“If we allow (only) the lawyers of Sereno, how can we cross examine the lawyers? How can we ask clarificatory questions from (a lawyer) who is not a party himself or herself?”

Sereno spokesperson Josa Deinla insisted that the Chief Justice’s lawyers have the right to cross-examine witnesses. She again argued Gadon’s complaint should be dismissed for being baseless and unfounded.

“Sufficiency in grounds means that, necessarily, these should be unlawful or illegal acts and they are of such nature that they would strike at the very core of the essence of government,” she said.

“Ibig sabihin, sobrang grabe ang mga acts na ito, dapat mabigat, hindi gaya ng mga paratang ni Gadon (It means, such acts should be severe, heavy, not like the ones alleged by Gadon),” Deinla explained, as she warned the Umali panel against issuing a subpoena to Sereno, the head of a co-equal and independent branch of government.

“In our view, she cannot be subpoenaed as she has the right to send lawyers to answer accusations against her in impeachment proceedings,” she pointed out.

For opposition lawmakers, the committee vote was apparently meant to railroad the impeachment of Sereno.

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said the justice committee “put the cart before the horse when it precipitately and prematurely voted that there are sufficient grounds” to impeach Sereno “based on the pleadings even before any discussion was conducted on the alleged grounds.”

He said determination of “sufficiency of the (impeachment) grounds involves discussion and deliberation which were not held prior to the voting.”

“My suggestion that the 27 grounds alleged for impeachment must be discussed and voted upon separately was ignored by the committee,” he said.

Like Lagman, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate described the justice committee decision as “precipitate without thorough discussions.”

“What is happening here is the impeachment of no less than the Chief Justice, the head of a co-equal branch of government. Let us discuss it properly, thoroughly and extensively. Let us not rush it,” he said.

“If this would be the norm in the justice committee, then it appears that the impeachment of the chief justice is now certain. With threats of impeachment proceedings against critics of the present administration, this creates a chilling perception that impeachment is being used as a weapon of retaliation,” he said.

Fake news

Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas said the decision to proceed with Sereno’s impeachment “is yet again another display of the Duterte administration’s political arm-twisting and bullying, in an apparent bid to silence further criticism at the expense of the spirit of democracy and established rules on impeachment proceedings.”

“The complaint itself is one big fake news for its hollow allegations. Despite this, the committee proceeded to approve en masse the impeachment complaint without a thorough examination of each ground for impeachment. House members who wanted to express their views were not allowed to speak,” she said.

“Such dirty ploy only further exposes Duterte’s desperation to use tyrannical methods against political opposition and will further stoke more dissent against his regime,” she added.

Brosas called on the people “to exercise vigilance at a time when all indications increasingly point to a looming Duterte dictatorship – from the rising drug-related killings, postponement of the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections, political harassment of opposition, and activation of vigilante-style witch-hunt against supposed enemies of the state.”

She said Duterte’s instruction to lawmaker-allies to have Sereno and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales impeached “is part of his efforts to shut down checks and balances” and pave the way for a dictatorship “amid growing criticisms on his bloody war on drugs and failed economic policies.”

For his part, Akbayan Rep. Tom Villarin decried the committee’s barring non-members from sharing their views on moves to impeach Sereno.

“It is highly regrettable that we, fellow elected representatives of the people, were not allowed to speak our minds in opposition to the impeachment of the chief justice,” Villarin said.

“While we acknowledge that non-committee members cannot cast their votes, tradition allows House members to at least express their opinion, in the spirit of being representatives to a democratic institution,” he said.

“We, however, maintain our stand that the entire proceeding further enables a creeping authoritarian rule under a strongman in Malacañang,” he pointed out.

At yesterday’s hearing, some justice committee members reminded non-members that they could not participate in deliberations on the impeachment complaint against Sereno.

Opposition voice

In a letter to Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, Lagman said the seven-member “genuine opposition” should be allowed representation in the justice committee so it could join in the deliberation on the impeachment complaint against Sereno.

Lagman said the justice panel is supposed to have 55 members. At present, the committee has 51 members – 48 from the majority and three from the minority, or with four slots vacant.

He added minority leader and Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez and his six deputies sit in the committee on justice as ex-officio members with privileges as regular members, like the right to vote.

“It stands to reason and consistent with experience that our opposition group should be given membership in the committee on justice with the undersigned and Tomasito Villarin of Akbayan as nominees,” he added.

Shortly after the 17th Congress convened in July last year, the Lagman group fought it out with Suarez and his followers for the minority leadership.

Under the rules on the election of speaker, whoever gets the second highest number of votes becomes the minority leader.

Ifugao Rep. Teodoro Baguilat Jr., who belongs to the Lagman group, defeated Suarez by just one vote.

Suarez and his supporters, several of them belonging to the pro-administration majority coalition, later convened and elected the Quezon congressman as their minority leader.

Since the Suarez group was bigger than the Lagman faction, the House leadership decided to recognize the former as the minority.

Lagman questioned the decision before the Supreme Court, but the tribunal sustained the House leadership.

Commenting on the Lagman group’s request, majority leader and Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas said the House is divided only between the majority and minority and that those not belonging to the majority are considered part of the minority.

He said it is he who nominates committee members representing the majority and it is Suarez who recommends minority representatives.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan said moves to have Sereno and Morales impeached are aimed at stifling dissent and “all connected to pin down the opposition.”

“This is because some in the administration cannot accept comments and criticisms, and probably want us to be under a dictatorship,” Pangilinan, president of the Liberal Party, said.

“We will not allow that to happen. We will not agree to a nationwide martial law, we are in democracy and the Liberal Party is ready to defend and uphold our democratic rights, our basic human rights and of course our Constitution,” the senator said. – With Paolo Romero

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