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Unable to defend Sereno at House, lawyers want case taken to Senate

Lawyers of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno leave the room after the House justice committee voted on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017 to disallow their camp from cross-examining witnesses in the impeachment hearings. STAR/Boy Santos

MANILA, Philippines — The lawyers of embattled Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno on Wednesday challenged the House of Representatives to transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate.

Disallowed from cross-examining witnesses at House hearing, Sereno's lawyers urged the lower chamber to immediately take the case to the Senate if it had enough evidence to remove the country's top magistrate.

Alex Poblador and other lawyers of Sereno left the House justice committee hearing early Wednesday after the panel led by Rep. Reynaldo Umali (Occidental Mindoro) made the decision to prevent them from questioning the complainant, Larry Gadon, and his witnesses.

Josa Deinla, a spokesperson for the chief justice, said the 30-4 vote to junk the camp's petition to question witnesses, disregarded Sereno's fundamental rights as respondent.

The lawyers described this development as a "sad day for justice."

READ: Speaker challenges Sereno to face accusers

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"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.

Gadon, a supporter of President Rodrigo Duterte who once launched a losing senate candidacy under the Ferdinand Marcos-era Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, is accusing the chief justice of flying business class on trips, booking a posh suite in the resort island of Boracay for a judiciary seminar, purchased a luxury vehicle using public funds and sat on crucial appointments in the judiciary allegedly to place people close to her in those offices.

Violation of House's own rules

Deinla said the committee erred in invoking Section 13(2) of the House Rules of Procedure Governing Inquiries in Aid of Legislation in denying the chief justice's right to counsel and cross-examination.

READ: Sereno hints of Duterte hand in her impeachment

The rule, which states that: "The participation of counsel for the witness during the hearing and while the witness is testifying shall be limited to advising on the legal rights of the said witness." Sereno's camp stressed that this was not applicable in the case since it was an impeachment process, not a hearing in aid of legislation.

Section 6 of the Rules of Procedure on Impeachment recognized the right of the respondent to cross-examine, adding that the position of the committee to insist on having Sereno conduct the cross-examination herself concedes that she has such a right.

“It is difficult to understand how this rule can defeat the rights of the chief justice to counsel when this right is enshrined not only in the very Rules or Procedure on Impeachment but in the Constitution itself that is read into such rules,” Deinla said.

READ: Point by point: Sereno answers impeachment complaint

She underscored that Sereno was not witness but a respondent to an impeachment proceeding.

“As such, she has the rights of an accused in criminal cases of a person under investigation which includes the right to cross-examination through counsel,” she said.

Impeachment akin to a criminal trial 

Deinla, Sereno's counsel, said that an impeachment proceeding, while not a criminal prosecution, was analogous to a criminal trial whose rules provided the accused with the right to counsel and self-examination.

Only Sereno had the prerogative to choose if she would exercise this right in person or through a counsel.

"Sad Day for Justice:" Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno sent her lawyers to answer the impeachment charges hurled against her before the House Committee on Justice. Chairman Reynaldo Umali (2nd District, Oriental Mindoro) and Majority Floor Leader Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas (1st District, Ilocos Norte) led legislators in probing lawyer Lorenzo Gadon in order for him to substantiate allegations against the Chief Justice. Pantaleon Alvarez/Released

“The right to cross-examine through counsel is so fundamental, that the option to dispense with the assistance of counsel is entirely the prerogative of the respondent,” she said. 

“Cross-examination through counsel is not only part of due process, it will even aid the Committee in finding out the truth about the allegations against the chief justice,” she added.

Poblador, Sereno's lawyer, said that they decided to leave the hearing as the decision rendered them unable to defend their client.

“We have decided to leave because we can’t do anything,” he said.

Poblador said that despite the legal setback they were confident about their defense against Gadon's allegations.

“I believe this ruling will prevent us from effectively defending the chief justice at this level before the Committee on Justice,” Poblador said. “We look forward to have this case brought before the Senate and we are confident that we will be able to defend the chief justice there consistent with her constitutional rights.”

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