House committee approves impeach rap against Sereno
The House justice committee has deemed sufficient the grounds cited in the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, clearing the way for the case to proceed to the next stage.
The panel, by a 25-2 vote, found that the complaint filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon satisfied the requirement of sufficiency of grounds under House impeachment rules, despite the objections of some lawmakers who questioned whether the listed offenses were even impeachable.
Gadon has accused Sereno of, among other charges, failing to declare her real wealth, buying a luxury car with government funds and making questionable decisions without consulting her fellow magistrates.
President Duterte said on Wednesday that he wanted to file a new impeachment complaint against Sereno aside from the one tackled on Thursday by the House justice committee and also to file an impeachment case against Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales.
Mr. Duterte earlier accused Sereno and Morales of allowing themselves to be used to discredit his administration. Both officials have denied any wrongdoing.
“We are disappointed that the committee approved the complaint on sufficiency of grounds because of the simple reason, as we have repeatedly said, that there is not enough basis,” said Sereno’s lawyer, Josa Deinla.
The next stage is the determination of probable cause, referring to reasonable suspicion that the respondent may be guilty of the charges.
If probable cause is determined, the articles of impeachment derived from the impeachment grounds will be submitted to the plenary for approval.
A vote of one-third of the 293 members of the House of Representatives sends the impeachment articles to the Senate, whose members will serve as judges in a public trial.
In determining sufficiency of grounds, Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali, the committee chair, said the panel was supposed to “take into consideration not only the complaint but the answer, reply and
rejoinder” earlier filed by Sereno’s lawyers and Gadon.
Committee members, according to Umali, were supposed to answer the question: “Based on the pleadings filed, are there sufficient grounds for the impeachment of Sereno or are there grounds to conduct further hearings thereon?”
In questioning the grounds in the Gadon complaint, Dinagat Islands Rep. Kaka Bag-ao cited portions in the complainant’s verified answer to Sereno’s reply, in which Gadon admitted that the Chief Justice’s supposed transgressions were ethical and that propriety issues did not violate any law, let alone the Constitution.
For instance, Bag-ao noted that the Chief Justice, along with the President, the Vice President and other top officials, were exempt from the prohibition on the purchase of luxury vehicles. Thus, the lawmaker said the allegation that Sereno misused government funds by buying a Toyota Land Cruiser for her personal use was empty.
Bag-ao said Gadon, too, had acknowledged that Sereno’s supposed acts of taking business-class flights were not legal but were issues of propriety.
Sereno’s supposed manipulation of the short list of vacancies in the judiciary, as well as the decisions and processes of the Judicial and Bar Council were “internal” to the court, the lawmaker said.
“He has many allegations [that] he only says are ‘evidentiary and will be established later.’ Why should we not dismiss this on insufficiency of grounds?” Bag-ao said of Gadon.
Quezon City Rep. Jose Christopher Belmonte raised a couple of other points against the Gadon complaint, arguing it failed to establish his allegations, including the charge that Sereno had falsified a temporary restraining order.
But Bag-ao’s and Belmonte’s objections were for naught in the face of the majority.
Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, both of whom are not members of the committee, attempted to interpose objections and manifestations during the hearing, but were overruled.
This led to a back-and-forth about whether nonmembers had the right to participate in the deliberations, prompting Umali to ask members to submit their position papers on the matter before making a decision.
The House panel also discussed two letters sent by Sereno’s lawyers invoking her right to confront and cross-examine through her counsel the witnesses who would testify against her.
Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas took exception to the lawyers’ use of simple letters to address the committee chair in raising their request, saying the panel should not even take action on the communications.
Again, Umali sought position papers from the members.
Belmonte, for his part, indicated his decision to make a motion allowing Sereno’s lawyers to cross-examine witnesses on her behalf. He cited the House’s own impeachment rules that allowed direct and cross-examination of witnesses.
Deinla said it was a shame that the House committee did not take up the letters “on the mere basis of a technicality,” considering the legal and substantial points raised in them.
In a statement, Gadon said Sereno should just resign to “preserve her dignity and avoid the embarrassment and humiliation of the trial.”
He said he was “very elated” by the House committee’s vote.
If impeached, Sereno would be the second Chief Justice to suffer such a fate following her predecessor, the late Renato Corona, who was impeached in December 2011 and found guilty by the Senate in May 2012 for failing to disclose his real wealth in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth.
Corona died of a heart attack in April last year.
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