Sereno asks House panel to recognize right to be represented by counsel

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This photo taken on August 25, 2016 shows Supreme Court Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno listening to a question during a press conference in Manila. — AFP

THE LEGAL team of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno on Monday filed a motion asking the House Committee on Justice to recognize her constitutionally guaranteed rights to be represented by a legal counsel and to confront the witnesses against her through lawyers representing her in the impeachment proceedings.

In a four-page motion, Ms. Sereno’s lawyers, led by Alex Poblador, sought confirmation from the committee that persons testifying as witnesses or as “resource persons” against the Chief Justice may be “cross-examined by her counsel on her behalf.”

They also asked that they be allowed to object to improper questions during direct examination of the complainant’s witnesses and be furnished with all the documentary and testimonial evidence in support of the charges against their client.

“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,” the lawyers stated in the motion.

House Justice Committee Chairman Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali was previously quoted by media as saying that Ms. Sereno herself must cross-examine the witnesses against her, and not her lawyers.

According to Ms. Sereno’s camp, this was “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.”

“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 lawyers said in their Oct. 3 letter addressed to Mr. Umali’s panel.

Ms. Sereno’s lawyer said Section 12(1), Article III of the 1987 Constitution and Rule 115 of the Rules of Criminal Procedure guarantee the right to counsel of every person — including the Chief Justice — not only at the time of his presentation in a trial, but even as early as his investigation for any offense.

They added that the “right to be heard” guaranteed under Section 14(2), Article III of the Constitution means “the right to be assisted by counsel for the purpose of ensuring that an accused is not denied the collateral right to due process.”

“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,” her lawyers said.

Moreover, Ms. Sereno’s counsels took exception to Mr. Umali’s statement that House committee members would not allow Ms. Sereno’s lawyers to do cross-examination on behalf of the Chief Justice because the rules of the House do not allow it.

They described the statement as “alarming, pointing out that there was no provision in the Rules on Impeachment or the House’s own rules that expressly prohibits 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 Oct. 3 letter addressed to the Committee on Justice.

They insisted that 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 lawyers were also bothered by Mr. Umali’s statement that the right to cross-examine witnesses may be done “through the congressmen,” or through the committee chair. “Plainly understood, the right to cross-examine is traditionally exercised by counsel for an adverse party,” they said.

“This is apparent from the definition of ‘cross-examination,’ which is a stage in the presentation of evidence where a witness is cross-examined by the adverse party as to any matters stated in the direct examination, or connected therewith, with sufficient fullness and freedom to test his accuracy and truthfulness and freedom from interest or bias, or the reverse, and to elicit all important facts bearing upon the issue.”

At the same time, the lawyers said 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.

“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.

They added, “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.” —