House hearing on Sereno impeach complaint bordering on actual trial

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AL S. VITANGCOL III

THE House justice committee hearing to determine the existence of probable cause in the impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon against Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, shifted to a high gear last Wednesday. Supreme Court Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo De Castro testified on that day confirming without doubt some of the allegations in the impeachment complaint.

However, I observed that the conduct of the committee hearing, or rather the “conduct” of the committee members, was as if it was already an actual impeachment trial. Some of these lawmakers probably thought that the hearing should be done as if it was a trial proper.

Earlier, the impeachment complaint was found to be sufficient in form and thereafter, in substance. The next step now is the determination of probable cause, which will be established by examining witnesses.

This finds basis in Rule III, Section 6, paragraph 2 of the Rules of Procedure in Impeachment Proceedings of the 17th Congress. To wit,


“If it finds that sufficient grounds for impeachment do not exist, the committee shall dismiss the complaint and submit the report required hereunder. If the committee finds that sufficient grounds for impeachment exist, the committee shall conduct a hearing. The committee, through the chairperson, may limit the period of examination and cross-examination. The committee shall have the power to issue compulsory processes for the attendance of witnesses and the production of documents and other related evidence.”

Defining probable cause

The proceedings in an impeachment is legal and political in nature and it is sui generis, neither a criminal or administrative proceeding, but takes the hybrid characteristics of both. As such, the determination of probable cause should not be strictly carried out as if it is a criminal trial proper.

Probable cause is defined as a reasonable ground to believe the certainty of the alleged facts and having more evidence for than against the complaint. Black’s Law dictionary defines it as “a set of probabilities grounded in the factual and practical considerations which govern the decisions of reasonable and prudent persons and is more than a mere suspicion but less than the quantum of evidence required for conviction.”

Simply, probable cause is present when there is a reasonable basis for believing that a wrongdoing may have been committed.

When Associate Justice de Castro ascertained and authenticated the documentary exhibits, which form part of Gadon’s complaint, then the degree of the probability of correctness of the allegations was already met. Likewise, the justice even confirmed the alleged narration of events in the complaint as facts.

There is no more need to compel the appearance of the other personalities mentioned by Justice de Castro. Nor is it necessary anymore to authenticate the additional documents presented by the justice. These should be part of the work of the Senate, acting as an impeachment court – and no longer the function of the House committee.

Discrediting the witness

In legal parlance, eroding the credibility of the witness is “impeaching the witness.” However, so as not to confuse it with the impeachment proceedings, I used the term “discrediting the witness.” This is the method by which the veracity and believability of the witness is attacked.

The discrediting of a witness is done during the trial proper and not during the determination of probable cause.
A lawmaker, probably wanting to grandstand, started asking questions intended to impugn the credibility or show the bias of Justice De Castro. This was clearly uncalled for – either he did not know their own rules or he was simply ignorant as to his real function.

The justice committee members should be reminded that they are not there to conduct an impeachment trail nor to authenticate each and every piece of evidence. Theirs is only to determine probable cause – which had already been established early on.

Applicability of the Rules of Court

The infuriating questions thrown by that lawmaker at Justice De Castro deserves a second look. Can the complainant object to such a skewed line of questioning? I think so.

The Rules of Procedure in Impeachment Proceedings is silent on this. However, its Rule VII, Section 16, considers the Rules of Court, as far as practicable, to be applicable in impeachment proceedings.

In an ordinary criminal trial, both parties – the prosecution and the defense – can interpose an objection on the questions posed by the examining party. The objections are based on specific legal grounds (which I will not be discussing here).

Since some of the committee members were acting as if they were s already in the trial phase, then I believe that objections can be made. Finally, we must all be reminded of this passage in the case of Francisco Jr. vs House of Representatives –

“No one is above the law or the Constitution. This is a basic precept in any legal system which recognizes equality of all men before the law as essential to the laws moral authority and that of its agents to secure respect for and obedience to its commands. Perhaps, there is no other government branch or instrumentality that is most zealous in protecting that principle of legal equality other than the Supreme Court which has discerned its real meaning and ramifications through its application to numerous cases especially of the high-profile kind in the annals of jurisprudence. The Chief Justice is not above the law and neither is any other member of this Court. But just because he is the Chief Justice does not imply that he gets to have less in law than anybody else. The law is solicitous of every individual’s rights irrespective of his station in life.”

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