House swarming with lawyers, Senate starved of legal acumen

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YEN MAKABENTA

First word
THE secret is out. The House of Representative has a wealth of lawyers and public policy specialists within its membership. In stark contrast, the Senate is starved of legal acumen and experience.

This is the principal insight that I have stumbled on from watching patiently the long-running House impeachment hearings on the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

The House hearings are literally swarming with lawyers. The investigating House justice committee is chaired by a broad-shouldered lawyer, Rep. Reynaldo Umali, who is backed up by two vice- chairmen, who are also able lawyers. Most of the representatives who question the witnesses and resource persons are lawyers, armed with reams of documents and plenty of legal arguments. The representatives who defend CJ Sereno are also lawyers who can talk non-stop. The impeachment complainant, Larry Gadon, is a lawyer who is never at a loss for words.

The witnesses and resource persons are mostly lawyers, including justices from the Supreme Court. Most of the spectators, I suspect, are also lawyers.


Contrast this with the Senate hearings, which are often happening at the same time and are similarly covered by the TV networks. The Senate hearings are a legal desert. Lawyers do not drive the proceedings. Grandstanding senators steer everything.

Senate lacks lawyers
This point has become plain. The House of Representatives is populated by plenty of able and articulate lawyers. But the Senate in contrast is starving for a dose of legal acumen. The Filipino electorate for some time has not elected candidates with a legal background to the Senate.

If CJ Sereno is impeached by the House of Representatives, on the strength of the yeoman’s work of its justice committee, it will most likely be on the grounds of culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of the public trust – two standards for impeachment that are most quickly understood by lawyers and political scientists.

When the chief magistrate then goes to the Senate for trial, her case will be heard by 23 senators, the majority of whom may have little comprehension of the law. Cramming will not make up for the gap in knowledge.

Only seven of the republic’s senators are lawyers; but one (Alan Peter Cayetano) resigned his seat to join the Duterte government as foreign affairs secretary. And another one (Leila de Lima) is in detention on charges of abetting the drug trade in the state penitentiary.

The six active lawyers in the Senate are: Senate President Aquilino Pimentel 3rd, Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, and Senators Edgardo Angara Jr., Richard Gordon, Francis Pangilinan and Francis Escudero.

The other senators have no grounding in the study or practice of the law or the study of public affairs. They have assorted backgrounds and skills in sports, business, show business, media, soldiering, censorship and home management.

When justices and high court officials testify at the trial, their learned discourses on the Constitution and explanations of the resolutions and rules of the Supreme Court will sail over their heads. I fear that no one in the chamber has studied the subject of accountability in governance enough to understand the extent of CJ Sereno’s failings as a magistrate.

I will not hazard the conclusion that the law is a superior profession to the other fields. In the age of globalization and digital communications, that would be foolhardy. I will only say that law has been and will probably continue to be the most practical preparation for a career in government and politics.

Corona conviction by personal discretion
In the impeachment trial of the late Chief Justice Renato Corona, the Senate court that tried him consisted of 23 senators. Twelve of the 23 senators were non-lawyers. The senators would exercise personal discretion when they vote either to convict or acquit CJ Corona.

The court discussed: “What proof is necessary to convict Chief Justice Renato Corona?”

Sen Miriam Defensor-Santiago suggested “overwhelming preponderance of evidence.”

Lead prosecutor Niel Tupas Jr said “substantial evidence.”

Lead defense counsel Serafin Cuevas insisted “proof beyond reasonable doubt.”

The question that worried many, including the media, was this: Do all the senator jurors who would decide Corona’s fate understand all the issues and legal ramifications of the Corona case? Would they take all these into consideration if and when they vote to convict or absolve the Chief Justice?

“Not really” was the answer of non-lawyer Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th. “Discretion ng bawa’t senador kung ano ang burden of proof or quantum of evidence that is required.”

In the end, 20 of the 23 senators voted to convict CJ Corona. Only three senators—Miriam Santiago, Joker Arroyo, and Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.—voted to acquit.

Corona’s strategic mistake
I watched the entire impeachment trial on TV—hour-by-hour and day-by-day—and I can testify, if asked, that the entire proceedings were a sham. The prosecution resorted to tactics that in an ordinary trial would have been disallowed. The court accepted as evidence plenty of information that could only have been obtained through the abuse of presidential authority. Some senator-jurors, notably Franklin Drilon, acted like prosecutors during the trial.

During the closing weeks of the trial, I believe CJ Corona committed the strategic or tactical error of opting to confront head-on the charge against him of alleged hidden wealth in his confidential bank accounts. He decided to waive the secrecy of his accounts and permit their disclosure by his bankers. This proved fatal for his case because it removed his protection under the Bank Secrecy Law, and this led to the baring of his dollar deposits at the trial. The prosecutors and the senator-jurors pounced on the information to lay the rationale for conviction.

In the senators’ speeches to explain their individual votes, they harped pompously and hypocritically on an evident discrepancy between what the accounts contained and what he could have earned through all his years in the public service. They charged corruption for his failure to include the deposits in his SALN.

Proof of DAP payoffs
Subsequently, when everything was over, the information came out that all the senators who voted to convict Corona (except for Sen. Panfilo Lacson) were each gifted by President Aquino with rewards, sometimes totaling over a hundred million pesos, sourced from the notorious Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).

The proof of these payoffs has been made part of the Supreme Court’s decision declaring the DAP illegal and unconstitutional. The explanatory letter of Budget Secretary Florencio Abad detailing the payoffs was reproduced verbatim.

Trillanes was first on the list of senators who got and signed for their rewards.

Escudero, who has the distinction of voting to convict Corona and voting for Sereno in the Judicial and Bar Council, got over a hundred million in DAP.

Sereno’s evolving strategy
The tightening of the case against CJ Sereno and Corona’s treatment by the Senate during his trial are combining to shape the evolving strategy of the Sereno camp toward her prospective impeachment trial.

I believe the CJ and her counsel may have come to the conclusion that she would have a better chance in the hands of the Senate, than in the House.

With many senators who convicted Corona in exchange for loot still in the present Senate, they figure that these senators will vote to acquit her. They will not dare remove another chief justice from the high court.

CJ Sereno is taking care to reject flatly all allegations of impeachable offenses against her; she and her lawyers staunchly maintain that she is in the right and that all the proof being piled up against her are just hearsay.

Time will tell whether Sereno’s strategy will prove more effective than Corona’s. But at the rate developments are moving in the House hearings on the impeachment complaint, Sereno’s confidence in her eventual vindication may be delusional. The House will impeach her. The Senate could finish the job.

If the impeachment case goes to trial, I believe the veteran senators will vote to remove CJ Sereno. Human beings with a troubled conscience about a grievous mistake ache for a second chance to correct the mistake. They hope thereby to lift the burden off their minds.

yenmkabenta@yahoo.com

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