Senate should gear up for Sereno impeachment trial

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AL S. VITANGCOL III

THE House of Representatives’ committee on justice has deemed the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon, as “sufficient in form and substance”. But the same committee junked a second impeachment complaint against Sereno filed by the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) for being defective in form.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines impeachment as a criminal proceeding against a public officer, before a quasi political court, initiated by a written accusation called “articles of impeachment”.

The Constitution allows the removal of certain high officials through impeachment. This is specifically mandated by Section 2 of Article IX – Accountability of Public Officers. It provides that the members of the Supreme Court, among others, may be removed from office by impeachment.

In the Philippines, there are only five grounds for which a high public official may be impeached: 1) culpable violation of the Constitution; 2) treason; 3) bribery, graft and corruption; 4) other high crimes; or 5) betrayal of public trust.


The Constitution gives the House of Representatives the exclusive power to initiate all cases of impeachment. How can an ordinary citizen, like Gadon, file an impeachment complaint if it is only House members who can initiate impeachment cases? Well, a verified complaint for impeachment may be filed by any citizen upon a resolution or endorsement by any of the congressmen.

The House has already promulgated its rules on impeachment. The Rules of Procedure in Impeachment Proceedings, enacted by the 15tth Congress, is applicable, unless superseded or modified by the present Congress. Once an impeachment complaint is referred to the committee on justice, it will determine whether the complaint is sufficient in from and substance.

The requirement of form is met if the written complaint contains the principal necessary matters, the proper technical terms and phrases and whatever else is necessary to make it formally correct. It should be arranged in proper and methodical order, and capable of being adapted as the House’s version of its Articles of Impeachment.

The requirement of substance is met if there is a recital of facts constituting the offense charged. Each and every accusation should be backed by documentary evidence.

All lawyers know that pleadings filed in any court or tribunal must follow some strict formalities. Majority of the petitions filed before the higher courts, whether in the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court, are denied if they are defective in form. It seems that the VACC was not able to get the services of a tier-one lawyer in preparing their impeachment complaint against the Chief Justice.

Some media accounts show that the questions of the committee members focused on the “personal knowledge” of the complainants as stated in the verification. Thus, they concluded that VACC, as a complainant, had no personal knowledge of the charges. Verification is not anchored on the “personal knowledge” phrase alone but equally on the “authentic records” phrase.

I always include this statement in my verifications – “I have read and understood its contents, which are true and correct based on my own personal knowledge or on authentic records.” There you are. If you have no personal knowledge, then it should be based on authentic records.

But there is more to it than just form and substance. The committee also determines whether the complaint alleges sufficient grounds for impeachment. Once established, the committee conducts hearings to receive the testimony of witnesses, documents and other related evidence. If the committee finds that a probable cause exists, it then draws up the Articles of Impeachment. Upon approval by at least one-third of the members of the House, the Articles of Impeachment are endorsed to the Senate, which will act as impeachment court.

The Senate has adopted Resolution No. 39, Rules of Procedure on Impeachment Trials, which it is bound to follow. Since it is the Chief Justice who is being tried, the President of the Senate shall preside in the impeachment trial. It is fortunate that Senate President Koko Pimentel Jr. is a lawyer. Else, it will be too hard, or even impossible, for a non-lawyer to be the presiding judge in an impeachment court. Can you imagine the likes of some non-lawyer senator presiding over an impeachment court? It will be a comedy of errors.

Take note that the Senate President when presiding in an impeachment trial may rule on all questions of evidence including, but not limited to, questions of materiality, relevancy, competency or admissibility of evidence and incidental questions. Such ruling shall stand as the judgment of the Senate. This holds unless a senator-judge asks that a formal vote be taken on a question, in which case it would be submitted to the body for decision.

How is the impeachment sustained? The President of the Senate shall state the question on each article of impeachment. Thereafter, each senator, as his/her name is called, shall rise in his/her place and answer: guilty or not guilty. The vote of the Senate President on each article of impeachment is the last taken after all the senators have stated their votes. A senator is allowed explain his/her vote for not more than two minutes.

Rule III specifies that, “Senators shall observe political neutrality during the course of the impeachment trial. ‘Political neutrality’ shall be defined as exercise of public official’s duty without unfair discrimination and regardless of party affiliation or preference.”

Will this be followed? I doubt it. My insight tells me, based on previous impeachment trials, that the senator-Judges will vote along party lines. Probably, a couple of them will vote according to their conscience. However, the rest will blindly follow their political parties’ preference.

The senators should now gear up and start honing their “judging” and “questioning” skills. Or else, we might end up having an afternoon comedy of errors show.

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