Impeachment court to deliberate on inviting Justice-A A +A
Sunday, February 26, 2012
MANILA – Senator-judges will deliberate Monday on whether to invite a Supreme Court (SC) associate justice to testify on deliberations in the grant of an injunction on a government travel restriction on Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Prosecutors see testimony from SC Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno as a "nail in the coffin" for impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona.
But this early, lawyers of Corona said they will raise an objection should the prosecution succeed in convincing Sereno to voluntary appear at the impeachment trial.
In a motion submitted Friday, House prosecutors Niel Tupas Jr. and Neri Colmenares asked the Senate to invite Sereno to testify on alleged irregularities in the deliberations on a temporary restraining order that the SC issued in November last year.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, testifying before the impeachment court last week, cited Sereno's dissenting opinion to suggest Corona had a direct hand in having the injunction issued.
Arroyo appointed Corona as Chief Justice; and de Lima and the prosecution panel believe issuing the TRO was meant to allow the former president to escape pending charges.
The Justice department disregarded the injunction and de Lima explained this was because it had not officially been served and it was unclear whether Arroyo had complied with conditions attached to the TRO.
De Lima, reading from Sereno's dissent, said Corona "sent in his own handwritten corrections on the typewritten draft resolution from Justice (Presbitero, Jr.) Velasco with the instruction that the Chief Justice's version is to be immediately promulgated."
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile ruled, however, that de Lima could not testify on whether what Sereno said actually happened. Without personal knowledge of the deliberations--held behind closed doors--de Lima's testimony is hearsay, the impeachment court ruled.
Enrile allowed de Lima's testimony to remain on the record, however, saying it will be up to the senators to consider and appreciate her statements.
"The said dissenting opinion forms part of the acts of the Chief Justice mentioned in the testimony of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and the impeachment complaint pending before this Honorable Impeachment Court," prosecutors said in their motion.
They believe Sereno's testimony will help prove Article 7 of the impeachment complaint, or Corona's alleged betrayal of public trust by his alleged partiality in granting the TRO.
The Senate had earlier ruled against sending subpoenas to the SC, and the court has also issued guidelines restricting access to SC records.
"Considering that her presence is by virtue of an invitation, Justice Sereno has all the right not to answer a question which she believes is confidential or is not allowed under their rules," prosecutors said.
In an interview with reporters last week, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago--who took the floor to say that de Lima's testimony was just an opinion since she was not present at deliberations--said "if the Justice herself testifies, then that will of course, bolster the case of the prosecution."
On Thursday, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV suggested for prosecutors to just get her deposition or written interrogatories, while Senator Alan Peter Cayetano asked them to look into any exception to the judicial privilege.
But lawyer Ramon Esguerra, Corona spokesman, said the appearance of Sereno in the trial to testify may expose her to certain "risks", among these is the fact that her testimony might be covered by the confidentiality rule over deliberations of the High Tribunal.
"We are not aware whether a study is being done. (Bayan Muna party-list Representative Neri) Colmenares wishes Justice Sereno to appear voluntarily. The good justice must be thinking of this but certain risks are there," he said in a text message.
For Corona's defense team, Sereno will have to go through the eye of a needle before she could testify in the impeachment trial.
First, Esguerra said, the woman magistrate will need to secure the approval of the SC, especially after it came out with a resolution turning down the request of the prosecutors seeking to compel the attendance of SC justices in the trial.
The High Court cited its Internal Rules, which prohibits the disclosure by justices as well as court officials and employees of court actions, such as the result of the raffle of cases; actions taken on cases included in the agenda of court sessions; and deliberations of the members during court sessions on cases and matters pending before it.
Esguerra said that without a decision of the SC en banc giving Sereno the approval to testify, "I believe that she will be violating the rule on confidentiality."
He said Sereno will also have to admit that her opinion is not the majority and answer the points raised against her dissent by Justices Roberto Abad and Presbitero Velasco Jr., who wrote the ponencia on the grant of TRO to Arroyo.
"She will be asked about what she discussed about the case with Secretary de Lima, which the latter intimated in her testimony last week. Be that as it may, I believe the defense will raise the proper objection if she takes the stand," he said.
He further said that Sereno herself will also be questioned about her own statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN).
Last year, Sereno was accused by her critics of not disclosing in the summary of the SALN her earnings while she was still one of the lawyers that handled the government's separate arbitration cases in Singapore and Washington, D.C. for determination of damages to be awarded to NAIA-3 builder Philippine International Air Terminals Co. (Piatco), and Fraport AG, one of its subcontractors.
In the summary SALN that she made public last December, Sereno declared only a total assets of P17,904,510.14, with total liabilities of P142,342.88 for the year 2010.
On the other hand, disbursement vouchers coming from the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA), which operates NAIA-3, showed that Sereno, then the chief legal assistant of retired SC Justice Florentino Feliciano, who was the lead Philippine counsel in the arbitration cases, received a portion of the P2.65-billion payment.
Lawyer Tranquil Salvador, another defense spokesman, said testifying before the Senate impeachment court is completely within Sereno's prerogative.
"(Even) if she as a witness submits to the court voluntarily, we doubt whether she can testify or be subject to written interrogatories on matters covered by judicial privilege since only the SC as an institution can waive it," he said.
Senator-judge Francis Pangilinan, however, said on Saturday that judicial privilege has limits.
"Judicial privilege exists, yes, but it cannot be invoked to cover up for wrongdoing nor can it be invoked to undermine or defeat the Constitutional mandate of the Senate having the sole power to try and decide impeachment cases," he said in a press statement.
"How can they explain this anomalous situation wherein we need to secure the consent of the court for witnesses to appear before us in a trial where in the Chief Justice himself is being tried? What makes things worse is that four or five of the sitting justices have publicly shown support for the Chief Justice in a series of rallies. How can these justices decide with impartiality?" he said.
Corona has a petition pending at the Supreme Court asking it to issue an injunction on proceedings. Corona said his right to due process has been violated because there was no notice and hearing on the charges against him.
The complaint was signed by 188 lawmakers in December, allowing it to skip committee hearings. It was forwarded to the Senate that same week.
He initially asked the impeachment court to junk the complaint because not all members of the House who signed it were able to read the allegations in it but the Senate ruled against that. (With JCV/Sunnex)