EXCLUSIVE: House Speaker sees probable cause to impeach Sereno

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Updated with statement from Chief Justice Sereno's spokesperson

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 7) — House hearings prove probable cause in the impeachment case against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, the House Speaker said Thursday.

"Yung mga nanunuod tayo ng committee hearings, and palagay ko naman yung public will share my view na talagang merong katotohanan itong mga allegations na ito, so far, yung mga natalakay na sa committee hearing," House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez told CNN Philippines.

[Translation: "Those who are watching the committee hearings, and I think the public will share my view that there is truth in these allegations, so far, those tackled in the committee hearing."]

Asked if there already is probable cause for the Chief Justice to be ousted, Alvarez said, "Meron (There is), I think."

Alvarez said Sereno is guilty of culpable violation of the Constitution, one of the grounds for impeachment under the 1987 Constitution.

One allegation to support this was issuing a 2012 order unilaterally despite objections from other members of the Supreme Court, as testified by Associate Justice Teresita De Castro.

Read more: Justice panel chair: Sereno took upon herself SC power

"Violation talaga yun kasi supposed to be yung Supreme Court collegial body talaga yan at meron silang rules doon na dapat sundin ni Chief Justice," Alvarez said.

[Translation: "That's really a violation because the Supreme Court is supposed to be a collegial body with rules that the Chief Justice should follow."]

Sereno camp: No impeachable offense

Sereno's camp on Thursday decried Alvarez's statement, saying there is no evidence to prove any impeachable offense against the Chief Justice. 

"As far as the legal team of the Chief Justice is concerned, no single piece of evidence - either documentary or testimonial - has been presented to prove that the Chief Justice committed an impeachable offense that would warrant her removal from office," said the statement issued by lawyer Josa Deinla, one of Sereno's spokespersons.

From the very start, Alvarez and his colleagues wanted the Chief Justice ousted, even calling for her resignation, Sereno's lawyers said.

"The statement of Speaker Alvarez once again validates his strong desire to have the Chief Justice removed from office. There is no let up in his attacks-verbal and personal-on the Chief Justice," the statement read.

Sereno's alleged violations

Associate Justice De Castro said Sereno's administrative order created a new office called the Judiciary Decentralized Office (JDO) to replace the Regional Court Administration Office (RCAO) in Region 7 or Central Visayas, which was supposed to be an ad hoc body only.

"The Chief Justice cannot create a permanent office. It's a legislative power," De Castro told the House Committee on Justice on November 29.

Sereno's camp earlier denied issuing the order without the approval of court en banc and said the Chief Justice did not create a new office because the JDO and RCAO are "one and the same."

The difference of the chief magistrate's opinion from the rest of the justices "do not imply any willful intention to violate the Constitution," they said Thursday.

"These are properly addressed by the internal administrative processes of the Supreme Court, and not by the extraordinary remedy of impeachment," Sereno's camp said.

Snubbing hearings another violation

Alvarez said Sereno will commit another violation of the Constitution if she continues to snub impeachment hearings despite being invited by the House Committee on Justice.

"Constitutional process ang impeachment. Kailangan mo igalang yan (Impeachment is a constitutional process. You have to respect that)," Alvarez said.

"Pag hindi siya nag-attend doon, hindi na namin kailangan patunayan yan at nangyari na yan at alam na ng publiko," Alvarez said.

[Translation: "If she does not attend there, we do not have to prove that because the public already knows it happened."]

The Chief Justice will attend impeachment hearings if her legal counsel advises it, her spokesman has said. Sereno earlier authorized her lawyers to represent her and cross-examine witnesses, but the committee refused to allow this.

It also seems Sereno did not submit her Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net worth (SALN) from 2000 to 2009 since these could not be found in the records of the Office of the Ombudsman, Alvarez said.

Alvarez expecting an airtight case

In the impeachment case, lawyer Larry Gadon also accused the Chief Justice of corruption, betrayal of public trust, and other high crimes.

Sereno denied the allegations, and asked for the complaint to be junked.

However, Alvarez said Sereno's statements will be futile if she does not appear at the impeachment hearing to defend herself.

Even the reply she submitted to the justice panel would be treated as a "mere scrap of paper," Alvarez said.

Alvarez said he is confident lawmakers would come up with an airtight case against the Chief Justice.

"Unang una, hindi siya nagpupunta doon. Ibig sabihin, mawawalan sya ng pagkakataon para patunayan na hindi totoo ang mga sinasabi ng mga tumetestigo doon," he said.

[Translation: "First of all, if she will not go there that means she will lose her chance to disprove the witnesses' accusations."]

The House Committee on Justice will resume on Monday its seventh hearing examining probable cause in the impeachment complaint against Sereno.

Alvarez said the panel is eyeing to end the hearings and submit a report to the plenary by the end of January or February 2018.

A vote of at least one-third of the members of the House of Representatives, or 98 out of the 292 incumbent congressmen, can start an impeachment trial at the Senate.

CNN Philippines' Joyce Ilas contributed to this report.