Chief Justice Korkpor: ‘We’re Aware of the Effects of our Decisions’

Flashback: At the opening of the Supreme Court, Justice Korkpor, for the first time, broke his silence, when he openly said, by September 5, 2022, he would step down as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. .  

Chief Justice Francis Korkpor has announced his retirement from the bench at the end of the current term, clearing the way for President George Weah to make his third high court appointment.

Chief Justice Korkpor, who is the oldest member of the Supreme Court of Liberia, is expected to step down, having reached retirement age. His retirement is expected to take effect at the end of the current term, usually in October, “assuming that by then my successor has been nominated and confirmed.”

He described his nearly 19 years on the bench as “challenging and meaningful” and said relations with his colleagues have been “warm and friendly,” while admitting that at the court, they are aware of the effects of their decisions. At the opening of the Supreme Court, Justice Korkpor, for the first time, broke his silence, when he openly said, by September 5, 2022, he would step down as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

“At the level of the Supreme Court, we continue to make difficult, contentious, and high-profile decisions from time to time. We are quite aware of the enormity and profound effects of our decisions, as a Court of last resort, from whence there is no appeal,” Korkpor said. “We do not seek approval, good name nor popularity from any quarter.

“We rely solely on the application of the law, the Constitution being our primary authority by which we measure the behavior of citizens, foreign nationals within our borders, as well as the conduct of the government and its functionaries. It is said that the Supreme Court is the living voice of the Constitution, the sacred instrument to watch the people look for protection," he added.

The Liberian Chief Justice turns 70 on September 5, this year. Article 72(b) of the Constitution of Liberia provides that “the Chief Justice and  the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of subordinate courts of records shall be retired at the age of seventy…” Section 2.5 of the Judicial Law of Liberia, among others, sets the second Monday in October and March of each year as the day the Supreme Court shall open for the conduct of business.

Korkpor further said that he and his other colleagues have focused on their primary duty of hearing and deciding cases in a fair and impartial manner, “notwithstanding the many biases and unfair criticisms of our opinions, especially where politicians and political parties are involved in a given case.”

Chief Justice Korkpor, a former lawyer for the Catholic Church and its affiliate institutions, and a human rights advocate with the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission is leaving the court with mixed reviews.

The issue of corruption has beclouded the Judiciary and caused that branch of government to lose public confidence. Just last year,  Associate Justice Yusuf D. Kaba made it clear to the public that the Judiciary is the “Black Cow” of the government — warning judges to change their behaviors or risk losing public confidence, something he said would cause chaos in the country.

Before Justice Kaba's admission, the US State Department '2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices on Liberia' clearly stated that judges and magistrates across the country were subject to influence and engaged in corruption. 

The report said Judges sometimes solicited bribes to try cases, grant bail to detainees, award damages in civil cases, or acquit defendants in criminal cases; and that defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes suggested defendants pay bribes to secure favorable decisions from judges, prosecutors, and jurors, or to have court staff place cases on the docket for trial.

“Some judicial officials and prosecutors appeared subject to pressure, and the outcome of some trials appeared to be predetermined, especially when the accused persons were politically connected or socially prominent,” the report says.

Also, the lack of full ruling on the ethical transgression case against judge Eva Mappy Morgan, chief judge of the Commercial Court and president of the National Trial Judges of Liberia, might further dent Chief Justice Korkpor’s legacy.  

Judge Morgan was linked to a 2013 communication in which it was alleged the Commercial Court authorized the withdrawal, without the consent of one of the litigating parties, of an amount of US$3.4 million at the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, which was being held in escrow pending final determination of a commercial dispute between Ducor Petroleum Inc. and the Monrovia Oil Trading Company (MOTC). 

The court unilaterally ordered the withdrawal of more than three million dollars from the bank. The Judicial Inquiry Commission ( JIC) investigated the matter and recommended a one-year suspension without pay and benefits against Judge Eva Mappy Morgan. However, the judge denied the JIC report and challenged it at the court.

The commission is an auxiliary group established within the judiciary with the exclusive power and authority to receive and investigate complaints against judges for violation of any provision of the judicial canons.

But the JIC recommendation has been pending undecided before Justice Korkpor Bench for over seven months, up to the present. Judge Morgan, the JIC's findings held her liable for the depletion of the escrow account for the Ducor Petroleum Incorporated that was housed at the LBDI, under her court custody pending the outcome of the accountability and ownership lawsuit.

Moreover,  Chief Justice Korkpor is leaving the Supreme Court swirling in controversy over the impeachment of former Associate Justice Kabineh J’aneh and the disputed 2017 presidential elections.  Critics argue that the impeachment proceeding process had been entangled in constitutional violations which could pose serious repercussions for the future dispensation of justice in Liberia. But Korkpor has repeatedly defended his tenure on the bench and denied such allegations. Rather, he says, the process was done according to the law. 

However, the Chief Justice’s view is not shared by the ECOWAS Court of Justice, who ruled in favor of Associate Justice Ja’neh, after he filed a complaint to the regional court that his rights to a fair hearing were violated.

The ECOWAS Court agreed and said that the Liberian courts clearly established violation of the Applicant’s right to a fair hearing and right to work and ordered his reinstatement as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court or in the alternative, to grant him the right to retire from service on the date of notification of this judgment with full pension benefits as if he had retired at the normal retirement age for justices of the Supreme Court

Meanwhile, Korpkor added that while on the bench, he never allowed the title or nomenclature chief justice to be his head or for any outside influence to direct my course of action as chief justice of this court.

He added that all along, he has remained calm and quiet but resolute in doing his job, even in the face of extreme provocations.

“So, having been blessed with national leadership,I promised that I would not betray the confidence of the Liberian people who bestowed the honor on me. I believed that I have kept that promise. I have endeavored to live the life of a high court judge,' said Korkpor, "Today, I am the same person who was endorsed by the people of Liberia yesterday."

Touching on the work of the Korkpor's Bench, the chief justice admitted to many challenges that continue to slow down and hamper the progress of the justice system, but ”our judicial system is fully functioning.”

Justice Korkpor was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on April 18, 2013. He was elevator while serving as Chief Justice Ad Interim during the resignation, in September 2012, of former and late Chief Justice Johnnie N. Lewis, who requested early retirement due to poor health. He was first appointed to the Supreme Court Bench, in 2004, during the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) then headed by late Charles Gyude Bryant. He served as Associate Justice on the Bench of Chief Justice Henry Reed Cooper.

During that time, the tenure of the Supreme Court as set by the Accra Peace Accord (CPA) was two years. After two years of service, all five justices of the Supreme Court by then had resigned to give way to the new democratically elected Government then headed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. 

In 2006, after President Sirleaf took office, she appointed Chief Justice Francis Korkpor, as Associate Justice on the Bench of Chief Justice Johnnie N. Lewis, now late.