..Says salary harmonization was unconstitutional
The administration of President George Weah has been sued by 16 prominent judges for salary discrimination which, they claim, has affected their livelihood.
The judges, in their class-action lawsuit, claimed that the National Remuneration Standardization Act of 2019 is discriminatory and unconstitutional.
The suit argues that the placement of Judges in category 3 of the salary Remuneration Act, which contained ministers, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Liberia, the Court Administrator of the Supreme Court of Liberia, the Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives and the Secretary of the Senate for remuneration is unfair, and that the government acted unconstitutionally in drafting the policy.
The lawsuit, filed at Civil Law Court ‘A’ in Montserrado County, was backed by the 14 resident judges of the sixteen counties seeking approval to declare the Act unconstitutional and to hold the respondent liable for damages for the wrongful and illegal abolition and withholding of petitioners’ allowances.
“Coming into effect of the National Remunerations Standardization Act of 2019, a judge is being paid and continues to be paid the remuneration of US$5,000 taxable salary, allowance abolished and the 135 gallons of gasoline remain untouched,” the lawsuit alleges.
“The abolition of the payment of allowances to judges and all judicial officers is unconstitutional and, because all such judicial officers are entitled to payment of allowances retroactive as at the date of coming into effect of the Act of 2019, and in the amount which they received before the coming into being of the Act, and damages for the wrongful and illegal abolition and withholding of petitioners allowances,” the suit added.
Meanwhile, Judge Kennedy Peabody of Civil Law Court ‘A’ has summoned House Speaker Bhofal Chambers and Senate Pro-Tempore Albert Chie to answer the petition of declaratory judgment filed by the judges.
The judges further allege that, before the Remuneration Act of 2019, they were paid LD$22,950 as taxable income, and US$5,000 as non-taxable income for allowance and 150 gallons of gasoline, which was reduced to 135.
The Judges' legal action comes two months after they had earlier threatened to sue the Weah administration before the full bench of the Supreme Court to compel the government to reimburse monies deducted from their salaries carried out under the harmonization exercise.
It can be recalled that the Weah Administration, upon assuming power in 2018, instituted a policy referred to as “salary harmonization” with the intent of bringing equity in the earnings of civil servants.
The process was decried locally, but hailed by international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), who had been pushing such reform.
But since the passage of the Act in 2019, judges and magistrates have been complaining of not receiving their allowances and benefits including (gas and telecommunications vouchers).
They also alleged that the judiciary is not just the least supported of the three coordinating branches, but decisions affecting their wellbeing are oftentimes left to be made by the Executive and Legislative branches, disregarding constitutional and statutory provisions “of our law that protect salaries of judges and justices.”
The lawsuit noted that the Act disappointedly placed judges of the subordinate courts along with ministers of the Executive Branch and others in Category 3 for remuneration which, they claim, undermines judicial independence -- thus making it unconstitutional.
“Ministers in the Executive Branch receive net salaries of US$7,500. But, in keeping with Part III, section 1 (c) of the National Remunerations Standardization Act of 2019, they and all other judges are entitled to make a salary of US$5,000,” the suit claims.
However, the judges said while they welcome the increase in their taxable salaries from LD$22,900 to US$5,000 pursuant to Part I, Section 1 of Act, the placement of Judges in category C with ministers and other public officials, does not match the salaries being paid to ministers.
According to the suit, while the Liberian Constitution grants the Legislature the power to fix the salaries of judicial employees, the placement of circuit judges in category C makes the move unconstitutional.
“Canon six (6) of the New Judiciary Law provides that a judge is a government paid official who must be paid adequately, as he holds an exalted position which prevents him or her in engaging in any business pursuit, and therefore, he or she must be provided with the necessities of life and with every means by which he will be able to perform his judicial duties effectively,” the judges noted.
“The suit further argued that, except for the President and Vice President of the Republic of Liberia and the Chief Justice and Associate Justices, no other government official or civil servant should receive salary, allowance, and benefit over and above those paid to judges of the Judicial Branch of the Republic of Liberia.
"Assuming that the categorization of judges did not undermine judicial independence and unconstitutional, then and in that case, petitioners and all other judicial officers similarly situated would be entitled to the same salaries allowance and benefit pay by the respondent to ministers of the Executive Branch and others, as provided for in Part III Section 1 (c) of the National Remuneration Standardization Act of 2019,” they argued.
The petitioners also argued that, to ensure judicial independence as enshrined in the 1986 Constitution, a judge must be encouraged and given the incentive to live a decent and dignified life that would prevent financial worries and enable him or her to repel temptation, which is susceptible to human life.
“As a priest of justice, a judge should not be given the cause to be corrupted in the performance of his or her judicial duties, to not be justified for any disciplinary action taken against him or her, if found deficient in those qualities,” the suit further added. “Unlike Judicial officials, all other public officials do not suffer statutory and economical prohibitions and restrictions referred to by the law in the performance of their duties.”
The Resident Judges who sued include George W. Smith of the 15th Judicial Circuit Court in RiverGee County; Ousman F. Feika of the 5th Judicial Circuit Court in Grand Cape Mount County and Peter Gbeneweleh of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Grand Kru County.
Others are George S. Wiles of the 7th Judicial Circuit Court in Grand Gedeh County; Onesimus Roland Dahn of the 8th Judicial Circuit Court in Nimba County; Joe S. Barkon of the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court in Grand Bassa County, and Zuballah A. Kizeku of the 16th Judicial Circuit Court in Gbarpolu County.
The rest include Onesimus Banwon of the 14th Judicial Circuit Court in RiverCess County; and Ciapha Carey of the 11th Judicial Circuit Court in Bomi County, among other specialized courts judges.