Chief Justice Louis Arthur Grimes’ Address at the Opening of the April Term of Court, 1934

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He was one of Liberia's most celebrated Chief Justices.  But that was not the only place that he made his mark.  Louis Arthur Grimes (1883-1948)  also served in the administration of President C.D.B. King as Attorney General, like his father before him, Counselor Henry W. Grimes, who was Attorney General during the administration of President Joseph J. Cheeseman.

The Grimeses were close to the Cheesemans.  As a young attorney for Montserrado Louis Arthur was also City Solicitor for Monrovia.  He paid frequent visits to Grand Bassa County to plead cases. At the time, the home of President Cheeseman in Edina was a "must see" for anyone visiting Grand Bassa.  And because he knew his father's former boss, President Cheeseman, Mr. Grimes regularly visited the Cheesemans.

It was there, believe it or not, that he found the young lady who would become his lifelong companion and mother of his children, three of whom became eminent citizens of Liberia.

Young Victoria Cheeseman, who hailed from Jondu, Garwula Chiefdom, Grand Cape Mount County, was a member of the Kiazolu Clan of her father, Ambollai Fahnbulleh.  According to the Historical Dictionary of Liberia, Mrs. Grimes, who was born in Jondu in February 1869, spent the first years in that town.  She was later adopted by President Cheeseman and his wife Mary Ann Crusoe Cheeseman during their visit to Cape Mount in 1895.  They named her Victoria Elizabeth Cheeseman.  She lived in the Executive Mansion until the President died a year later, on November 12, 1896.  She was then sent to the Brierly Memorial Episcopal School in Cape Palmas.

It was in the Cheeseman home in Edina that she met and befriended Louis Arthur Grimes.  They later married and the couple was blessed with five children.  The eldest surviving son, Henry, became an electronics engineer and worked for many years with the Liberia Telecommunications, and later with the Voice of America.  Another son was J. Rudolph Grimes, who became Secretary of State during the Tubman administration.  The Grimes'  daughter, Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman, became the first African woman to head a university, the University of Liberia.
Louis Arthur Grimes was best known for three main accomplishments. The first was as Attorney General, and his Opinions in that position are still referred to in cases and in the Law School.

The second was his representation of President Edwin Barclay and Liberia in the League of Nations negotiations, when Liberia was threatened with being mandated (colonized) by some major powers
European powers.  This was because of the Fernando Po Crisis of 1929-1930, when the King and Yancy administration were found guilty of forced labor.  It was the legal, political and diplomatic brilliance of President Barclay and his Secretary of State, Louis Arthur Grimes, that saved Liberia from being taken over by a European power.

That historic feat is regarded as the greatest accomplishment in Mr. Edwin Barclay's legacy as President.
Mr. Grimes' third distinction was his tenure as Chief Justice, from 1934 to 1948.  His was one of the most highly respected courts in the nation's history.  One of the landmark cases he decided was that involving P.G. Wolo, a leading official during Edwin Barclay's administration, who was trying to divorce his beautiful, elegant, highly respected but illiterate wife, Juah Weeks.  Mr. Wolo took what he considered the shortcut to the divorce, by having the House of Representatives grant him the divorce.  Juah Wolo wisely appealed to the Supreme Court of Liberia.  In one of the landmark cases in Liberian jurisprudence, Chief Justice Grimes, in his opinion in that case, ruled that the House of Representatives had absolutely no jurisdiction in the case because divorce is a judicial, not a legislative function.  President Barclay got angry with the Chief Justice, who was his cousin, but there was absolutely nothing the President could do about it!

Today in History & Us, we publish Mr. Grimes' Address at the Opening of the April Term of the Supreme Court, delivered in 1934:  Credit for this is due to Counselor Henry Reed Cooper, himself a former Chief Justice, who generously shared this historic Address with the Daily Observer.
The law school of the University of Liberia is named for Louis Arthur Grimes.

"We have met on the morrow of Easter Day, and within the octave of Good Friday. This is the season of the year when, more so that at any other, the spirit of self-sacrifice seems to pervade the air, and we are forcibly reminded of Him Who setting us the example of service gave utterance to the expression: “I am among you as He that serveth.”

The Supreme Court of Liberia is at the head of one the three co-ordinate branches of this Government. Some persons may be tempted to look upon a call to serve as one of the members of this Court as an elevation to a position of great honor and dignity, perhaps such a one would be right. Another ne may be carried away by the power inherent in the office, and that would be commendable providing such person is determine to use that power for good to the nest of his ability. But may not the coincidence of the Court’s having has to meet during Easter-tide suggest that the most correct way of regarding our elevation to these thigh offices is to regard it as a privilege to render greater and ever greater service?

Without having placed our ears to the ground in order to catch what people may say, the news had been borne up to these heights that most thoughtful and conservative people in the community, both friend and foe alike, have commended the present Bench for having as its last session made a very good beginning. While this should be encouraging to us, yet it should only stimulate us to grater endeavor not only to maintain the standard we have already set, but also to lift that standard higher from time to time.

For the past four years Liberia has been pilloried before civilized world as a nation in which there existed grave abuses, and was sadly in need of reform. It was not in Liberia alone that unsatisfactory conditions of the character complained of had been alleged to have arisen, nor in Liberia at all that such conditions were charged to have been observed in their worst form. During those four revolts, insurrections and civil strife have occurred in some nations to an extent that our people have never dreamed, and the bloodshed and suffering in some of those countries have been beyond the comprehension of any untraveled Liberia. In spite of this when, to refer to a most recent example, Monsieur Vandervelde, President of the Socialist International, telegraphed last month to Geneva asking for immediate intervention by the League if Nations between the Austrian government and the Austrian Socialists, the said league promptly replied that they could only act on the demand of the government. About the same time Sir John Simon, government, British Foreign Minister, made a statement with regard to the civil strife then prevailing in Austria in substantially the following terms: “But people as well as Parliament understood that one country cannot interfere in the internal affairs of another.” Although the principle of international law quoted from such eminent authority is incontrovertible, yet it has not been always invoked; sometimes it would appear not even remembered, in the dealings of sundry great nations with Liberia. Many lapses from the paths of national rectitude which when committed by one of the nations of a race that has reached a dominant position in world politics have been condoned as venial offenses, would, if permitted in Liberia, be stigmatized as moral sins.

 Although each and every one of us, as loyal and patriotic citizens, will, I am sure, do his utmost to assist in the reforms that have been instituted, and are being carried out to the best of our ability within the limit of our means, yet our greatest endeavor must be that field in which we have been specially selected to serve; namely, the Judiciary of the Republic. This branch of our government was subjected to severe criticism during most of the time Liberia was on the pillory; nor has that criticism as yet entirely ceased. Conscious of that fact and determined to do our utmost to retrieve the national honor, this Bench when reconstituted at the last term of this Court launched out with the objective of contributing its quota towards winning for the judiciary of the Republic an amount of confidence and respect which we hope will soon gain for us a place second to that of none other in the entire world. You may think the task stupendous, but it must be resolutely undertaken, and painstakingly followed, for the world demands of us, a Negro people infinitely more in any given field than it even expects from other people. Our ultimate ideal is to win for this Court such a reputation that the most untutored litigant, unable to afford the means of obtaining counsel, but satisfied that he, or she, ahs a just cause, will fell confident to appear in person at this bar, sanguine in the expectation that the merits of the cause will more than compensate for the emptiness of the purse, and that all so circumstanced will be able to rest assured that transparent justice will nevertheless be done.

Some of the most bitter attacks launched at our judiciary have has as their objective the abolition of our jury system. This subject ahs has my very careful attention.

It is perhaps true that in some cases the persons composing a panel have been devoid of that sense of moral responsibility without which one cannot nobly perform his duty in any sphere of life, and that is a problem that we shall have to tackle. But before recommending any remedy for dealing with such a problem I am calling a conference with the embers of the profession in Liberia in order that we may consult upon the situation, and collectively evolve a solution that will be effective.

On the other hand there are other cases, and these not a few, where the fault has been primarily that of the trial judge. Our judges too often shirk the responsibility which is their own, and try to lay the burden thereof upon the shoulders of the jury, forgetting that their functions are separate and distinct, and that each should shoulder his own responsibility.

Our Statute provides that:

“The trail of all mixed questions of law and fact shall be by a jury with the assistance of and under the direction of the Court, except as otherwise provided by law…” Rev. Stat 375.

Why “under the direction of the Court”? Because the jury is supposed to be a collection of untrained men taken from all and sundry avocations of life to come and consider, from the standpoint of the practical man, such matters of fact as are placed before them. They are not supposed to know, or even to have any training in, the science of law; and we cannot escape the fact that in very avocation of life it is the trained man who must guide and direct, and is responsible for the good and bad work of, those persons placed under his direction and control.

Hence “The opinion of the court upon questions of law shall be binding upon the jury.” Id. at 575. When a case is presented to the court it is up to the judge to decide what issues growing out of the pleadings are presented for the consideration and adjudication of the said court. His is then the responsibility, like a master mariner, to set the course and to see to it that all parties taking part in the trail, whether as litigants, witnesses, or jury, steer by the course so set; namely, the issues involved. If there is a disposition shown to depart from the course, he, the judge, must check it, if he makes a mistake in the setting the course, or if having correctly done so he does not check any attempt to depart therefrom, the error is his, and the responsibility therefore he cannot escape. To give then but one illustration tending to prove this theory, there can never be an appeal to this Court from an error committed by the litigant, a witness or a jury. Every appeal from any action of theirs must be to the trial judge, and it is only from a decision, or collection of decisions, of his which shall have ended in a final judgment against the party aggrieved, than an appeal can be taken to this Court. I have every reason to believe therefore that when our trail judges shall have realized how great is their responsibility, and shall direct the trials over which they preside with that scientific skill which it is their duty to evince, errors will be reduced to a minimum, and with thee other remedies we hope to be able to settle upon at this term the aspersions on our jury system will disappear.

When I had the honor of serving as Attorney General of Liberia, more than once I pointed out in my annual reports to the National Legislature the danger of permitting cases to drag on from term to term without being determined. In that of 2928 I said:

“It is true that cases have hung on undetermined in some of the principal countries of the world for longer than those hereinbefore specified; as, for example in England, which country today sets the pace with respect to the speed, and impartially, with which justice is administered. But even there so late as the latter part of the eighteenth century Warren Hastings returned from the organization of the states of India preparatory to the founding of the great Indian empire to find himself accused in 1788 two years afterwards that his trial was commenced, and for seven ling years said trail dragged on until when he was finally acquitted in 1795 his entire fortune had been squandered in the defence of himself."

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