Liberia: Chief Justice-Designate Yuoh's Challenge

Chief Justice designate  Sie-A-Nyene Gaypay Yuoh

--- Recovering the Judiciary from Corruption, Manipulation, and Human Right Abuse

President George Weah may have nominated Associate Justice Sie-A-Nyene Yuoh to be the country's next Chief Justice but the judiciary branch she is about to inherit is beset with issues of corruption. 

This is something that both Justice Yuoh and retiring Chief Justice Francis Korkpor know very well — the latter having chided judges and magistrates for corrupt practices that have created a dark cloud over what should otherwise be an honorable and transparent judiciary.

“You have to engage us and we will engage you to maintain the confidence in the justice system of our country and to work together for the peace and stability of our country,” Korkpor said at the opening of the May Term of Criminal Courts in June in the presence of judges. 

While Justice Yuoh is not a stranger to this confidence crisis that her soon-to-be predecessor is talking about, her appointment as chief Justice gives her enormous power to correct the negative public perception of the judicial system.

In the eyes of the public, the court is not independent and this is something the retiring Chief Justice has somehow admitted to although he never shies away from also defending the justice system, sometimes in the same breath. 

Chief among the many problems driving this image issue is the issue of corruption that has beclouded the judiciary.  Corruption in the public eye has weakened the capacity of judicial systems to guarantee fair trials — casting a devastating effect on the judicial system as a whole.  

In 2021, Yuoh’s colleague, Associate Justice Yusuf D. Kaba, made it clear that the Judiciary is the “Black Cow” of the government — warning judges to change their behaviors or risk losing public confidence, something he said could cause chaos in the country.

Then came the Chief Justice, decrying judges' involvement in bribery and cautioned them to desist from the practice because it tarnished the image of the judiciary during the opening of the May 2021 Term of all the Criminal Courts in Montserrado County.

His rare admission then came after the US Department of State, in its 2021 Country Report on Human Rights, cast a dark cloud over the independence of the judiciary as a result of corruption.

Korkpor's vocal outburst about this image crisis led him to again use the opening of the May 2022 Term of Courts for all Criminal Courts in Monts. County to accuse judges of failing to execute their judicial duties in a timely fashion as they keep in jail individuals accused of a crime in jail over the period allowed by statute without trial – a practice he says “amounts to the human rights violation.”

"Our law provides for speedy trial; there are adequate provisions of law for the adjudication of cases. “It is unacceptable and a human rights violation. These are some of the things that are causing overcrowding at prison facilities.” Chief Justice Korkpor said then. “This needs to stop. It has divided the family. And parents are no longer able to provide for their kids, pay their school fees, and even house rent, because of the failure to afford them a speedy and fair trial. This paints a negative picture of our justice system."

This and other issues are what Yuoh, who is now Chief Justice designate, will have to encounter.  

But there is one more issue. Some judges in the lower courts, including the magistrates, have already started to reap the fruits of their misdeeds. Recently, a judge sounded a request to the Chief Justice for state security protection for all lower judges, for fear of potential reprisal attacks against them by aggrieved parties due to rulings handed down under their respective gavels.

If confirmed by the Senate, Yuoh will be the third female Chief Justice in the history of the Liberian Judiciary. Her female predecessors include former Justices Frances Johnson Morris (Allison) and Gloria Musu Scott.

She is currently the third justice in succession to the Supreme Court with judicial oversight on Grand Cape Mount County, which is home of the 5th Judicial Circuit which sits on criminal, civil, and probate matters.

The 5th Judicial Circuit has three (3) specialized Courts and oversees the functions of a total of five (5) magisterial courts located across the county.  The other is Bomi County, which is the home of the 11th Judicial Circuit which sits on criminal, civil, and probate matters. The 11th Judicial Circuit has three (3) specialized Courts and oversees the functions of a total of two (2) magisterial courts located across the county.

While Gbarpolu County is home to the 16th Judicial Circuit which sits on criminal and civil matters and is housed in the Judicial Complex in Bopolu City. The 16th Judicial Circuit has three (3) specialized courts and oversees the functions of a total of four (4) magisterial courts located across the county

Her task in restoring public trust as a chief justice if confirmed is heavy especially when corruption has become so entranced in the system with the higher bidder walking always ruling on their side. Such a practice undermines the justice system, which was designed to give every criminal defendant fair treatment. However, corruption in the system, which includes socioeconomic bias, undermines this ideal of fairness and lack of public trust. 

This comes as most of the country’s prisons are pretrial detainees with many being placed in jail without having their days in court.   The vast majority of them are from poor backgrounds -- signaling significantly biased against poor people.   

And crimes more typically committed by poor people are punished with greater harshness and longer prison sentences than those from the wealthy class.

Yuoh will also be inheriting a judiciary branch that Judge Nancy Sammy has warned is not being done to improve access to justice for millions of Liberians living in rural areas, as such situations undermine the rule of laws.  Sammy, who also presides over the 10th Judicial Circuit Court in Lofa County, noted that while justice might probably be in Montserrado County, it is missing in the rest of the counties because the process is hard to access. 

At the same time, she said, corruption in the judiciary makes matters worse. 

“Maybe only in Montserrado County, there is access to justice. But, people residing in the interior do not have access to justice,” Sammy said in May, adding, “it is disturbing that the country focuses too much on the top tier of the Judiciary instead of availing justice to millions of Liberians who need it in Liberia's rural areas.”

The US State Department in its 2020 Human report on Liberia made it that judges and magistrates across the country were subject to influence and engaged in corruption while deciding cases. 

It added that Judges 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.