Liberia: Chief Justice Yuoh Orders 'Finance Minister Tweah Arrested'

The Chief Justice’s decision was triggered by “Minister Tweah’s continued refusal to… appear before the Court to address issues relating to the  two months unpaid salaries” for the Judiciary.

Chief Justice Sie-A-Nyene Yuoh, with the approval of the three other justices of the Supreme Court on Monday, November 7, unanimously agreed to arrest Finance Minister Samuel D. Tweah, Jr., pursuant to a contempt order issued by the Chief Justice.

In Tweah’s arrest order, a copy of which is in the possession of the Daily Observer, the Chief Justice said the minister is impeding the functions of the courts, and creating a constitutional crisis for the Judicial Branch of the Government.

Article 72 ( a) of the 1986 Constitution states: “The Justices of the Supreme Court and all other judges shall receive such salaries, allowances, and benefits as shall be established by law. Such salaries shall be subject to taxes as defined by law, provided that they shall not otherwise be diminished. Allowances and benefits paid to Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of subordinate courts may by law be increased but may not be diminished, except under a national program enacted by the Legislature; nor shall such allowance and benefits be subject to taxation.”

The Judicial Canons, particularly chapter six, titled: GOVERNMENT PAID OFFICIALS, provides, that, “The judge is a government paid official and must be paid adequately; he holds an exalted position which prevents him from engaging in any business pursuit, therefore he must be provided with the necessities of life and with every means by which he will be able to perform his judicial duties effectively, efficiently, and speedily."

"The judge must be encouraged and given the incentive to live a decent and dignified life that would prevent financial and domestic worries and enable him to repel temptation which is susceptible to human life. As the priest of justice, a judge should not be given the cause to be corrupted in the performance of his judicial duties so as to be justified for any disciplinary action taken against him if found deficient in those qualities."

The justices, in Tweah’s arrest order, instructed the Marshall, saying, “by directive of the Full Bench of the Supreme Court, you are hereby  commanded to arrest the living body of Samuel D. Tweah, Minister of Finance and Development Planning, to show cause why he should not be held in contempt of court for impeding the function of the court and creating a constitutional crisis for the Judiciary.”

The arrest order however did not include any of Tweah’s deputies; therefore, enforcement will not take place until the minister returns.  Meanwhile, a source in the office of the Finance Minister, who requested anonymity, told the Daily Observer that the Minister “respects the Supreme Court and the matter has been handled.” 

Yuoh’s decision came after she and her colleagues concluded a week of consultative meetings with judges and judicial staff, over the delay on the part of Tweah, to settle the Judicial Branch of two months’ salaries —  covering September and October.

During one of the many meetings with the judicial staff, on, October 27, Yuoh assured her staffers that she was going to see to it that they got their September and October salaries, before November 7, a promise that did not materialize.  A highly placed staff at the office of the chief justice informed the Daily Observer that the Chief Justice’s decision was triggered by “Minister Tweah’s continued refusal to honor their directive, instructing him to appear before the Court, to address issues relating to the  two months unpaid salaries.”

Before Tweah’s arrest order, the government, in 2019, passed into law the National Remuneration Standardization Act of 2019. Among a number of contrary views, some opined that the reduction of judges’ salaries, allowances, and other emoluments would contribute to the increase in corruption among judges. 

Before the implementation of the salary harmonization, judges rejected the Act and filed a joint lawsuit against the government to the Civil Court. The judges described the harmonization of their salaries as “wrongful and illegal abolition and withholding of” their allowances.  But, that lawsuit was later withdrawn without reason.

However, they may have abandoned the suit, because the Government may be protected by a caveat in Article 72(a), which prohibits the allowances and benefits paid to judges from being diminished “except under a national program enacted by the Legislature”, hence the National Remuneration Standardization Act of 2019.

The Weah administration argued at the time that the National Remuneration Standardization Act of 2019 “is aimed at ensuring that salaries, allowances, and benefits across government are uniformed and equitable for work done, to ensure that the inequality gap in government is narrowed and controlled to the extent that public resources are managed properly and efficiently.” 

Prior to the salary harmonization coming into force, judges were each paid monthly remuneration as follows: a taxable salary of L$$22,950; a non-taxable allowance of US$5,000; and 350 gallons of gasoline, which was later reduced to 135 gallons.

But, with the act, judges are now being paid the following remunerations: a taxable salary of US$5,000; allowance abolished; and the 135 gallons of gasoline maintained.

Essentially, the judges have suddenly experienced a major spike in their taxable income, while their US$5,000 non-taxable allowance has been diminished to zero, leaving them with only the 135 gallons of gasoline as non-taxable benefit. This does not bode well for most judges who, by the Judicial Canon — the rules governing the judiciary — are prohibited from engaging in any other business pursuit, and must maintain good moral character.