Liberia: ‘CPP Framework a Private Matter, Why Involve the Supreme Court?’

Supreme Court of Liberia.

.... Associate Justice Justice Yuoh tried seeking answers from the parties’ lawyers to explain the legal reason why the Supreme Court should get involved

The Supreme Court has heard oral arguments relating to a ruling from the National Elections Commission that seeks to bar the Unity Party and All Liberian party from contesting next year's election. 

At stake is whether the court will reverse the decision of the electoral body’s ruling which upholds the doctrine of the inviolability of contracts — a doctrine the Minister of Justice has argued is invalid once it seeks to contract away constitutional rights or violate public policy, “hence unenforceable."

But based on the doctrine, the NEC Board of Commissioners earlier reaffirmed its hearing officer’s decision to bar the Unity Party (UP) from fielding a candidate in the Lofa County senatorial by-election on the ground that the framers of the Constitution, as well as the elections law, did not compel political parties to submit their governing documents to the NEC simply as a mere formality. 

The NEC’s decision, if it stands, could impact the UP and its political leader, former Vice President Joseph Boakai's 2023 plan to contest against President George Weah once more for the presidency. 

The NEC ruling barring UP and the All Liberian Party (ALP) was in response to a complaint filed by the Alternative National Congress (ANC) and Musa Bility’s faction of the Liberty Party (LP), asking the electoral body to invoke Section 8.5 (2) of the CPP framework document as a means of rejecting and denying “any application from the ALP and UP to field candidates in their names in any election until the expiry of the 2023 elections, including up to six (6) months thereafter, same being the agreed contractual life of the CPP.”

The doctrine of inviolability of contract states that a valid contract is binding upon the parties and can only be modified or terminated by consent of the parties or if provided for by the law. The parties to a contract must, unless legally excused from performance, perform their respective duties under the contract. 

But UP and ALP — once members of the CPP before withdrawing — have argued that they cannot be bound by the CPP framework agreement because they did not sign the document filed with the NEC and that the same is a product of fraud — an accusation Alexander Cummings and the Alternative National Congress have denied — and is currently on trial at the Monrovia City Court, on allegations of tempering. 

At the May 5 hearing, which lasted nearly three hours, the Supreme Court's five Justices used the session to ask questions directly to the parties’ lawyers, and for them to highlight arguments that they view as particularly important. 

The Justices’ questions were directed to  UP and ALP, known as the appellants on one side, and the Bility faction of LP, the ANC, known as the appellees on the other.

During this period, Justice Sie-A-Nyene Yuoh, who was appointed to the Court by the UP-led government under former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, grabbed the opportunity and asked some striking questions.

Among the questions asked, Justice Youh asked the parties to explain the legal reason why the case reached the Supreme Court, when the CPP framework document is a private party contract. 

However, none of the parties’ lawyers could provide a direct answer to the question, leaving the justice to wonder about the rationale of the case before the Supreme Court.

The Justice added that the CPP framework document is just a private contract between two private parties. 

“Do you expect the Supreme Court to look at somebody's private business?  Are these the bases to bring this matter to the Supreme Court? I still cannot understand,” Justice Yuoh asked. “Do you want the Supreme Court to interpret the provision embedded into a private party contract that is a purely private agreement? How do we get here?

“So what makes it a violation of the Constitution? Or the violation of the right of another private party?  How did this case reach the Supreme Court to interpret private party arrangements,” Justice Yuoh wondered. 

The issue about Constitutional violation raised by Justice Youh is about NEC's decision to prohibit itself from proceeding with any action regarding the fielding of the UP’s candidate for the Lofa County Senatorial by-election until the Supreme Court considers the constitutional questions involved. 

The Constitutional question is regarding the legal opinion of the Minister of Justice, Cllr. Frank Musah Dean, who warned publicly that while the country is under an obligation to guarantee the inviolability of contracts, agreements that seek to contract away constitutional rights are unconstitutional and violate public policy, “hence unenforceable”. 

As it relates to the complaint against UP and ALP, which NEC backed by invoking Section 8.5 (2) of the CPP framework document as a means of rejecting and denying any application from the two parties, Minister Dean argued: “The right to freely associate with or refuse to associate in political parties, trade unions, and other organizations, is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 17 of our Constitution." 

“No contract can inhibit the exercise of this fundamental right. Article 1 of our Constitution guarantees the people the right to freely elect leaders of their choice through free, fair, and democratic elections,” Min. Dean said when the case was still being decided by NEC.  “In the process, political parties are guaranteed the right to field candidates; while individuals may register as independent candidates.”

Also asking questions, Chief Justice Francis Korkpor, another Supreme Court Justice appointed during the UP-led administration, frowned on the parties’ lawyers for committing what he described as a major legal mistake. 

When Chief Justice Korkpor asked the parties' lawyers whether they had exchanged a brief (synopsis, or summary) of their respective arguments before coming to the Supreme Court, they responded negatively. 

“How do you expect me, the Chief Justice, to sit on an argument that you people are yet to exchange brief,” he asked. “This attitude does not fit in our legal system. We are not politicians to have a solution in the absence of the sharing of each other's brief.” 

According to Korkpor, the brief should have been circulated to each of the parties forty-eight hours before the hearing into the oral arguments commenced.

“How do you expect us to decide within seven days of the hearing of the oral arguments,” Chief Justice Korkpor again asked. 

Meanwhile, the Justices have reserved ruling in the matter without a specific time and date.