Liberia: Senate Confirms Chief Justice Designate, But…

Chief Justice designate  Sie-A-Nyene Gaypay Yuoh

… Her confirmation would not immediately be communicated to the President since Grand Gedeh County Senator Zoe Pennue yesterday filed a motion for reconsideration.

The Senate voted to confirm Associate Justice   Sie-A-Nyene G. Yuoh, as Chief Justice, etching her name in history as the third woman ever to serve at the helm of the nation's highest court.

Yuoh's confirmation as the 26th Chief justice of Liberia received bipartisan backing, with a final vote of 20 senators in favor and five against. 

Her appointment to the high court is a controversial component of President George Weah's legacy, now that each branch of the Government of Liberia during his administration is a southeasterner; moreso that the Supreme Court bench, with Youh’s appointment and now confirmation, comprises at least 80 percent Southeasterners. 

By her elevation to Chief Justice from Associate Justice, it remains to be seen whether President Weah will fill the Associate Justice vacancy with yet another southeastern nominee.  Yuoh will succeed retired Chief Justice Francis Saye Korpor, who left the court with a mixed legacy.   Korkpor retires pursuant to Article 72(b) of the Constitution of Liberia, as he attains the age of 70 on Sept. 5. 

Yuoh served as Associate Justice on the Korpor bench for about nine years before being nominated to the post by Weah two weeks ago. Youh's confirmation augments the Southeasterners' control of the nation's highest court, making it four out of five. Out of the four Associate Justices of the Court, two are directly from the southeast, while another two have ancestry links to the region. 

The Southeasterners are native to Maryland, Grand Kru, River Gee, Sinoe, Grand Gedeh, and River Cess counties, but this region of Liberia is extremely poor despite producing at least two of the country's presidents.   Youh's confirmation also completes the Southeasterners' control of the three branches of the current government.  Weah hails from Grand Kru; House Speaker Bhofal Chambers is from Maryland, and Senate Pro-Tempore Albert Tugbe Chie is from Grand Kru County.

The Chief Justice designate and Associate Justice Yussif Kaba are the two individuals with ancestry linked to the Southeast. Kabba's ancestry is from Rivercess County, though he was born in Montserrado County. 

Associate Justices Joseph N. Nagbe and Jamesetta Wolokollie are natives of Maryland and Sinoe counties, respectively. Wolokollie and Youh were appointed to the bench by former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

To what degree this would concentrate judicial power in the southeastern part of the country remains to be seen.   However, Yuoh's confirmation information will not immediately be sent to the President, as Grand Gedeh County Senator Zoe Pennue yesterday filed a motion for reconsideration, which is aimed at challenging legislative actions.

Pennue's motion is expected to be tried within 72 hours and this allows him to decide whether he will challenge or withdraw it.  Regardless of the decision he made,  the success of his motion in reversing the majority of his colleagues' decisions is nearly impossible. 

This is because nearly all motions of reconsideration filed in the Senate after votes fail to achieve the desired outcome as the previous decision usually stands.  Every motion to reconsider, according to the Senate rules, must be decided by a majority vote. 

It has been claimed in the Senate that Pennue took the decision to make it appear that a southeastern lawmaker is against his region wielding control over the three branches of government and more specifically over the Supreme Court.  However, the  Daily Observer cannot confirm this.

Youh's confirmation came after the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced her nomination, asking the full body to make a decision. The committee, headed by Senator Varney Sherman,  said in its report that she is qualified and has the requisite experience to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia. 

The Committee noted that the Chief Justice designate is not only a lawyer who has met the basic Constitutional requirement of Article 68(b) of the 1986 Constitution, of being a Counselor of the Supreme Court Bar, who has practiced for at least five years but also a lawyer who has practiced law for 41 years as a trial lawyer, transaction lawyer and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court for the last nine (9) years.

Meanwhile, the Judiciary, which Youh is expected to lead, is beset with issues of corruption and this is something she knows very well.  Her predecessor,  Korkpor, did not hide this as he regularly chided judges and magistrates for corrupt practices that have created a dark cloud over what should otherwise be an honorable and transparent judiciary.

While Yuoh is not a stranger to this confidence crisis, her showing as Chief Justice would give 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 shied 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 Korkpor, 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.”