Liberia: Supreme Court Halts Associate Justice’s Confirmation

— As Unity Party files a request for a writ of prohibition

The confirmation process for Justice Minister Frank Musah Dean’s ascendency to the Supreme Court bench has been temporarily halted as the high court issued a stay order. The Supreme Court, through the Justice-In-Chambers, Jamesetta Wolokollie, made the decision after the incoming ruling Unity Party filed a Petition for a Writ of Prohibition requesting the halt of Dean’s confirmation as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia.

The petition writ of prohibition was filed on January 2, 2024 by UP through its Chairman, Rev. Luther Tarpeh, National Secretary-General Amos Tweh, and all other officials of the party in Monrovia, against the “Liberian Senate, by and through its President, Jewel Howard Taylor, and Protemp Albert T. Chie, as well as the nominee.”

Reports emerged suggesting that the Senate was planning to expedite the confirmation process, which was set to begin last week. The Senate’s decision to hastily start the confirmation was reached during a session early last week when Senator Simeon Taylor of Grand Cape Mount County proffered a motion for President Weah’s communication on Dean’s nomination to be sent to the Judiciary, Human Rights, Claims, and Petition Committee for further action.

Dean, the Justice Minister and Attorney General of Liberia, was nominated by President George Weah on the 26th of December 2023, following the resignation of Associate Justice Joseph Nagbe from the Supreme Court’s Bench. Nagbe, who requested early retirement due to poor health, was nominated to the Supreme Court Bench and confirmed by the Senate in August 2018, taking the place of retired Associate Justice Philip A Z Banks. 

Dean’s nomination has generated criticism and skepticism, raising concerns about the legitimacy and timing of the nomination. Critics argue that the nomination contradicts President Weah’s own Presidential Directive, which suspended new employment contracts and promotions during the transition period. 

Some say the President’s motive(s) may not align with the public interest or the principles outlined in his earlier directive.

The critics also argue that Weah’s action “speaks volumes” because 11 of 29 Senators lost in their bid for re-election, something that amounts to a vote of no confidence in their abilities to confirm a new Associate Justice.

But supporters of the President maintain that he has the constitutional authority to nominate and appoint officials. They highlight that Weah remains the President until the incoming president is inaugurated, and executive powers are vested in him until that moment.

They refer to relevant articles 50 and 54 in the Constitution that grant the President the power to make such nominations.

Another aspect of the debate revolves around whether it is politically prudent or expedient for an outgoing president to make such a nomination in the final days of his term. Some argue that the focus should be on the character and reputation of the nominee, emphasizing competency and integrity in the role of an Associate Justice.

Veteran broadcast journalist Julius Kanubah expressed his support for the President's authority to nominate a new Associate Justice. However, he raises important questions regarding the political prudence and expediency of such a nomination considering the President's limited time in office.

Kanubah emphasized that it is crucial to examine the motives and intentions of the nominee, as his confirmation by the Senate and appointment by the President will greatly influence the interpretation of laws in the country.

Regarding the argument over whether the President violated his directive as a result of Dean’s nomination, Kanubah argued that the Presidential Directive does not encompass the President himself or Executive Powers, but serves as guidance for government entities. He said the President, as the issuer of the directive, cannot use it to undermine their own Executive Powers, which are enshrined in the Constitution.

In support of his stance, Kanubah cites Article 2 of the Constitution, which asserts that any laws or regulations conflicting with its provisions are void. Additionally, Kanubah urged the focus to shift toward evaluating the nominee's character, reputation, competency, and integrity.

He stressed the importance of these qualities in an Associate Justice and questioned the extent to which the nominee can be trusted to deliver impartial justice. Kanubah believes that answers to these critical questions are central to determining who should become an Associate Justice and the potential consequences for the administration of justice in Liberia.

Dean, who, as Minister of Justice, is also Dean of the Supreme Court Bar, has an extensive legal background and has been an esteemed member of the legal community for over three decades.