Cllr. Sayma Syrenius Cephus, Deputy Agriculture Minister for Regional Development, Research and Extension and Cllr. Edwin Kla Martin, Monsterrado County Attorney-designate, all qualified lawyers, on Thursday escaped possible contempt charges after making an unconditional apology to justices of the Supreme Court.
Cephus and Martin were said to have disrespected the court when they instructed a non-lawyer secretary to inform the justices through a letter about their absence from the hearing of an appeal they had filed before the Supreme Court.
The appeal was against a judgment of Judge Boima Kontoe of the Civil Law Court ‘A’ at the Temple of Justice in the case of the True Whig Party (TWP) and the Republic of Liberia over the legitimate ownership of the E.J. Roye building.
Kontoe had earlier ruled in favor of the government, declaring that it is the legitimate owner of the E.J. Roye building. The ownership has been in dispute for years.
At Thursday’s contempt proceedings hearing, Cllr. Cephus, who spoke on behalf of the two, repeatedly begged the court for mercy over their action.
“We were out of the country and could not attend our appeal hearing; this was why we decided to ask our office secretary to write you justices telling you about our inability to be at the hearing,” Deputy Minister Cephus said. “We have nothing to defend, but to offer our unconditional apology to the court.”
Those who are convicted of contempt of court face fines and potential jail terms, but that did not happen in the case of the two government officials, whose appeal was accepted by the court, with a warning to them to desist from said disobedience to the court.
Chief Justice Francis Korkpor, who responded on behalf of his colleagues, said that the action of Cephus and Martin was “legally wrong and contemptuous, but we have to accept the apology.”
But following that apology, the two lawyers pleaded with the court about their intention to discontinue their services as lawyers for the TWP for further hearing of the appeal, because they were now government officials and could not plead a case against the very institution they were part of. That request was also accepted by the court, which later gave the TWP the opportunity to bring forward names of other lawyers to represent them during the appeal hearing.
Until the 1980 coup that toppled the government of the late President William R. Tolbert, the E. J. Roye Building was the headquarters of the TWP, which was then the ruling party, but the building was later claimed by the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) on behalf of the Liberian government.
Reginald Goodridge, TWP national chairman, has sought to have his party’s rights declared, claiming that the property was confiscated by the PRC government under Decree #11 in 1980, following the overthrow of the Tolbert government.
Government lawyers have, however, argued that by virtue of the confiscation, the ownership power of the Building should immediately be turned over to the government. “Article 97 expressly legitimatized Decree #11 promulgated by the PRC government and mandated that no executive, legislative and judicial or administrative actions be taken against those involved in the coup,” they argued.
The article, they added, was intended to give amnesty to the coup makers from any prosecution and acknowledged that the court has jurisdiction over matters related to the declaratory judgment; but it lacks the power to question the decree or to give orders or grant any remedy or relief in respect to what the TWP wants the court to do.
“If the PRC’s decree is wrong and other acts committed by the military junta were wrong as claimed by Goodridge, it remains a historical wrong which the court is powerless to correct,” they said.
According to state lawyers, a referendum on the constitution was held on July 3, 1984, and subsequently approved by 98.6 percent of voters with a turnout of 82 percent. “The people of Liberia consciously decided to keep moving and to put the past behind them, and said that the action taken by the military junta pursuant to any of its decrees shall not be questioned in any courts or proceedings of whatsoever name within the country, the people’s decision is mandatory and not discretion; and we must abide by it,” state lawyers said.
In counter-argument, Goodridge’s lawyer said the article does not cover real property like the E. J. Roye Building. “It goes without saying that the confiscation of a real property by the junta on April 12, 1980, was transitory in possession and did not convey any title deed to a third party, which is why in May 1984, through an Executive Order, all properties were returned to their original owners,” the lawyer contended. He argued that if the Building was confiscated and remained the property of the government, “What was the legal basis for them to request for the original warranty deed from the TWP in a so-called MOU agreement?”