Dissonance between spirit of the law and letter of the law (or lack thereof), is the crux of case between Bomi Lawmakers and Rep. Snowe
Lawyers representing Montserrado County District #6 Representative Edwin Melvin Snowe on Wednesday argued before the Supreme Court that they should not reverse the National Elections Commission’s decision to qualify Snowe to contest in the Bomi County District #1 elections scheduled for October. Their reason: ruling against their client would be tantamount to enacting a new law where, they claim, there is no law, an action which is out of the mandate of the Judiciary. However, lawyers representing Bomi County lawmakers, Sen. Sando Johnson and Rep. S. Gaya Karmo, contend that the Supreme Court’s endorsement of the NEC’s decision in Snowe’s favor could open a floodgate “that defeat the intent of the framers of the Constitution.”
The arguments have reached a level of glaring dissonance between what the intent of the law is and what the law actually says (or does not say, in this case). And either side is cautioning the Supreme Court on the constitutional ramifications of a decision in either direction. This is on the heels of the just ended row between the Legislature and the Supreme Court, where the former accused the latter of usurping the function of lawmaking, after over turning a decision by the National Elections Commission.
Three of the five justices, including Chief Justice Francis Saye Korkpor, Associate Justices Philip A. Z. Banks, and Jamesetta Howard-Wolokollie, attended last Wednesday’s hearing of the case. Justices Kabineh Muhammad Ja’neh distanced himself from the hearing, while Justice Sie-A-Nyene Youh, who is also the spouse of Rep. Snowe, recused herself.
The NEC recently qualified Rep. Snowe to contest as a representative aspirant for Bomi County District #1, even though he is the sitting lawmaker for Montserrado County District #6. The NEC’s decision was challenged by Senator Sando Johnson of Bomi County and Rep. Gayah Karmo of Bomi County District #1, and is now before the Supreme Court.
Article 30 of the 1986 Constitution provides that Liberian citizens who meet the following qualifications are eligible to become members of the Legislature: (a) for the Senate, must attain the age of 30 and for the House of Representatives, must attain the age of 25; (b) be domiciled in the country or constituency to be represented not less than a year prior to the time of the election and be a taxpayer.
In his argument, Cllr. Sannoh, who is a former Justice Minister, said there is no law preventing a sitting lawmaker from contesting another constituency, because “the law is silent on the issue,” adding: “And you should not do anything to reverse the NEC’s action. Doing so will be enacting a new law and it is not your responsibility to enact laws, because your role is to only interpret the law.”
After Sannoh’s statement, Justice Philip A. Z. Banks in response said, “We will not make any new law, as there is no law that prevents a sitting lawmaker from registering and contesting in another constituency (district).” Justice Banks clarified that, “My view on this matter does not mean that I have already taken a side or render my judgment because I have not made my own decision about the matter.”
At Wednesday’s deliberation, Associate Justice Sie-A-Nyene Youh publicly announced her recusal from hearing the matter because she is Snowe’s wife. Making public her decision, Justice Youh said, “I want this to reflect on the record of the court that I am recusing myself from this case.” According to the statute, justices, judges, and magistrates should recuse themselves if they have personal biases concerning anyone in a case; have independent knowledge of the facts in a dispute; work on the case as a private or government lawyer; and if they or their close relatives have an interest in the case.
Further to his argument, Cllr. Sannoh said Article 30 (b) provides that the aspirant should be domiciled (resident) in the county or constituency to be represented not less than one year prior to the time of the election and be a taxpayer. “This law does not in no way point to sitting lawmakers, it only says the person should have resided in the constituency that he or she wants to register and contest for not less than one year and must be a taxpayer,” the former Justice Minister argued. He explained that Snowe in August 2016 wrote the NEC informing the electoral body of his decision to change his domicile from Montserrado County District#6 to Bomi County District#1, which communication gave him the right to contest in the district.
“Snowe has business and properties in District#1 and he is paying his taxes there…if he desires to contest there he has not violated any portion of that article,” Sannoh argued. “If you accept to deny Snowe his constitutional right to movement and participation, that is equal to making an ex-post-facto law which should stop him from contesting the 2017 presidential and legislative elections,” Sannoh contended.
Ex-post-facto refers to laws adopted after an act is committed – making it illegal, although it was legal when done, or increases the penalty for a crime after it is committed. Such laws, Sannoh argued, are specifically prohibited by the Article 21 (a) of the constitution, which states: “No person shall be made subject to any law or punishment which was not in effect at the time of the commission of an offense, nor shall the Legislature enact any bill of attainder or ex-post-facto law.”
In counterargument, Cllr. David B. Gibson, representing the two Bomi County lawmakers, said the framers of the Constitution understood the importance of such an article considering the historical tendency of lawmakers misrepresenting their constituencies. “Snowe is in complete violation of the Constitution to be a sitting lawmaker and being qualified by the NEC to register and contest in another constituency where he is not domiciled,” Cllr. Gibson argued.
He said Snowe is a sitting representative for Montserrado County District #6 and cannot contest in Bomi County District #1, although he agreed that there is no law preventing a sitting lawmaker from registering and contesting in another constituency. According to Gibson, if Snowe wants to contest, he should have ended his six –year tenure as representative of Montserrado County District #6 before applying to contest in Bomi County District #1, which he argued is a violation of the article. “To domicile in Bomi County means that he has abandoned the people of Montserrado County District #6, which if accepted will be opening a floodgate that will defeat the intent of the framers of the Constitution,” Gibson contended. “Right now, Snowe still answers as District#6 Representative whenever the roll call of lawmakers is called during our Plenary,” Gibson quoted his clients’ argument.
Meanwhile, there was no definite time announced for the ruling into the matter by Chief Justice Francis Saye Korkpor. “This is election matter and we need to determine it very quickly, but you know that we are only three handling the matter,” Justice Korkpor said.