The verbal advice by Associate Justice Jamesetta Wolokollie is contrary to Liberia’s Judicial Canon, but
The vast majority of judges who have viewed the media with fear and hesitance now have every legal right to publicly speak on a matter that is bordering on their reputation, integrity and some of the cases that are pending before them (judges), after part of the strictly forbidden Judicial Cannon was changed.
The Judicial Cannons of the Republic of Liberia, particularly Judicial Cannon Elven entitled, “Avoidance of Impropriety,” forbids judges from engaging the media. The cannon provides that, “It is improper for a judge to accept a loan from a lawyer even a mortgage having no investment interest. It is also improper for a judge to conduct a newspaper column or comment on current news items and matters of general interest. It is improper for him to permit live broadcast, electronic recordings, or taking of photographs of court proceedings.”
Announcing the change on Monday, August 10, at the official opening of the 2020 August Term of Criminal Courts, A, B, C, D, and E, Associate Justice Jamesetta Howard Wolokollie asked the judges if there is any law preventing them (judges) from speaking with the media. Justice Wolokollie, in the presence of judges, lawyers, and independent journalists assigned to report from the courts, asked: “Are there any laws that when the media comes to you on a matter, you should refuse to talk to them?”
“I am asking you, judges,” Justice Wolokollie said with emphasis. “Because, you should be open on the matter that you are handling except for matter that you have not yet decided in whose favor it is.” The justice continues, “If the media has any issue about corruption, be free to speak with them.” Justice Wolokollie openly told her audience that, “As for me, I don’t have any problem if a journalist were to ask me to comment on a specific case, which is ongoing.”
“You should speak to the media on a matter that is before you as a judge,” Wolokollie said, easing fear among judges that has restricted them from speaking with the media.
However, some senior Supreme Court lawyers spoke to the Daily Observer on condition of anonymity have contrary views to Justice Wolokollie’s change of the judicial cannon. One of the lawyers believes that the judiciary as a whole and many individual judges are under attack for exercising their proper judicial functions. “In this highly politicized environment,” the lawyer said, “the judiciary stands out as the ‘rational’ branch of government, dispassionately applying rules and interpreting laws within a constrained, informed discipline.”
The lawyer continued: “There is a legitimate concern that by engaging the media, judges could be drawn into the politicized and emotionally charged public arena.”
Another lawyer said for years judges have engaged in “judicial outreach” in an effort to engage the public in the work of the courts. “What challenges the judges and the public is the general inability to answer the types of questions that the public really has about courts and current legal issues.” The lawyer recollected that judicial appointment brings with it substantial retirement from the world and a degree of public and social isolation so that the judge is said not to be compromised or the judge’s impartiality brought into question.”
Another lawyer, in his intervention, said that it is important to keep the Judiciary in this country isolated from the controversies of the day. “As long as a Judge keeps silent, his reputation for wisdom and impartiality remains inaccessible, but every utterance which he makes in public, except in the course of the actual performance of his judicial duties, must necessarily bring him within the focus of criticism,” the lawyer said. According to him, there is no need for a judge to speak to the media, “Because they ‘speak’ through comments made in an open court or through written decisions.”
“Journalists must rely on the official case proceedings as their primary information source. They have a designated “public information officer” who can answer questions that judges may not answer to,” the lawyer advised.