– President sides with Justices in impeachment debacle
The impeachment crisis that has erupted in the country as a result of the opinion handed down in the case Karnwea vs National Elections Commission (NEC) by the five justices of the Supreme Court, is gradually reaching a boiling point—thereby provoking action from President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who has thought it prudent to weigh in on the issue, and decisively sided with Chief Justice Francis Korkpor and his colleagues. President Sirleaf said that the process in the House of Representatives “tends to undermine the peace, threaten the elections process currently underway, and create confusion and chaos in Liberia’s fledgling democracy.”
The President’s statement was contained in an Executive Mansion release where she expressed grave concerns over the action of some members of the House of Representatives to initiate impeachment proceedings against the majority members of the Supreme Court because of judicial decisions they made. “This move is clearly in violation of Article 73 of the Constitution of Liberia,” the President said. President Sirleaf expects the other two branches of government, the Legislature, which makes the laws, and the Judiciary that interprets, to have a cordial working relationship, saying that this now seems far from the case as both are now involved in a legal and constitutional face-off, with the Legislature thinking that its colleagues at the other end have gone beyond their bounds by not just interpreting anymore, but making laws.
The President said in the release that the Executive Branch of Government, which she heads, is not prepared and will not support any unconstitutional maneuverings from any of the institutions of Government — indicating that this is no time for a legal or constitutional crisis, least a show of strength between branches of the Liberian government. The President said it is unfortunate that such a tussle is occurring at a time when everyone should be working on a unified front to ensure peaceful elections that would see her smoothly turn over power in January 2018. “At this time, all branches should be working coordinately to ensure the peaceful elections and the smooth transfer of power,” she said.
The Legislature and the Supreme Court have been locked down in what appears to be a show of strength, with both summoning each other over impeachment proceedings. The Lower House called Justices Kabineh Ja’neh, Justice Philip A. Z. Banks, III and Justice Jamesetta Howard Wolokollie to appear before Plenary to show cause (s) why they should not be held for impeachment. The Lower House mandated the three to appear today, Friday, August 11, 2017. The Legislature’s action grew out of the unanimous decision and judgment of the Supreme Court in the Harrison Karnwea vs National Elections Commission in which the Court ruled that Mr. Karnwea’s failure to resign his post as managing director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) two years prior to this year’s election was not egregious in nature as he was in substantial compliance, having resigned after the court had ruled the Code of Conduct constitutional in the Selena Mappy-Polson vs The Government of Liberia case.
The House, which thinks that the Supreme Court had erred in its ruling, through its Judiciary Committee indicated that the three members of the Supreme Court who signed the opinion and judgment of July 20, 2017 in Karnwea’s case have caused the Supreme Court to usurp the power and functions of the Legislature to make laws. The Lower House communication said, “The Petition: That is, by ignoring the two or three periods for a person holding a public office to resign his office before the date of the election for which he or she intends to canvass and by reducing such period to a mere resignation before filing an application for certification with the National Elections Commission the Supreme Court…has usurped the functions and powers of the legislature to make law. This conduct of the Respondents as majority members of the Supreme Court constitutes misconduct, gross breach of duty and inability to perform the functions of the office of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, for which the Liberian Constitution provides…impeachment…”
However, the Judiciary said on Wednesday that the House does not have the constitutional authority to cite any Justice of the Supreme Court in connection with any petition for impeachment, or to impeach any Justice of the Supreme Court. It said the act is unconstitutional and therefore void of any legal validity. The Supreme Court contended that by virtue of Article 73 of the Constitution, the House’s decision is without the force of the law and therefore challenged the House to appear before the full bench of the Supreme Court to defend the constitutionality of their action. The Supreme Court said in view of Article 66 of the Constitution, it is clothed with the power as the final arbiter of all disputes and hence any attempt by any person or institution, including any of the other branches of government, to review the final decision or judgment of the Supreme Court is unconstitutional.
Said the Supreme Court: “In view of the above, the Clerk of the Supreme Court is herewith authorized and mandated to issue writs of summons on the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives and members of the Plenary of the House of Representatives that authorized the action of the Judiciary Committee mentioned above to appear before the Honorable Supreme Court to answer to this in RE: Constitutionality of the Judiciary Committee Of The House Of Representatives proceedings to defend the constitutionality of their actions.” The Supreme Court has also placed a stay order on all actions and pending actions at the House in relation to the impeachment proceedings until the constitutionality of their actions is defended.
But the President Sirleaf could wait no more for the crisis, which has drawn a battle-line between the Legislative and Judiciary branches of government, to regenerate—she therefore decided to show leadership. “In our system of Government,” she said, “the Legislature is empowered to enact laws and the Supreme Court is mandated and authorized to interpret the laws. The process in the House of Representatives tends to undermine the peace, threaten the elections process currently underway, and create confusion and chaos in our fledgling democracy.”
The President called on members of the House of Representatives to abandon their action for the sake of peace and stability in Liberia. “The Executive Branch of Government will not support any action which tends to undermine the Constitution and reverse the gains this country has made,” the President said.
The legal tussle between the lower house and the Supreme Court reached another level yesterday when the former rejected a motion for prohibition filed by the Supreme Court against impeachment proceedings by the House of Representatives. The highly-contentious affair recorded 27 votes in favor, four against and two abstentions. After the reading of the communication of the Prohibition from the high court, Representative Gabriel Nyenkan (Unity Party, District No. 11, Montserrado County), one of the sponsors of the impeachment proceedings, declared that in the wake of what he described as unnecessary infusion of the judiciary branch to order the first branch of government to halt in the performance of its constitutional duty, moved that the communication be considered trashed. However, the Lower House’s decision has been condemned by many legal minds, paramount among them being the President of the Liberia National Bar Association (LNBA), Cllr. Moses Paegar.
The head of the LNBA said at a press conference in Monrovia that “The LNBA believes that the ongoing attempt by the Legislature to have Associate Justices Ja’neh, Wolokollie, and Banks impeached requires and compels it to once again take a public position because this attempt is an obvious, frontal, an unwarranted attack both on the Constitution and the independence of the Judicial Branch of Government.”
Meanwhile sources told the Daily Observer that President Sirleaf has since mandated the Liberia Council of Churches (LCC) to intervene in the crisis in order to bring it to an amicable resolution. There are heightened fears that this crisis has the propensity to stall the workings of the entire government, especially at such a crucial time when unity is needed most to prepare for the October elections and the subsequent transition in January 2018.
Liberians are hopeful that this debacle is not a plot intended to disrupt the elections in an effort to perpetuate the current regime.