Finance Minister Samuel Tweah is expected today, Friday, January 31 to appear before angry trial judges to respond to questions concerning cuts in their salaries and benefits under the “Harmonization Policy” that drastically reduced salaries for civil servants and other public officials including judges in the country.
The question many legal practitioners are pondering is whether the invitation of Minister Tweh would make any difference about the concern of the judges, as his boss, President George Weah, has already admitted that the decision is marred by pain and hardship, which directly affects the judges.
Judges in their guiding principles are not allowed to run a legal business by operating a law firm or any business as such.
The Judiciary Cannons of the Republic of Liberia, particularly Cannon Four, provides that: “A judge shall not engage in the practice of law directly or indirectly. Upon his appointment, a judge who was the proprietor of a law firm or engaged in the practice of law and associated with a law firm shall resign publicly from the firm in the interest of a fair play.”
The cannon further states that, “A judge is practicing law indirectly when he does not publicly resign but leaves his/her wife, husband, son, daughter or partners in the firm or a brother lawyer to run the firm and he sits in the background. He shall not solicit prospective clients for any lawyer or law firm for reward or hope of reward. In the trial of a case, a judge presiding shall not behave in any manner as would suggest that he is counsel for one of the parties.”
It is against the cannon, that some the judges believe that any possible measure to decrease their allowances and salaries is an “attack on their rights.”
The aggrieved judges, however, have not disclosed what next plan they would venture into if their salaries and allowances remain harmonized.
They made known their disagreement with the harmonization through a communication dated January 24, 2020, and addressed to Chief Justice Francis Korkpor, who later invited Minister Tweah to appear before the judges on today, Friday, January 31, which also coincided with the convention of the National Association of Trial Judges of Liberia.
In their communication, the judges asked Minister Tweah to explain the government’s decision to harmonize and standardize their salaries and benefits, which according to them, is against the 1986 Constitution.
Article 72 (a ) provides: “The Justices of the Supreme Court and all other judges shall receive such salaries, allowances, and benefits as shall be established by law. Such salaries shall be subject to taxes as defined by law, provided that they shall not otherwise be diminished. Allowances and benefits paid to Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of subordinate courts may by law be increased but may not be diminished except under a national program enacted by the Legislature; nor shall such allowance and benefits be subject to taxation.”
(b) also states: “The Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of subordinate courts of record shall be retired at the age of seventy; provided, however, that a justice or judge who has attained that age may continue in office for as long as may be necessary to enable him to render judgment or perform any other judicial duty in regard to proceedings entertained by him before the attained that age.”
It is not clear whether the five justices of the Supreme Court were affected by the harmonization policy.
It can be recalled that President Weah, during his annual message, said, “We took no pleasure in reducing salaries for government employees through the harmonization process. And we fully understand the pain and hardship that this has caused.”
President Weah continued, “We want to thank all civil servants and government workers for their patience and understanding. You are not alone, as I was the one who first started the process. You will recall that my first announcement as President was the reduction of my salary by 25%; and I want you to know that even after I did that, my salary was subsequently further reduced during the harmonization exercise.”
The President went on to say that, “for the very first time in our entire legislative history, you showed the courage, wisdom, and determination to trim the Government’s wage bill, and we applaud you for that. Reducing the public wage bill is a long-standing, politically-sensitive problem that those previous administrations were afraid to touch, but we had the courage to do so because we believe it will make everyone better off in the long run.”
He also lauded when he said, “We, therefore, appreciate your strong support and cooperation in passing the National Remuneration and Standardization Act, which has significantly reformed the public wage.” He added, “This is how it should be because as leaders, we should at all times bear the highest-burden, and lead by example. We should be the first to make the cuts and sacrifices, since we are elected to SERVE the people, and their interest should always come first. The harmonization exercise was necessary to ensure that the government lives within its means.”