Response of Tiawan S. Gongloe, President of the Liberian National Bar Association to the Opening Address of His Honor Francis S. Korkpor, Sr. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

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Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe, President, Liberia National Bar Association

Mr. Chief Justice and Associates Justices of the Supreme Court
Mr. Speaker and members of the Legislature
The Minister of Justice and Dean of the Supreme Court Bar;
Former Chief Justices and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court;
Mr. Minister of State for Presidential Affairs
The Doyen and Members of the Diplomatic Corps
The Resident Coordinator and the heads of United Nations missions in Liberia
Judges of Circuit and Specialized Courts;
The Dean, Faculty and students of the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law
The Executive Council and members of the Liberian National Bar Association
The President and Members of the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia
The President and members of the Association of Public Defenders
The President and members of the Association of Prosecutors Association
The Court Administrator and members of the clerical and ministerial staff of the Judiciary
Members of the fourth Estate
Leaders and members of the Civil Society Organizations
Other distinguished ladies and gentlemen:

We bring you warm greetings from members of the Liberian National Bar Association and welcome you back from your presumed restful vacation. Your honors, we join you in thanking God for completing the October Term of the Supreme Court and pray along with you for God to give you  increased strength, courage and higher degree of cooperation and oneness of purpose as you resume your judicial functions, during the March Term, 2019.

We are pleased to hear that during the last term of Court, four Circuit Judges and one Debt Court Judge were appointed by the President of Liberia to fill existing vacancies within the judiciary.  We are aware that these vacancies were created by the deaths of three judges and the retirement of two of the judges that were replaced by these new judges.  As we congratulate our former colleagues of the bar for their elevation to the bench, we pray that God will give them good health, wisdom and strength to perform their duties without fear or favor in all cases that come before them. As new judges, we pray that their judicial actions will inspire more public confidence in the judiciary as a forum for the peaceful resolution of all disputes based on equal treatment of all parties. The Bar will always emphasize this point because its mission of promoting adherence to the rule law is not possible, if there is doubt about the ability of the judiciary to deliver justice to all on an equal basis.

On behalf of members of the new administration of the LNBA, we thank your honor, for your words of felicitation and the information provided by your honor on the history of the mutual support and cooperation that have existed between the bar and the bench, over the years. We assure your honors and the entire judiciary of our administration’s willingness and preparedness to support and cooperate with the Bench and the entire judiciary in its effort to execute its constitutional mandate of doing justice to all parties without any form of discrimination. In this effort we see no alternative or option. We are aware that the bar is meaningless without the bench and we have no doubt that Bench is equally aware that without the bar, the bench cannot effectively function. With this symbiotic relationship between the Bench and the Bar, mutual support, cooperation and respect are necessary conditions that both the bench and the bar must remain mindful of at all times.

In this regard, we plead with the bench to curtail the frequent threats of detention of lawyers by some judges of the lower courts, most often, in the performance of their duties as lawyers. We wish to publicly remind those judges that lawyers are protected by article 21(i) of the Constitution of Liberia which provides, “… no lawyer shall be prevented from or punished for providing legal services, regardless of the charges against or the guilt of his client. Such threats and intimidation demean, not only the lawyer that is the subject of the threat and intimidation, but tend to cast aspersion on the entire legal profession. A lawyer should be referred to the Grievance and Ethics Committee where his/her conduct is considered by a judge to be contrary to any provision of the Code of Ethics Governing the Practice of Law in Liberia. Most often, due process is shortened or undermined by judges who hold lawyers in contempt. The Supreme Court has over the years, fined, suspended or disbarred lawyers from the practice of law, most often, based on reports of the Grievance and Ethics Committee. We urge judges of the lower courts to do the same and we seek the support and cooperation of the Bench in this regard. We assure the Bench that we will make every effort to encourage lawyers to uphold the honor of the legal profession in the manner required by the oath of office of lawyers and the Code of Professional Ethics.

We express sympathy with the judiciary and members of the family of judges and other judicial officers who made their transitions during the last term of court. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in perfect peace and may light perpetual shine upon them. We pray that during this March Term of Court all members of the bench, judges of subordinate courts and the entire staff of the judiciary will experience good health and protection from death.

We are pleased to hear that all courts throughout the Republic are fully functioning as demonstrated by the number of cases disposed of at all levels of the Judiciary from the magistrate sitting program up to the Supreme Court. We applaud such achievement and encourage the Judiciary with the support of the other two branches of government, not only to maintain the current reported level of performance but to do more in providing access to justice throughout Liberia. While applaud the performance of the Judiciary we are compelled to bring to your attention that many lawyers and party-litigants complain about the delay in the disposition of cases at all levels of the judiciary. There is a problem with the calendaring of cases and making decisions on cases that have been heard by the Supreme Court and subordinate courts. There are some cases before the Supreme Court, currently, in which arguments took place more than two years ago and yet this court has not delivered any opinion in those cases. Justice delayed is justice denied. This Court must set the standard for speedy dispositions of matters that come before it so that the courts below can do the same.

We join your honor in expressing gratitude to the Governments of Sweden and Ireland for their contributions to the strengthening of the public defenders program of the Judiciary by providing through the United Nations Development Program financial and logistical support for the employment and deployment of additional public defenders, as well as, the support given by the two governments for the opening of two Gender based Violence Courts in the Eighth and ninth Judicial Circuits, Nimba County and  Bong County, respectively. The contributions of the Governments of Sweden and Ireland will definitely go a long way in improving the capacity of the judiciary to more speedily dispose of criminal cases, especially those involving sex and gender based violent crimes.

Your honors, the information provide by his honor, Mr. Chief Justice Korkpor, regarding the progress that has been made in increasing the capacity of the judiciary through the Professional Magistrate Training Program (PMTP) for the recruitment and appointment of associate magistrates is laudable. We are grateful to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Legal Professional Development and Anti-Corruption Program (LPAC) for the support given the judiciary. The increase number of associate magistrates produced through the Magistrate Training Program has improved access to justice in many parts of the country. But, it is obvious that that program is an interim arrangement to fill the gap between the number of attorneys-at-law available to serve as stipendiary magistrates and the number of magistrate courts in the country. There is a need for the government to begin to recruit young attorneys-at-law to serve as stipendiary magistrates. In this regard, we wish to point out that the judiciary should take note of the magistrates whose commissions have expired in order to recommend a renewal of their commissions or replace them, by attorneys-at-law,  where their records suggest the necessity for such decisions. According to section 7.5 of the Judiciary Law, the commission of a stipendiary magistrate in Liberia is for four years and may be renewed.  It is not legal for a magistrate whose commission has expired to continue to perform as a magistrate.

Your honors, we applaud you for the initiative taken, thus far, in the construction of judicial complexes in various parts the country, the latest of which was done in Grand Gedeh and Grand Kru counties. We hope and pray that such efforts will be shortly extended to other counties, including River Cess County.

We applaud the judiciary for the increase exposure of members of the judiciary through local and external training programs, conferences and workshops. These opportunities have the potential of increasing the knowledge of members of the judiciary.

We are extremely happy, as members of the legal profession in West Africa, about the information on the planned outreach program of the ECOWAS COMMUNITY COURT OF JUSTICE to be conducted in Liberia from March 16 to23, 2019. We call upon all members of the Bar to fully participate in the outreach program of the ECOWAS COMMUNITY COURT OF JUSTICE. The program will provide Liberian lawyers the opportunity to learn more about the procedures that obtain at this sub-regional court. The Liberian lawyers who participate in the outreach program will realize that the existence of the ECOWAS community court of justice amplifies the avenues for seeking justice for their clients. The court does not require exhaustion of local remedies as is done by other international tribunals and courts. It also has a rather progressive jurisprudence on matters of public interest. Relying on the doctrine of actio popularis, it allows persons and institutions not directly affected by any issue of human rights violation to file an action before it, once, it can be shown that said violation of human rights is a matter of public interest. Also, the Court provides an opportunity for non-governmental organizations, for example, to help communities that cannot help themselves in carrying their cases before the Court. The LNBA will work with the advance delegation of the ECOWAS COURT in order to ensure the success of the Court’s outreach program.

Your honors, we agree with Mr. Chief Justice Korkpor that the court is going through a challenging period and we emphasize, a very challenging period, due to the efforts by the some members of the House of Representatives to impeach his Honor Mr. Justice Kabineh M. Ja’neh. The impeachment of Justice Ja’neh is the second time that a member of the Supreme Court bench has gone through an impeachment proceeding. The member of the Supreme Court Bench to ever be impeached, since 1847, was Chief Justice Chea Cheapo in 1987. For the jailing of Judge Harper Bailey, the Chief Justice was impeached almost unanimously by the Senate. The only Senator who voted to acquit him was Senator David Menyongai of Margibi County. Although, Chief Justice Cheapo tendered in his resignation, President Samuel K. Doe rejected his resignation and rather chose to impeach him. It was a challenging moment for the Supreme Court, as it is today. But what makes it more challenging this time, is that the bill of impeachment on which Justice Ja’neh is being tried is a product of defiance by some members of the House of Representatives, of the alternative writ of prohibition issued by a Justice of the Supreme Court sitting in Chambers, acting under the authority of the law. It is also challenging because the full bench of the Supreme did not consider this defiance of the presiding Justice’s order as a defiance of the entire Bench. In our view, the failure of any individual, group of individuals, or any department or branch of government to honor an order of this Court undermines the rule of law and threatens the peace, security and development of this country. Here lies the real challenge. Another challenge is the fact that the impeachment of Justice Ja’neh began with the listing of actions or conducts which do not qualify as impeachable offenses. Two of the actions listed have direct links to this Court. In one case Mr. Justice Ja’neh was a party in a case decided by the Supreme Court. In the other, he was performing a judicial duty in which his decision was subject to review by the entire Bench. Yet, Justice Ja’neh is being subjected to a hearing for matters that both the bench and  a justice in chambers are protected by the Constitution of Liberia for. Further, the ongoing impeachment hearing is challenging because this court avoided, refused, failed and neglected to interpret article 43 of the Constitution of Liberia regarding the procedure for impeachment. Further, the proceeding is challenging because the history of Liberia will record that the Chief Justice whose bench was disrespected by some members of the House of Representatives chose to preside over an impeachment proceeding which was based on a total disregard for the authority of the Supreme Court. Further, the proceeding is troubling because the presiding officer over the impeachment rules on some issues and on others he refuses to rule on the ground that he lacks the authority to do so. A better procedure was what Chief Justice Rehnquist adopted at the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. For example, Chief Justice Rehnquist referred the motion to dismiss to the members of the Senate who denied same by a vote of 56 to 44. In this case, this very important motion was not referred to the Senate to decide whether or not the case should be proceeded with.

This impeachment trial is not only challenging, but troubling because it has the potential of bringing the bar of impeachment so low, that it may serve as a precedent for the easy impeachment and removal of elected and other high officials of government, not excluding the Chief Justice and other members of the bench, who can only be removed by impeachment. It is challenging because it promises future instability in government. We can only hope that the Senate will save this country where this Court failed on this matter.

Your Honors this Court, is the only source of hope for the survival of our democracy and the sustenance of peace and security in our country. The LNBA will support and cooperate with your honors as long as you perform your duty as the custodian of  our democracy, peace and security. We must always remind ourselves, that this Court shares the blame for the more than 250,000 people that were killed in Liberia during the civil conflict. Had this Court play its part well, in the past, Liberia would not have descended into conflict. We urge the current bench not to allow itself to be similarly judged in the future.

Your honors we note that there are 310 cases on the trial docket and 15 cases on the motion calendar. We urge the court to assign these cases in sequence, instead of each lawyer coming to ask for the assignment of his/her case. In that case the Court and the parties will know which lawyer is not ready for a case and the blame will not go to the Court or its clerical staff.

We wish Honors a successful March Term of Court, 2019.

I thank you.

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