Since March 3 this year, the public has been suspicious of the working of the highest court, the Supreme Court. Constitutionally clothed with the power as the final arbiter of justice and the only interpreter of the Constitution, the Supreme Court on March 3, 2017 came down with ruling in the controversial Code of Conduct making it constitutional. Upon making the pronouncement, many people who may fear the political potential of others in the ensuing election gladly welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision; contending that the law be upheld up to the letter. On the other hand, those who believe the CoC was meant to target them from contesting election turned furious and discredited the decision.
The decision of the Supreme Court to declare the CoC constitutional coincided with the choosing of former Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), Harrison Karnwea, and former Liberian Ambassador to the United States, Jeremiah Slunteh as vice running mates for the Liberty Party (LP) and the Alternative National Congress (ANC), respectively. Again, public perception grew that selection of these former officials would yield fruitless for the concerned political parties because they did not resign from their respective positions two or three years ahead of election as required in the Code of Conduct. Public concerns from all points simply indicate that they have vested interest in the working of the law and interpretation by the Supreme Court.
The National Elections Commission (NEC), having assured the public of adhering to ruling by the Supreme Court on the Code of Conduct, disqualified Harrison Karnwea, Jeremiah Slunteh and Abu Kamara on ground that they were in violation of the Code of Conduct. NEC’s decision to disqualify these men was challenged in the Supreme Court, and as the perception has been, many thought Karnwea and Slunteh were in violation of the law and therefore the court would rule against them. Except for Abu Kamara who was disqualified for remaining in appointed position to declare his intention to contest an elective position, Karnwea and Slunteh were given green light by the Supreme Court on ground that they were not in serious violation to be disqualified, but NEC should design penalties for them. Ruling in Karnwea’s case, Justice Philip A.Z. Banks said, “He was in substantial compliance with the code and that his violation of the act was not egregious in nature.”
Following the ruling, there has been public outcry that the court is biased while members of the Liberty Party and Alternative National Congress rejoice. The ruling has also sparked up a planned impeachment proceeding by the National Legislature to impeach the Chief Justice and Associate Justices. At the same time, the Supreme Court is warning lawyers that any of them caught inciting the public against the court would be seriously dealt with.
These instances are cited to draw attention to the critical role the Supreme Court has to play in our electoral process and public perceptions about it as a final decision maker in constitutional matters. Liberians over the time have always demonstrated respect for the Supreme Court and rule of law, and any act to thwart public trust will lead to disrespect for the high court. If not the first in Liberian History, this is the first time the National Legislature has planned making use of provision in the 1986 Constitution to impeach the Chief Justice and the Associates Justices. Moreover, despite reports of corrupt practices in courts across the country, there has been no day ordinary people will criticize or say anything that will ridicule the Supreme Court.
Now that such unusual talks and perceptions are arising at this critical time of election in our country, we feel it is about time that the high court manages its reputation and integrity to continually be seen as an impartial and independent body with no stake in politics. We are not assuming that the court has a political interest; nevertheless, we are concerned that any interpretation by the Supreme Court at this time of politics on a crowded political field can be translated by the very people in diverse views. For instance, there is currently no doubt that those who want the Code of Conduct to be upheld to the letter are uncertain about the Supreme Court rendering independent judgment in case something goes wrong in the electoral process. It is currently speculated that some wealthy politicians have infiltrated the independence of the Supreme Court using cash to evade the Code of Conduct. In such state of growing confusion, let the Supreme Court clearly explain what it meant that Harrison Karnwea and Jeremiah Slunteh were in substantial compliance with the CoC, and how egregious it should be in order for an aspirant to be disqualified when he/she violates the CoC. The Supreme Court also needs to clearly state the degree of offense Slunteh and Karnwea committed for which NEC is ordered to prescribe punishment for them in 48 hours.
With clear explanation on these major decisions in this crucial transitional politics season, the Supreme Court will be building trust in the people to be conscientious of its integrity. However, any shortcoming will cause people to lose confidence in the High Court’s integrity and independence, and the peace we have built for more than ten years will be grossly undermined.