At the entrance of the Temple of Justice right in the middle of the double passage way, stands an imposing figure, blind-folded and clad in flowing robes, holding aloft in one hand a scale (balance) and, with the other hand, clutching at the hilt of a long sword held at her side. She is the “Goddess of Justice” and the blindfold and scales suggest she is meting out justice impartially and fairly as indicated by the evenly balanced weights while the blindfold indicates she is doing so without prejudice.
In 1974 during the Stephen Tolbert-Albert Porte libel lawsuit pendency before the Supreme Court, the Revelation magazine depicted on its front cover a drawing of a partially blinded Goddess of Justice holding aloft a scale heavily tilted to one side by a weight of coins, with some of it falling out.
The commentary “Ichabod” which followed, incensed the Supreme Court Bench and, for that, harsh fines were imposed as penalties; and when the Revelation editors failed to pay, they were whisked off to the Monrovia Central Prison.
But that single drawing conveyed a strong message that corruption, including the abuse of power, had taken hold of the judiciary, although not with as strangulating as it now appears.
Corruption in the Liberian judiciary is and has been a recurring theme in various Human Rights reports including US State Department Human rights reports. Corruption international watchdog, Transparency International, has ranked Liberia as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Liberia’s Constitution provides for three branches of government, the Executive, Legislative, and the Judiciary. All three branches are equal, coordinate but separate and working together to manage and administer the affairs of state. Of the three branches, the Executive has since, most notably during the Tubman presidency, dominated the other two and, in most cases, subjecting both branches to its will and bidding.
While the Executive and Legislative branches may be corrupt, it is corruption in the Judiciary which, amongst the three, threatens peace, stability and national social cohesion the most. This is because the law serves to guide social behavior and conduct, absent which results in chaos or the law of the jungle, where only the fittest (richest, most powerful) survive.
This recent case of corruption in the judiciary involving Commercial Court judge, Richard Klah, allegedly soliciting and demanding bribes from party litigants, could just be the tip of an iceberg whose submerged mass could be far bigger than imagined.
The Supreme Court is now reported to be mulling the recommendations of the Judicial Inquiry Committee, calling for the suspension for one year of Judge Richard Klah and a forfeiture of his benefits. The Daily Observer welcomes the recommendations but hold that Judge Klah should be impeached and forever barred from serving as a judge in the bailiwick of this Republic.
That said, this newspaper is constrained to point out that it appears the Supreme Court has wittingly or unwittingly placed justice beyond the reach of the ordinary Liberian, most of who are poor but whose need for access to justice is plain and evident.
And the Supreme Court has done so by demanding that aggrieved parties seeking justice through its Courts of First Instance (Magisterial Courts) must pay a sum of US$10 to register before being granted the right to be heard. This development, according to judicial sources, was introduced since the incumbency of Chief Justice Francis Korkpor.
This “Pay to Play” requirement ought to be scrapped forthwith, simply because the burden of support for the Courts is that of the National government. Accordingly, the government’s lack of adequate support for the Courts/judiciary should not be shifted to the shoulders of the nation’s poor and underprivileged.
But this is not the first instance of a Judge being suspended by the Supreme Court for malpractice and then later reinstated to their duties. This newspaper recalls the case of Probate Court Judge Vinton Holder who was suspended by the Supreme Court for malpractices, had his benefits and salaries forfeited for a period, but was subsequently reinstated and today presides over the same Court where he is alleged to have committed the malpractices.
Clearly such half-hearted measures serve more to harm and undermine public confidence in the Judiciary, which is strongly wanting.
The penalties recommended by the Judicial Inquiry Committee must be comforting enough to an embattled Judge Klah because, at the end of the day, he is assured that once having served his suspension, he can return to duty just like his colleague Vinton Holder and it is business again as usual.
Such judges should have no other place in the courtroom other than that of a plaintiff or defendant and not even as a practicing lawyer. Indeed, the menace of corruption in the country’s judiciary has gone much too far and ought to be checked forthwith.
That an Associate Justice, for example, would leave his high offices to come down to visit a Judge presiding over an ongoing Criminal trial involving notables and compel the interruption of proceedings to allow private consultations with the Judge in his chambers, clearly appears to suggest that the Associate Justice harbored no moral or legal compunctions nor fear of recrimination for such actions bordering on possible breaches of judicial canons and the Code of Conduct for public officials. The culture of impunity is at the root of such behavior.
Judges are reminded that, by virtue of their charge placing them in authority to decide life and death matters, they should do so being ever mindful of the words of Chief Justice Louis Arthur Grimes (LLR Vol. 7 P:261) who cautions that: “Judges are to refrain from wedding either party to a suit and are admonished to view every case wholly objectively and impartially. They must not expunge evidence or witnesses from the record.”
In the case at bar, it appears that Judge Klah, by his conduct i.e. allegedly demanding bribes, is fit and proper for impeachment. Suspension is good, but definitely not good enough!