Liberian Supreme Court: A Need to Restore Public Confidence

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Courts in functioning democracies around the world are established to do justice by scrupulously applying the law without fear or favor. They all operate under the guiding principles of equality before the law. This concept of the judiciary promotes and ensures social cohesion in societies.  The reverse is undesirable for any civilized society.

From its inception, the Liberian judiciary has struggled with public perception regarding the infusion of Executive influence on the Bench and the use of Masonic signals to influence the outcome of cases. In spite of those external influences, the Liberian Supreme Court, in its earlier years, in a lot of instances rose to the occasion by countering those negative external influences on the judiciary by handling down strong opinions that often witnessed larger citizens buy-ins. Some of those Opinions are still being celebrated by lawyers and law scholars as reflected in the Liberian Code of Laws Revised.

Many respected legal commentators assert that the reputation and integrity of the Supreme Court started to embarrassingly diminish with the impeachment of Chief Justice Chea Cheapoo in 1987 and the subsequent downhill spiral that resorted with the ascendancy of Chief Justice Emmanuel Gbalazeh Bench from 1987 onward. Undisputedly, the road down the path of dictatorship during the Doe regime was greatly facilitated by the way the Liberian courts behave.

The Liberian judiciary has greatly eroded since the 1980s. The quality of opinions from the Supreme Court is at a low, lower when compared with the counterparts from over a hundred years ago when justices were not even products of academic studies of law.

In recent times, during the unseating of Associate Justice Kaba, the Liberian National Bar Association President, Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe was crudely interrupted and forcefully rejected from lectern by Chief Justice Francis Korkpor while trying to reflect upon how the failures of the Liberian Judiciary in administering justice contributed to the deaths of over 250,000 people during the Liberian civil conflict.

Since the infamous days of Chief Justice Chea Cheapo and Chief Justice Emmanuel Gbalazeh, the Supreme Court is yet to fully recover from the lack of public confidence in its decision-making capacity. A glimmer of public confidence was seen during the Johnnie Lewis’ Bench from 2006 -2012. The Lewis’ Bench was far from being perfect, but under his tenure, the Supreme Court gained public confidence by drastically punishing lawyers for misconduct.

Today, that glimmer of public confidence in the Supreme Court, and we dare say the Judiciary seems to be fast dimming for obvious reasons. First, the manner in which Associate Justice Kabineh Ja’neh, the only dissenter against the 2017 presidential election was booted out of the Supreme Court, created huge suspicion in the public’s mind. That widespread suspicion led to some ranking members of the senate being suspended by their political parties for participating in what was considered a ‘bogus trial.’ Even Chief Justice Francis Korkpor was derided by the public and some senior members of the Supreme Court Bar, including former Associate Justice Philip A.Z Banks, and the late Cllr. Charles Walker Brumskine, both reputed legal luminaries.

Second, the Public, including Global Witness, was disgusted when Cllr. Varney Sherman, Alex Tyler, and others were acquitted of bribery allegations in the Sable Mining Case. Many in the public attributed the acquittal of Sherman, Tyler, and others to the unprecedented visit of Justice Joseph Nagbe to Criminal Court ‘C’.

This time around, there are mounting public concerns at several levels regarding the manner in which Atty. Isaac Jackson’s case is being handled by the Supreme Court.  Even though on April 16, 2019, Jackson’s case was argued and heard by four Justices of the Supreme Court, it is not clear why the Supreme Court ordered re-argument into the case. Assuming what was heard in the corridor of the Supreme Court is true that Chambers Justice Wolokollie, who advanced the case to the full bench, has recused herself from the case, at least the three other justices who heard the case could form a quorum to decide the matter.  Packing the commonsensical approach to the technical legal procedures, it is crucial to skim through the public perception regarding the case.

Aware that the Supreme Court usually takes judicial notice of unfolding developments in the press, the public wonders why would the Supreme Court still recognize and invite Cllr. Arthur Johnson as Jackson’s lawyer when in fact, Cllr. Arthur Johnson has made public his withdrawal from Isaac Jackson’s case, and had taken a high-profile job with the Government as Head of its Asset Recovery Team? In fact, as Head of the Asset Recovery Team, Cllr. Arthur Johnson named among many persons, Isaac Jackson, “his client” as a person of interest for a possible investigation that could probably lead to his “prosecution”. Is the Supreme Court comfortable with such practice by a lawyer? Does Cllr. Arthur Johnson’s conduct not constitute a clear conflict of interest that warrants the Supreme Court’s immediate action? It can be recalled that the Supreme Court suspended former Associate Justice and former Solicitor General, Cllr. M. Wilkins Wright for the same conduct being exhibited by Cllr. Johnson. In fact, the Supreme Court in February of 2017 said “ the conduct of Cllr. Wilkins Wright in the FIDC/Sochor US$15.9M scam case constituted a gross conflict of interest in breach of Rules 8 and 9 of the Code for Moral and Ethical Conduct of lawyers”.  Hence, the question that lingers on the public mind is: Why is the Supreme Court condoning such dangerous and strange practice now?

Another thing that was quite baffling during the second hearing of the Jackson case on Wednesday, January 15, 2020, was the appalling failure of the Supreme Court to draw attention to the callous disregard of its Stay Order, and Chief Justice Korkpor’s instruction for the renewal of Jackson and his family’s diplomatic passports by the Executive Branch of the Government. Is the Supreme Court not disturbed by media reports that its instructions on the passport renewal and salary payments to Atty. Isaac Jackson have gone unheeded by the government?  Is our Supreme Court not concerned about the continual abuse of Atty. Jackson’s rights and those of his family? How can the Supreme Court restore public confidence in its work amidst these vexing questions?

It is worth noting that during his most recent appearance on ELBC, President George Manneh Weah praised the late Cllr. Charles Walker Brumskine for being a strong Lawyer. We believe that Atty. Isaac Jackson’s fight for the principles of good governance and rule of law in Liberia should be seen in the same light as Cllr. Brumskine’s fight for electoral integrity in 2017. Hence, Jackson deserves to be treated fairly if President Weah’s acknowledgment of Brumskine is to be taken seriously.

We are told that the worst form of injustice is running to the Court to seek justice and being slapped with injustice in return. For the Supreme Court to restore public confidence, it needs to recoil and spurn every form of political repression and legal skullduggery.

If Liberia will be spared another bloodbath, it would be due to the independence of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court must start to assume its rightful role as envisaged by the Liberian Constitution so as to inspire confidence in the ordinary Liberian citizens or else the country runs the grave risk of encouraging extrajudicial actions that would only lead to violence, destruction, and death!

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