Recently the Liberian media has been awash with stories featuring Justices of the Supreme Court in castigating roles taking either lawyers or judges of subordinate courts to task for faults real and probably imagined, which continue to mar the image of the Judiciary: “J’aneh Admits to Poor Justice System But…” (Daily Observer, May 8, 2018); “Justice Banks Slams Law Reform Commission” (Daily Observer, May 7, 2018); Justice Wolokolie Admonishes Unserious Lawyers”, (New Democrat, May 16, 2018); “Chief Justice Warns Judges to Live Above Reproach”, (Daily Observer, May 15, 2018).
Judging from the various headlines carried in the local dailies on the Judiciary, especially the Daily Observer, one could be easily misled into the false belief that the problem with the country’s judiciary lies solely at the doorsteps of lawyers and judges of subordinate courts with Justices of the Supreme Court standing far above reproach. But is this really the case? Many people from across the political spectrum this newspaper has spoken to all seem to agree that the country’s judiciary is indeed plagued with deeply rooted problems including corruption.
Their view is echoed by numerous official U.S. State Department Human Rights reports, which have from time to time, among other things, pointed out that the rule of law in Liberia is very weak, the judiciary corrupt and that justice is out for sale to the highest bidder. As former Liberian President Charles Dunbar Burgess King once said….”the fish begins to rot from the head”, this newspaper holds the firm view that the problems in the Judiciary runs all the way from the Supreme Court down to Magisterial Courts.
The basic question asked is whether the Courts including the Supreme Court be trusted to deliver plain and unadulterated justice. This newspaper recalls for instance during the run up to the 2017 Presidential and Legislative elections the Chairman of the National Elections Commission (NEC) Jerome Korkoya was dragged before the Supreme Court to answer questions about his American citizenship which under the laws of Liberia forbids him, as a foreign national, from serving in that post.
And guess what? You guessed right! The Supreme Court dilly-dallied on the matter and never rendered an opinion thus giving in effect its blessings to illegality-a virtual carte blanche to the NEC Chairman to continue in that stead although the Constitution and our laws are explicitly clear on eligibility for citizenship as well as how and under what conditions a natural born Liberian can lose his/her citizenship.
Without realizing it perhaps, the Supreme Court set a dangerous precedent which may come to haunt us as a nation. Similarly, during the build up to the run-off elections, the standard bearer of the Liberty Party Charles Brumskine took the NEC to the Supreme Court charging the elections were characterized by fraud and that the Voters Registry was or had been compromised by the NEC.
But the Court ruled that whatever irregularities occurred were not widespread enough and lacked sufficient depth to impeach the credibility of the elections results. The Court however, did concede that the Voters Registry was not credible and therefore mandated the NEC to clean up the Voters Rolls before the conduct of the run-off elections. The NEC to the surprise and consternation (feelings of anxiety or dismay, typically at something unexpected) of the public blatantly flouted the Court’s mandate and proceeded to conduct the run-off elections on the basis of the same flawed Voters Roll it had used during the first round of voting.
Even though the NEC’s violation of the Court’s mandate was brought to the attention of the Supreme Court, it failed to act and the rest is now history. This newspaper recalls also how by judicial fiat the Supreme Court in 2011 overturned the results of the referendum which defeated the proposal advanced by the Unity Party to quash the absolute majority requirement for elections to public office in favor of a Simple Majority.
The proposal was first advanced by President Sirleaf who had maintained that the country could not afford the cost of run-off elections. She submitted it to referendum but it was soundly defeated so she sought recourse from the Supreme Court and, by the simple stroke of a pen the Constitutional provision was quashed and the will of the people conveniently but dangerously ignored.
But was it worth it? Look what we have today with many individuals being elected to the Legislature who have no mandate since they won by margins, in some cases, of less than 10 votes. More to that, electoral disputes in many areas around the country especially in Nimba County, have since increased four-fold or more. Additionally, this newspaper also recalls the case of Probate Judge Vinton Holder whose corrupt handling of cases led to his suspension for time indefinite, by the Supreme Court.
His suspension followed numerous complaints from the public about his behavior. But within no time, Holder’s suspension was lifted and he is now back on the job presiding over the very same Probate Court whose integrity Judge Holder had raked in the mud. Perhaps of even greater concern are confirmed reports that at the level of the Magistrate Court, before an individual gets his case heard, he/she must first of all register the case by paying into Government revenue, the amount of ten (10) United States dollars.
For a country like Liberia mired in poverty with over 60 percent of its population living below the poverty line of less than 2 dollars a day, how can poor people access Justice when they have to pay sums which they obviously do not have? Justices of the Supreme Court like judges of subordinate courts must also live above reproach. Whether they like it or not, they are part and parcel of the problem facing the judiciary.
They must stop using the cloak of authority to mask their indiscretions. The National Bar Association also bears responsibility for the dismal state of the country’s judiciary. This newspaper has been told by numerous lawyers on several occasions that lawyers in the discharge of their duties are always wary of disbarment which the Court has unfailingly used time and again to wheel lawyers into line who incur their disfavor.
The country’s judiciary is in crisis as we are all well aware and we all need to join hands to address the problems facing the judiciary. Posturing and adapting a “holier than thou” attitude will not cut ice; it is not the answer to problems facing the judiciary and our Judicial officials need to realize this sooner than later.