Chief Justice Korkpor must be having nightmares as he tries to grapple with a virtual onslaught of negative public opinion on the integrity of the Supreme Court Bench, given what is unfolding in the Ja’neh impeachment proceedings. As the final arbiters of disputes, the Supreme Court’s authority to handle matters involving the legislative branch of government has been challenged and put to critical test.
The Daily Observer notes that a recurring theme in all this is the rule of law or the lack of it. In the J’aneh case, experts including former Associate Justice Philip Banks, opine that the Senate erred by devising its own rules of impeachment whereas the Constitution provides that rules of Impeachment be agreed upon by both Houses rather than the other way around. The impeachment trial continues, howbeit on a rather sour note and in manner and form distasteful to the rule of law.
As it appears, the rule of law in Liberia is indeed imperiled. One finds legislators on the one hand desperately seeking to oust a Justice of the Supreme Court Bench on impeachment charges which are, in a way, non-impeachable offenses since the reasons advanced by the House of Representatives border on matters which have already been judiciously handled and laid to rest, never mind contentions by members of the House of Representatives that Justice J’aneh then a non-government official intimidated the Court into arriving at decisions in his favor.
On the other hand one finds a Judiciary wherein Judges routinely fail to maintain the sacred nature of the Courts as holy altars of justice presided over by the blindfolded goddess of Justice. Judges routinely order the pre-detention of accused individuals for prolonged periods. In other instances, they routinely take bribes or conduct themselves in ways that flagrantly defy or undermine the rule of law. Some Judges have for instance been suspended from duty for acts of corruption but strangely they find themselves reappointed to serve in the very same positions of trust.
In response to remarks by the Chief Justice during the opening of court recently, Liberia National Bar President Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe implored the Supreme Court Bench to curtail what he called the “frequent threats of detention of lawyers by some judges of the lower courts, most often, in the performance of their duties as lawyers”. Gongloe, furthering that such threats and intimidation tend to cast aspersion on the entire judiciary reminded the Chief Justice that under Article 21(i) of the constitution, “… no lawyer shall be prevented from or punished for providing legal services, regardless of the charges against or the guilt of his client.”
Gongloe could not be further from the truth for hardly had his words faded when reports surfaced of Circuit Judge William B. Sando, in Bomi County, ordering the flogging and detention of a trial lawyer simply because the Judge had some disagreement with the lawyer. In his letter of complaint to Chief Justice Korkpor about his experience Cllr. Juma P. Karnley said, “during my ordeal instituted by Judge Sando, my phone was taken away from me, and my coat suit and gown that I wore was torn; they inflicted wounds above my left eye and various parts of my body.”
In response to such flagrant violation of the law by a sitting judge, State Lawyers under the banner of the National Association of Prosecutors of Liberia (NAPL) on Monday, March 25, 2019, threatened to boycott all courtroom activities throughout the country if Chief Justice Francis Saye Korkpor refuses to reprimand Cllr. William B. Sando, resident judge of the 11th Judicial Circuit Court in Tubmanburg, Bomi County.
The Daily Observer has however observed that the Judicial Inquiry Commission has since become seized of the matter and Judge Sando is expected to appear as would be expected. The 2017 US State Department Human Rights report noted that although the Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, judges and magistrates were subject to influence and engaged in corruption.
Further, according to the report, “corruption persisted in the legal system. Some judges accepted bribes to award damages in civil cases. Judges sometimes solicited bribes to try cases, grant bail to detainees, or acquit defendants in criminal cases. Defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes suggested defendants pay bribes to secure favorable decisions from judges, prosecutors, and jurors, or to have court staff place cases on the docket for trial.”
More importantly, the report noted that “mechanisms for the public to bring complaints of corruption and malpractice include the Judicial Inquiry Commission, which deals with complaints on judges’ conduct, and the Grievance and Ethics Committee, which deals with lawyers. Both lacked appropriate guidelines to deliver their mandates effectively”.
Fast forward to 2019, it remains unclear whether the Judicial Inquiry Commission which deals complaints on judges has by now developed the requisite and appropriate guidelines within which framework, Judge Sando’s probe is expected to be conducted. This newspaper however observes that Judge Sando’s conduct is but a reflection of the immeasurable harm done to this country and its system of laws by the culture of impunity.
In the mind of this newspaper, Judge Sando most probably felt he could get away with his actions hence, he dared transgress the very law which he has sworn to respect and uphold. Article 21 (h) of the Constitution states in part the following: “There shall be absolute immunity from any government sanctions or interference in the performance of legal services as a counselor or advocate; lawyers’ offices and homes shall not be searched or papers examined or taken save pursuant to a search warrant and court order; and no lawyer shall be prevented from or punished for providing legal services, regardless of the charges against or the guilt of his client. No lawyer shall be barred from practice for political reasons.”