The letter appeared in Frontpage Africa on February 10, 2014
Dear Madam President:
I crave your indulgence and attentiveness to weigh in with some legal analysis about the punishment the Supreme Court of Liberia imposed suspending the professional license of the Minister of Justice, the Honorable Christiana Tah. I have closely followed discussions arising out of this ill-considered judgment. The court imposed this punishment against the Minister for invoking a valid legislation to act on behalf of your good self, Madam President.
“It is a gross abuse of power for the Supreme Court to punish the Minister of Justice for contempt”
This case is of great interest to me as human rights advocate and as an international legal practitioner who continues to pray that Liberia realizes its potentials as a beacon of hope for post-conflict societies in transition. Listening to the BBC broadcast about this dispute and reviewing other related feedback, I realized that some degree of misunderstanding about the law cut across the gamut of both some supporters and critics of the Court’s decision. It is primarily for this reason that I write to address the bone of contention by clarifying some key points of law.
It is indeed for the potential or actual collision of powers, as illustrated at this historic moment of dispute between the Judiciary and the Executive, that democracies venerate the values safeguarded by the principles and doctrines of separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land. By definition, the separation of powers delineates the content and outer limits of the respective powers of the three arms of government, namely the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary. It is one thing to concede that the Judiciary may well be the arm of government best equipped to interpret the Constitution and underpinnings such as the separation of powers doctrine. It is another thing to act as if this fiduciary capacity entitles the Judiciary to truncate the values of the Constitution, let alone trump the powers of the corollary arms of government. In the realm of objective reasoning it is neither for the Judiciary to arrogate to itself the authority to circumscribe an act of the Legislature, nor is it for the Judiciary to appropriate the powers of the Executive.
More specifically, I will itemize my argument as follows:
- The Supreme Court Justices allege that the Honorable Minister of Justice exceeded the scope of her authority by granting compassionate leave to Rodney Sieh. In their opinion, such leave was narrowly construed to only apply to criminal prisoners and not for persons detained for civil offenses such as the libel for which Sieh was imprisoned. Yet the plain terms of the relevant laws actually substantiate, rather than undermine, the propriety of the Minister’s authority.
All parties agree that §34.20(1) of the Liberian Criminal Procedure Code governs this dispute. It is clear that the statute vests unequivocal, exclusive, and final authority in the Minister of Justice to establish and oversee the administration of compassionate leave and other decisions for prisoners. It appears that what the parties disagree on is whether Sieh was eligible for the leave approved, and whether the Minister of Justice should have first obtained the approval of the Justices before granting the leave. The Justices claim that because the statute regarding leave is set forth in the Criminal Procedure Code it only applies to criminal prisoners, rendering it inapplicable to Sieh, who was detained for a civil offense.
It is untenable and without concrete basis to claim that the administration of civil prisoners is governed by a body of law distinct and separate from the comprehensive guidelines provided by Chapter 34. Chapter 34, section 2, expressly applies to all individuals held in custody, including those incarcerated “under civil commitment”. It therefore stands to reason that Sieh, who was imprisoned for libel which is a civil matter, was eligible to be considered for compassionate leave. Accordingly, it was valid for that prisoner to petition the Minister of Justice. As stipulated in §34.20(1) of the Liberian Criminal Procedure Code:
“The Minister of Justice shall formulate rules or regulations governing compassionate leave from institutions and, in accordance with such rules and regulations, may permit any prisoner to leave his institution for short periods of time … to return to his home for other compelling reasons which strongly appeal to compassion.”
It is not in dispute that the appropriate legislation had been set in place.
- The Justices asserted that Minister Tah was required to consult them prior to granting Sieh’s petition. They do not, however, provide any constitutional, statutory, or administrative basis for this prerogative which they baldly claim. The governing law remains §34.20(1), quoted above, which in no uncertain terms vests in the Minister of Justice the power to grant compassionate leave. In light of the unambiguous legislative provision, it takes no divination to appreciate that it is ultra vires the powers of the Supreme Court to impose a preconference obligation on the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of the Republic of Liberia.
Going by the Court’s exasperation with the Minister, it is almost as if she granted an outright pardon, as opposed to a temporary compassionate leave. And even if that were the case, my research indicates that the power of pardon would still inure to the Executive and not to the Judiciary.
- It is a gross abuse of power for the Supreme Court to punish the Minister of Justice for contempt, simply because the Court disagreed with her interpretation and application of powers which the Legislature of the sovereign state of Liberia autonomously reserved by statute to the office of the Minister of Justice. Nothing on the face of the relevant statute or the history thereof as much as hints at a legislative intent for the judiciary to share this power with the Minister.
Censorship for subjective interpretations of the law is antithetical to the life of the law. Given that legal minds are not monolithic, the very legitimacy of the legal system is without question jeopardized if lawyers, who are the officers of the courts, would rather capitulate to an authoritarian court than follow their conscience in the fearless submission of competing interpretations of the law in the best interest of justice. As succinctly put by a former Attorney General of Liberia’s close ally, “If lawyers are imprisoned each time the courts reject their view of the law, and then it will not be long before every lawyer is in prison.”
- The Supreme Court lacks jurisdiction to punish the Minister of Justice for contempt in a matter independent of any actual proceeding before it. Sieh’s petition to the Minister, as a representative of the Executive, was extrajudicial to the extent that it was made independent from an active legal proceeding before the court. In the same vein, the Minister’s concession of leave was not as an adjunct of the Judiciary but as an autonomous agent of the Executive, outside the purview of the courts even if relating to an issue which arose out of an act of the Judiciary.
By definition, contempt of court requires the willful disobedience of a direct order of the court in a matter properly before it. Again, §34.20(1) which is a legislative act, authorized the Minister independent of the Judiciary to grant compassionate leave. In this light, it cannot be overemphasized that Minister Tah neither acted in contravention to any particular Court order, nor did she encroach on an ongoing proceeding before the court. Whatever the differences of opinion, there is no shred of objective evidence indicating that the Minister was motivated by an intention to “impugn the dignity of the court”.
- Even if one were to concede by the farthest stretch of the imagination that there was a potential for a valid finding of contempt in this matter, of all the arms of government, none better than the courts ought to defend the cardinal principal of justice captured by the Latin phrasenemo judex in cause sua. Simply translated, this means that one cannot sit as a judge in ones own case.
Granting this precept, therefore, a sitting court that alleges an offense against an officer of the court knows better than to be judge and jury in its own case. As an eminent commentator on this case put it in a different context, “Since the contempt alleged did not occur in the face of the court, the Supreme Court ought not to have tried the case itself. The case ought to have been heard by another court. In the instant case, the Supreme Court was a judge in its own cause.”
Equally noteworthy are the observations of a constitutional law expert of great global renown. In his analysis, even if it is assumed as the Court alleged that the Minister of Justice violated the doctrine of separation of powers, such violation cannot amount to a ground to hold anyone in contempt; the proper recourse is to void the Executive act that constitutes the violation. As this scholar put it, “Contempt is an important power of the judiciary and should be fully respected, but at the same time it should not be allowed to morph into an unreviewable [emphasis added] power to punish officials who take action that the judiciary ultimately concludes is ultra vires … [or] to enforce the judiciary’s sense of righteousness.”
- There are so many other compelling points of law that one could go on to enunciate. However, for the sake of brevity I wish to conclude on this note, which is that the Supreme Court’s finding of contempt and punishment by suspending the Minister of Justice’s license to practice law makes mockery of the role of the court as the arbiter of justice, which is the linchpin of democracy. Minister Tah’s license which is her credential to practice law is her hard-earned personal asset which predated her appointment as Minister, and in fact justified her appointment as Minister. Should the Court take exception to her exercise of duties arising out of her portfolio as Minister, common decency dictates that the punishment should be confined to that portfolio and not be globalized to strike at the core of her professional credentials.
To reinforce my support to vindicate the Minister, I will borrow again from the poignant observations of the former Attorney General quoted earlier that, “In most African nations today, the press is often the only viable opposition and nothing should be done to stifle it as was done by this windfall award of damages” [by a court which was presided by the brother-in-law of the plaintiff who sued Sieh for libel].
Madam President, in a response to the Open Letter written to you by a Susan Peyton on January 28, 2014, a comment sympathetic to you reads, “As eloquently as the writer has made her argument, I don't seem to understand what she wants Mrs. Sirleaf to do about the Supreme Court's decision. For the record, the president would be totally wrong to attempt publicly getting involved in this matter. The court has obviously erred, but the president has absolutely no right to review or criticize their decision. That should be left to public sentiment.”
I can understand the perceived dilemma from a lay person’s point of view. However, the commentator whose address ironically indicates an affiliation with a law school should know if he indeed earned a law degree, that where one branch of government exceeds the limits of its powers, it is incumbent upon the branch whose powers are infringed, to push back. There is judicial precedent in Liberia for that matter to establish that when the Supreme Court in the past attempted to suspend the license of a Justice Minister, the President intervened to safeguard the powers of the Executive in keeping with the separation of powers doctrine.
Although it may not be typical in some circles to affirm much of former President Doe’s footprints, in this context, he actually set a precedent which is relevant. Apparently, during his administration, the Court attempted to hamstring the sitting Minister of Justice, Jenkins Scott, through a sentence suspending his license to practice law for two-years as a penalty for implying in a local newspaper that only the rich had access to justice in Liberian courts. The President publicly criticized this judicial overreach and threw the full weight of Presidential Powers behind the Executive Cabinet Minister who carried on with the crucial demands of his portfolio.
Madam President, may I humbly submit that should you, as the Chief Executive of Liberia, choose the path of least resistance to placate the judiciary; you will create a slippery slope which is bound to undermine your legacy. If you elect to remain ambivalent and pass the buck, so to say, on this foundational constitutional concern, we will have the self-same separation of powers doctrine hereby compromised to thank for the possibility of a legislative redress.
Permit me to leave you with the incisive conclusion of the prolific former Attorney General, whose expert input was elicited for this analysis. Per his advice, “I am firmly but humbly of the view that the Attorney General acted within her jurisdiction. If it is felt that this is a power which she ought not to have then the law should be amended accordingly.”
Kate Chang, Attorney-at-Law, California