Why Rodney Sieh’s imprisonment is unconstitutional and what can be done to get us out of this mess1.
by Ambrose W. Wortorson, Esq.2
It has been clear for about one month now, that Rodney Sieh’s jailing is unconstitutional. However, greater care should have been taken to explain why neither the executive nor the judicial branch was able to do much, if anything, to get him released. Justice Minister Tah recently took to the airwaves to explain the judicial process, but that was after a deep skepticism had already gone viral. This public relations disaster – and disaster it is – has revealed a tendency of licensed professionals and political actors to talk over and past each other, much to the confusion of the people.
Chapter III of Liberia’s well-written 1984 Constitution concerns fundamental rights. Fundamental rights are those basic rights that are so important that there must be a higher purpose or a very special reason for curtailing them. Under Article 11 of Chapter III, "…all persons are equal before the law and are therefore entitled to the equal protection of the law". This means that the law cannot treat one set of people differently than another set of people without some very special reason for doing so. Article 15 of Chapter III explains, "…every person shall have the right to freedom of expression." That too, is a fundamental right. Section "b" of Article 15 specifically identifies "…freedom…of the press" as yet another fundamental right that cannot be curtailed without some very special reason. Article 20(a) of Chapter III ensures that,"…no person shall be deprived of…liberty…except as the out come of a hearing judgment…in accordance with due process of law. In other words, nobody in Liberia is allowed to lose his or her liberty without prior "notice". Article 20(a) of Chapter III also teaches that nobody is allowed to lose their liberty without being given an opportunity to argue against their loss of liberty. Finally, Article 20 (b) of Chapter III identifies an "…easy, expeditious and inexpensive appeal" from judgment as yet another "fundamental right".
ENFORCING JUDGMENT DEBTS
But, these fundamental rights are now clashing with a little-known enforcement of judgment statute from 1972, and that has Rodney Sieh behind bars today. The statute, Chapter 44 of the Liberian civil procedure code, specifically states that nobody should be jailed for failure to pay a debt, except in very limited exceptions. (Section 44.1). One of the exceptions concerns a failure to pay damages where there is an "injury to reputation". (Section 44.71(2)(e)).
Notably, the statue allows installment payments, deferred payments and even mandates that "professional tools and implements" are to be exempt from money judgments. (Section 44.27). So, the statute contains various "outs" to allow judgment debtors to continue making a living whilst paying off their debts. Clearly, this is not a statute that jails everybody who fails or refuses to pay a judgment debt. The statue expressly forbids that.
INJURY TO REPUTATION AND THE CONSTITUTION
Section 44.71(2)(e) has elevated a particular civil wrong -- injury to reputation -- to the level of a jailable offense, without any obvious or special reason for doing so. Indeed, a person who fails to pay a judgment after vaguely causing an "injury" to another person’s "reputation" is going straight to jail. But, a person who is found guilty after a civil trial of any other intentional torts can freely ignore the judgment without any fear of being jailed. That makes no sense and there is no rational basis for creating such a distinction in the law. Since journalists are the most likely to be accused of injuring other people’s reputations, Section 44.71(2)(e) may disproportionately affect them.
Arguably, Section 44.71(2)(e) has created a special class of civil wrongdoers -- mostly journalists -- who are more likely than other civil wrongdoers to be jailed. The distinction that Section 44.71(2)(e) has created violates Article 11 of Chapter III that mandates that, "…all persons are equal before the law and are therefore entitled to the equal protection of the law. " Section 44.71(2)(e) specifically singles out certain types of civil wrongdoers for harsher penalties than other civil wrongdoers. Under this formulation, not all civil wrongdoers are equal before the law.
FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
Section 44.71(2)(e) also appears to violate "freedom of the press", another fundamental right enumerated in the 1984 Constitution. Indeed, Rodney Sieh’s liberty was taken away when he could not or would not pay civil damages after a jury comprised of Liberian men and women found that his newspaper had crossed the line in two stories it carried in November 2009 and in January 2010. Section 44.71(2)(e) does not contain any guarantee that a party who has allegedly injured another person’s reputation will have an opportunity to contest his or her imprisonment before actually "going inside" if he or she can’t pay the judgment. This violates the fundamental right that nobody is allowed to lose their liberty without being given an opportunity to argue against their loss of liberty. No justification has ever been given for this.
Under Section 51.8 of the civil procedure code, Rodney Sieh’s trial judge was supposed to "fix" his appeal bond. It is discretionary, and the civil procedure code does not appear to have any formula for fixing an appeal bond. Rodney Sieh recently wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, that his appeal bond was a whopping $2.2 million dollars. That is an outrageous, and absurd sum, if true. If true, that absurd appeal bond vitiated Sieh's right to an appeal, because he could not afford it. It violated Article 20 (b) of Chapter III that identified an "…easy, expeditious and inexpensive appeal" as a fundamental right.
THE MECHANICS OF GETTING RODNEY RELEASED
Rodney’s Sieh’s imprisonment arguably violates the fundamental rights of equal protection, freedom of the press, due process and inexpensive appeals. Rodney Sieh’s lawyers should consider filing a petition, styled as a combined writ of mandamus, injunction, habeas corpus and certiorari, challenging the constitutionality of Section 44.71(2)(e). The petition could be filed with the Civil Law Court for the Sixth Judicial Circuit, Montserrado County. That lower court Judge will need to address the issues presented in the petition. The lower court may certify that Rodney’s Sieh’s new claims raise constitutional issues, and may transmit the matter directly to the Supreme Court for resolution, if it cannot resolve those matters itself. While the executive branch of the government is not a party to the underlying libel case that resulted in Rodney Sieh’s losing a civil jury trial, the Court will formally notify the Ministry of Justice that the constitutionality of a statute is being challenged.
Once notified, the executive branch should promptly file a Motion to Intervene. But the Motion to Intervene should be made only so that the government can go on the record as taking no position, or more radically, joining the petition. The statute, as written, is indefensible, and it appears to violate some cherished fundamental rights. Care must be taken however, to explain that the executive branch can oppose such constitutional challenges to existing statutes, but that it is not doing so now because the legislature may need to repeal and/or to update portions of Section 44.71(2). The executive branch should not be shy in stating that jailing folks on account of their judgment debts is repugnant. That would not only be fair, but it would also answer the clamor that "the government does something". In this instance, by taking no position, and doing nothing, the executive branch will in effect, be doing something. Alternatively, this administration can also show its alleged democratic stripes and join Sieh’s petition.
This case can still be settled. Settling does not mean surrendering. It means an agreement by both sides to cease-fire. However, a settlement would not absolve the legislature of the task of reviewing the judgment enforcement statute, and repealing provisions that put folks in jail simply because they don’t have money to pay judgment debts. Finally, the one good that has come out of this case, is that for the first time in a long while, non-lawyers are now scouring over the statutes, struggling to understand and interpret them, and in some instances calling for their repeal. Others have begun to review a relatively unknown, but very impressive body of Liberian Supreme Court case law. That is good. Just like the Koran is not for Imams alone, and the Bible is not for Pastors alone, the law is not for lawyers alone. It is for the people.
1 These are merely Mr. Wotorson’s thoughts and opinions, and they do not constitute legal advice, since he is only admitted to practice law in the United States, and not yet in Liberia.
2 Manhattanville College, B.A. Political Science (Honors), 1988. University of Miami School of Law, J.D., 1992. Admitted, New York, 1993, Second Department; United States District Court Southern District of New York, 1995; United States District Court, Eastern District of New York, 1998, United States District Court, Northern District of New York, 2000; United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, 2002.