11 January 2006

Liberia: The Three Branches Of Government


Their Independence, Affectability & Coordination (Part II: The Judicial Branch)

Article 3: Liberia is a unitary sovereign state divided into counties for administrative purposes. The form of government is Republican with three separate coordinate branches: the Legislative, the Executive and Judiciary. Consistent with the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances, no person holding office in one of these branches shall hold office in or exercise any of the powers assigned to either of the other two branches except as otherwise provided in this Constitution; and no person holding office in one of the said branches shall serve on any autonomous public agency. - The Constitution of Liberia

One lawyer told me once: "the bedrock of democracy is a strong, vibrant and functional Judiciary." Expounding further on his believe, he said that in order for democracy to survive the rule of law must be the guiding principle of governance, and by rule of law the Judiciary plays the final role.

But my lawyer friend was not disappointed with the way the government treats judges of court of record and courts of no record, specialized courts, as well as court officers, including, clerks, sheriffs, bailiffs, etc. The Judicial Branch of Government has been wounded and is further being stabbed with the dagger of the Executive Branch.

The Judiciary wields enormous power and that vested in the Supreme Court which is final arbiter of justice in Liberia, and such subordinate courts as the legislature may from time to time establish.

According to the Constitution of the land, the courts have the authority to apply both statutory and customary laws in accordance with the standards enacted by the Legislature.

One notable thing about the Supreme Court is that its judgments are final and binding and shall not be subject to appeal or review by any other branch of Government. This is one major aspect of the Supreme Court that the Executive has often flouted and violated.

Articles 65-76 discuss lengthily about the judiciary and what it is and it is not. Among other things, the Supreme Court receives and hears cases in its original and appellate jurisdictions. In the original jurisdiction, the case must have come to the High Court based on the gravamen, and when Constitution issues are raised in a suit.

Without delving into the specifics which are read in the constitution, there has been a perennial instance of neglect and disregard to the judicial system - the courts and the judges.

My nearly ten years of covering the courts afforded me the opportunity to know some of the real problems of the courts, the judges and court officers. The problems are biting and the Executive Branch is the creator. It appears that the justices of the Supreme Court over the years have not exerted reasonable pressure to change the situation.

At the level of the Supreme Court, it is does not come out too clearly but there are still problems that the Justices of the High Court encounter. Until recently, the offices of the Justices of the Supreme Court were hardly equipped; staff not well taken care of, typing papers lacking and other logistics were barely forthcoming, etc.

Worst of all, the problems of the Supreme Court are the fact that the Judiciary does not control its own budget. It is unknown whether or not this situation has changed with the transitional period. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court should be respected by the Finance and other ministries when comes to controlling and managing its own budget.

While that problem is stifling at the level of the Supreme Court, judges presiding over circuit courts and specialized courts who are measured up to cabinet ministers do not have official vehicles to convey them to and from work. The magistrates and Justices of the Peace (JPs) are hard hit.

Unlike cabinet ministers, some of who have three to four cars to their convenience, circuit judges walk home, sometimes join the general public to fight to book a taxi to go home. They are often exposed to ridicule.

Why shouldn't an evil-intentioned lawyer tempt the Probate Court Judge with few thousands of dollars when the Judge is expected to pass on a US$500,000 land case? Is it not humanly possible for the Debt Court, Tax Court, Labor court, or Civil Law Court Judge to be tempted to take a "cold water" - bribe - of US$250.00 to pass on case? What could come to mind of the judge who lives say in Paynesville and has to join the cue of passengers to fight for taxi or bus to go home?

I was at the Magisterial Court at the Temple of Justice the other day when a lady, apparently annoyed over the behavior of a court officer said, "The man did not bring the girl because they give him money to allow the girl to run away." Could this lady be right?

Yes! That is possible because the Magisterial Court has no money to transport a court officer to serve a writ. In most cases, the complainant most often pays the transport, but what happens if the bribe far more exceeds the transport fare? That is why the temptation for judges, court officers and others working with the judicial system.

It is no gainsaying that the rule of law is indispensable in our new democracy. The credibility of our political, social, economic system is more relevant when we begin to create confidence in the public that they have the Judiciary to trust for the administration of untainted justice.

We have also seen over the years that the Executive has exerted undue influence to the extent that decisions and opinions of the Supreme Court have been disrespected. Momo Jibba's alleged flogging of the Supreme Court officers at the TRADEVCO bank where they had gone to effect the High Court's decision is a classic example. Taylor epitomized dictatorship, flagrant disregard to the rule of law and bad governance. Those are the tenets of democracy that we are endeavoring to erase. The Liberian people must muster the will power to do it.

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