analysisBy Rodney D. Sieh
Monrovia — When the Korkpor bench came down with a decision last Friday to suspend Justice Minister Christian Tah, it marked only the second time in Liberia's history that a sitting Minister of Justice, who also doubles as Dean of the high court and chief legal advisor to the President, had been dealt a severe professional blow.
The court also suspended for three months, Cllr. Beyan Howard, a member of the legal team representing FrontPageAfrica in its libel, defamation case against former Agriculture Minister Dr. J. Christopher Toe.
The Gbalazeh Bench vs. Samuel Doe
The only other time, came during the Samuel Kanyon Doe era when the late Chief Justice Emmanuel Gbalazeh struck a nerve when he suspended then Justice Minister Jenkins K.Z.B. Scott over critical comments the Minister had made about the judicial branch.
Scott was suspended by the Supreme Court from practicing law 'directly and indirectly' within the country for two years. His punishment came after he accused judges and lawyers of receiving bribes' and attributed 'rampant jury tampering' to the courts and lawyers. The Minister at the time reportedly referred to judges as 'unprofessional'.
Ironically, nearly three decades later, many of the problems laid out by Scott linger. The U.S. State Department report in the past three years has repeatedly lambasted the judiciary branch, suggesting that the post-war nation's judicial system is not only functioning slowly but is also corrupt.
The report says that while Liberia's constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary. "... However, the judicial system is corrupt and functions slowly."
More importantly, according to the report, "Judges" in the country are "subject to political, social, familial, and financial pressures."
"Judges were susceptible to bribes from the damages that they awarded in civil cases. Judges sometimes requested bribes to try cases, release detainees from prison, or find defendants not guilty in criminal cases.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes suggested that defendants pay a gratuity to appease judges, prosecutors, jurors, and police officers or to secure favorable rulings from them. Jurors were also susceptible to bribes, and the Ministry of Justice increased its calls to reform the jury system."
The end result has led to hundreds of prisoners being held at Monrovia Central Prison, which operates at more than four times its capacity due to the large number of pretrial detainees.
Even in 1984 when Scott set off a firestorm with Gbalazeh, the problem was on the radar. The September 21, 1984 edition of the government-owned New Liberian newspaper reported that Minister Scott's remarks grew out of his unsuccessful attempts to prosecute the Commissioner of Insurance, Mr. Benjamin I. Collins, who had been acquitted of criminal charges and reinstated. Following his statement, the Supreme Court cited the Minister and the New Liberian Editor (Aletha J. Roberts, who was also fined $500.00 by the Supreme Court.) for contempt proceedings to count for what the Court described as their 'derogatory, defamatory and impugning remarks ... uttered, published and circulated' about the Liberian judicial system".
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is yet to comment on the suspension of her Attorney General.
In the case Chief Justice Gbalazeh bench to task. Doe prevailed on Chief Justice Gbalazeh at the time to reverse his decision and pointed out that the court's decision to revoke Scott's license amounted to removing him from office and that only the Head of State could remove government Ministers. But legal experts say doe was acting as a dictator and not like the democracy now in the country.
Pres. Doe was head of the People's Redemption Council (PRC) which had toppled the William R. Tolbert's government in 1980, ending decades of Americo-Liberian rule.
However, the Council was dissolved after the approval of the 1984 constitution and replaced by the Interim National Assembly (INA) to pave the way for elections which were held in 1985.
Cllr. Bull Recalls ILA Dilemma
Cllr. Pearl Brown Bull, a member of the assembly recalls that at the time of the Scott's suspension, Liberia was in an interim stage and the Interim National Assembly of which Doe was the state chairman comprised of members of the PRC and representatives from the various counties and the constitution commission.
But Doe's hurdle in trying to impeach the Gbalazeh bench through the assembly, in retaliation for suspending Scott, according to Bull, was that the constitution of 1847 was suspended when the military took office in 1980.
"He brought the matter to the ILA, which raised the issue that the 1847 constitution had been suspended that gave legislature that power to impeach the chief justice."
Cllr. Bull recalls that she raised the issue that the 1847 constitution had already been suspended by the PRC and was no longer in play.
"The 1986 constitution had not been drafted and the ILA was not clothed with the authority to impeach the bench because the decree that brought the ILA did not clothe the body with the authority to impeach."
Bull says Doe took that into consideration and realized that and did not impeach the bench, but used his tactical resolution to keep Scott as Minister.
And on November 26, 1984, Doe ordered Chief Justice Emmanuel Gbalazeh to take back the decision of the Court against Scott, and to "immediately restore", to the Justice Minister the rights and privileges to practice law in the Republic of Liberia.
Nearly three decades later, the situation involving Cllr. Tah, who played a pivotal role in several concession agreements between Liberia and foreign firms, notably the petroleum agreement with Chevron and that with ExxonMobil, is resurrecting old wounds. Thus, the Minister's suspension is being viewed by many legal and political observers as a trigger point for a potential constitutional crisis.
Cllr. Christiana Tah officially assumed office of Minister of Justice and Attorney General on 13 July 2009, after her appointment by Sirleaf and confirmation by the Senate. She is a member of the Supreme Court Bar of the Republic of Liberia since 1987 and of the American Bar Association since 1994.
She practiced law as legal counsel with Maxwell and Maxwell Law offices in Monrovia in the realm of corporate law, labor law, banking and general international business transactions.
The tie that binds it all together lies in the fact that a key requirement to become Minister of Justice is that a person had to be a Counselor-at-Law prior to becoming a Minister of Justice.
Ironically, when Attorney Scott was appointed by Head of State Doe to succeed Minister Winston Tubman, the Head of State bypassed the normal procedure, ordered that a special ceremony be held at the Temple of Justice, at which Attorney Scott was made Counselor-at-Law and he inherited the title of Dean of the National Bar Association, making him the first person to do so in the history of the Ministry.
Will Dismissal Follow Suspension?
Legal analysts say, the suspension could lead to the dismissal of Minister Tah. Since the position of Justice Minister is reserved for a practicing lawyer, the six months suspension would mean Tah would not be able to sign documents on behalf of the government or represent the government of Liberia in any legal matter. However, legal analysts are unsure whether one of Tah's principal deputies could be allowed to sign documents on her behalf during the period of her suspension.
Part of the ministry's function is to procure proper evidence for, and conduct, prosecute, or defend all suits and proceedings in the courts in which the Republic or any officer thereof, as to such officer, is a party or may be interested; Institute all legal proceedings necessary for law enforcement.
The ministry is also responsible to furnish opinions as to legal matters and render services requiring legal skills to the president and other agencies of the Executive Branch of Government. Oversee the codification of the Liberian Statutory Law; administer the laws relating to admission, deportation and naturalization of aliens, and the regulation of aliens within Liberia.
The Minister is also tasked with the to the extent stated in the Aliens and Nationality Law, administer laws relating to the admission, deportation and naturalization of aliens, and the regulations of aliens within Liberia; Supervise the activities of the National Bureau of Investigation, the National Central Bureau and the National Police Force and Oversee all government activities relating to the administration of the Vehicle and Traffic Law prevention and control of fires.
Should her suspension hold and effected by the president, the Minister could be forced out. The matter is even more complicated for Sirleaf, who political observers say, is already embroiled in a tense relationship with the national legislature.
Thus, sticking it to the high court and following the route of former President Doe could strain relations between the Executive and the Judiciary branches of government.
Already, speculations have been rife that Sirleaf, who is said to have been looking to replace Tah for some time. Tah was one of the last officials to be announced by Sirleaf following her second term election. The President reportedly flirted with Associate Justice Kabineh Ja'neh, who rejected the position, before bringing Tah back as Minister.
Some executive Mansion sources tell FrontPageAfrica that the suspension came as a result of serious deliberations of the bench and background negotiations within the executive.
FrontPageAfrica has learned that Tah has in recent weeks been subject to undermining from some of her principal deputies. One of those deputies, Benedict Sannoh, is said to be on a shortlist, along with Sirleaf's legal advisor, Seward Cooper as a possible replacement for Tah.
Tah and Compassionate Leave
In Tah's case, the ruling handed down by the court late Friday evening, cited the refusal of the Justice Minister who also doubles as Dean of the Supreme Court Bar to send the FrontPageAfrica editor to prison.
The court in its ruling noted: "For her role in releasing Rodney D. Sieh from prison as well as her persistent affront to this court demonstrated in her refusal to reverse the action which formed the basis for the contempt proceedings, notwithstanding her Counsel's promise to return Rodney D. Sieh to prison, co-respondent Christiana P. Tah, Minister of Justice/Attorney General, is hereby suspended from the practice of law in the Republic of Liberia directly or indirectly, for the period of six (6) months; while, for his role played in the release of Rodney D. Sieh from prison, Counselor Beyan D. Howard is suspended from the practice of law directly or indirectly, for a period of three (3) months. The Clerk of this court is hereby ordered to communicate with the respondents informing them of the judgment of this court. It is so Ordered."
Ironically, the bench dismissed suggestions during Tah's appearance before the court to answer contempt charges, that issue of the publisher, returning to jail was not part of their agenda.
Former Solicitor General Michael Wright was asked by the Justices, what should be done to which, the bench replied: "We are not interested in seeing him going back to jail."
The case unfolded last October, when the Minister was summoned by the high court to show cause why she should not be held in contempt for releasing the then jailed Managing Editor.
The Supreme Court, which is the final arbiter of Justice, termed the release of the journalist as a disregard of the Court's order even though his rights to seek medical treatment from time to time while in prison whenever necessary was not surrendered.
Prior to the hearing, the justice Minister justified her position, saying she acted in the confines of the law. Among other things, she added that the decision to release Journalist Sieh on 'compassionate' grounds forms part of her function as attorney-general of the country.
It can be recalled that on Tuesday, October 8, 2013, the Government of Liberia (GOL) through the Ministry of Justice granted Mr. Sieh a 'compassionate' leave for the period of 30 days effective as of October 8, 2013.
The Minister Tah said this was in keeping with Chapter 34, Section 34.20 of the Criminal Procedure Law, 1LCLR.
According to Minister Tah, the government action was also based on a formal request by Cllr. Howard and Atty. J. Fonati Koffa.
However, Minister Tah advised that Mr. Sieh will not leave the city of Monrovia without first seeking the permission of the Assistant Minister for the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation (BCR).
The FPA publisher was ordered jailed by the Civil Law last August because of his failure to pay the amount of US$1, 534,000.00 and L$10, 500 to the former Agriculture Minister, Dr. Chris Toe for damages in a libel suit.
In addition, Mr. Sieh also failed to pay US$90, 000 and L$6, 800 as the cost of the court. It can be recalled that sometime ago, Dr. Toe sued the Management of FPA for libel.
Dr. Toe claimed the paper defamed his reputation when it published a series of articles linking him to corruption. According to him, the published articles against him were not based on facts.
FrontPage Africa took an appeal to the Supreme Court of Liberia, but was unable to perfect the appeal bond. Based on the legal proceedings, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court judgment and ordered the bail of Cost on the FPA.
Divided Bench Decides Tah's Fate
In weighing the decision on Tah, judiciary sources inform FrontPageAfrica that the bench was divided on punishment for the Minister. On the one hand, sources say, Chief Justice Korkpor, a long-time friend of the Minister, who some say owes gratitude to her for his legal career, preferred a fine.
It can be recalled that both Tah and the FPA lawyer, Howard had apologized to the court, under pressure amid threat that the law license could be revoked if they defended the FPA's publisher's Compassionate Leave.
Some Justices arguing among themselves advocated a one-year suspension, others six months, while Korkpor is said to have favored a fine but later reluctantly, went along with his peers.
Some sources are, however, questioning a meeting between some members of the bench and one of Sirleaf's legal advisers, Estrada Bernard, also the President's in-law.
"Why did Estrada Bernard speak to the justices. Did he go to beg? Or to influence the decision?," asked an Executive Mansion source.
In the backdrop of the ongoing predicament, is the fact that Tah appears to be entangled in resurrecting case of déjà vu. It can be recalled that Tah encountered similar deceptions in 2007 when she was nominated by Sirleaf to replace the late Emmanuel Wureh.
FrontPageAfrica reported at the time that some close aides objected to the appointment and prevailed on the president that Tah would not be a good fit because she was a member of the opposition Liberty Party.
A FrontPageAfrica investigation, quoting legislative sources reported at the time that the Executive Mansion lobbied behind its own appointment to ensure that Tah's appointment was rejected.
Six years later, Tah finds herself again entangle in yet another conspiracy. But the real dilemma is the uneasiness dogging Sirleaf, now faced with the complicated problem: The Supreme Court cannot enforce judgment, only the executive can, leaving many to wonder whether Sirleaf will enforce judgment against her Minister, as Samuel Doe did for Jenkins Scott or finally part ways with her chief legal advisor and attorney general.