14 January 2014

Liberia: Eyeing a Way Out - Sirleaf Consulting Over Suspension

Photo: Liberia Government
Justice Minister Christina Tah.

Monrovia — In the wake of a decision by the Supreme Court of Liberia to suspend Justice Minister Christiana Tah from practicing law in Liberia for six months, the Executive Mansion announced Monday that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has taken note of last week's decision, putting the career of her Attorney General and key legal advisor on hold.

The Supreme Court also suspended for three months, Beyan Howard, a member of FrontPageAfrica's legal team in its Toe libel case. The Executive Mansion says the President is holding consultations with eminent lawyers and legal professionals, including former Chief Justices and former Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, to fully comprehend the implications of the Court's decision, especially as it relates to the executive powers of the President.

The high court, last Friday suspended from practicing law for six months after finding her in contempt of court. In October, the court ordered Tah to explain why she should not be held in contempt for releasing FrontPageAfrica managing editor Rodney Sieh from prison. The court had jailed Sieh for failing to pay a $1.5 million libel fine to former agriculture minister J. Chris Toe.

In its ruling, the court ruled that the respondents, Counselor Christiana P. Tah, Minister of Justice/Attorney General and Counselor Beyan D. Howard committed contempt against the judiciary. "Their actions were not in consonance wit Section 34.20(1)of the Criminal Procedure Law of Liberia.

The actions of the respondents were instead deliberately intended to proceed through the Executive Branch of Government and release a prisoner who had been imprisoned for contempt of court without any reference to the Judiciary, in utter violation of the doctrine of separation of powers as enshrined in our constitution. Their actions are therefore punishable as such."

The ruling continued: "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."

Tah said then that her decision to release Sieh on "compassionate" grounds was part of her duties as attorney-general.

Tah is Liberia's chief prosecutor and legal advisor to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Her suspension raises questions for the government. Will the president ask the court to reconsider its decision? How effectively can Tah carry out her responsibilities without her law credentials?

In a Voice of America interview Monday, Information Minister Lewis Brown reiterated that Sirleaf is aware of the court's decision.

"The Executive is aware of this ruling; the executive has received it; the executive recognizes its duty to enforce it. But, it is working in a way to find out what are its rights as well and, in the face of such action, what are the options available to it," he said.

Lewis said the fundamental principle of the government is to continue to build and strengthen Liberia's democracy around the rule of law.

FrontPageAfrica reported in its Monday online edition that the Supreme Court's suspension of Tah "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 only other time that this has happened was during the administration of the late President Samuel Kanyon Doe, when the late Chief Justice Emmanuel Gbalazeh suspended then Justice Minister Jenkins K.Z.B. Scott for reportedly referring to judges as 'unprofessional.'

At the time, Doe "prevailed on Gbalazeh to reverse his decision and pointed out that the court's ruling to revoke Scott's license amounted to removing him from office, and that only the Head of State could remove government Ministers.

Lewis would not say if Sirleaf would ask the Supreme Court to withdraw its decision to suspend Tah's license except to say that Sirleaf will continue to deepen the progress that has been made.

"One thing you can be sure is that this President, as has been done in the past, will continue to respect the line of demarcation of the court, the independence of the various branches and the duty of the court to say what the law is," Lewis said.

He said he was not sure whether Sirleaf can go for six months or even a week without a justice minister.

"That is why she has availed herself to a wide range of consultations, including with legal scholars and luminaries in the country, those who have greater depth about what our constitution says.

You know, the court can make a decision, but it requires the executive to enforce the decision," Lewis said.

More on This

Will Ellen Follow Doe? High Court Contempt Comes Full Circle

When the Korkpor bench came down with a decision last Friday to suspend Justice Minister Christian Tah, it marked only … see more »

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