THE LIBERIAN JUDICIARY IN DISARRAY: CASE AND POINT,
Mary Sheriff v. Jesse K. Mulbah and the Gbagbahs
September 28, 2011
It is difficult to overemphasize the extent to which the vicious civil war in Liberia devastated the country. The mindless destruction of property and infrastructure was exacerbated by the death, disability, and displacement of thousands of lives. In an unprecedented debacle, the country was forced into chaos and a speedy backward slide. Liberians, friends of Liberia, and the international community therefore breathed a sigh of relief when Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was inaugurated President after two rounds of internationally monitored elections.
President Johnson-Sirleaf’s inauguration energized Liberians and gave them a long lost hope in their country. This renewed vigor of Liberians reinforced their hope and optimism, pointing them to a brighter future.
Among President Sirleaf’s efforts to rebuild Liberia were her laudable emphases on peace, unity, security, and economic development. Added to these was her desire to revamp and strengthen the judicial system which was in tatters. The appointment of Johnny Lewis as Chief Justice, a legal scholar, was believed to be a judicious step in the right direction. It was hoped this would bring order to an otherwise chaotic country and foster justice where injustice was the order of the day. Unfortunately, this hope remains a dream. A glaring example centers on two cases concerning me, including, Mary Sheriff v. the Gbagbahs, and eventually, Mary Sheriff v. Jesse K. Mulbah.
For years, I toiled to put roofs over the heads of members of my family. Of course, in buying lands for my homes, knowing the many challenges to deeds in Monrovia, I checked diligently before making payments. Yet, after years of owning two houses in Monrovia, I have lost one house and am about to lose another due to bribery, inefficiency, and lack of ethical standards within the judicial system of Liberia. Here are the facts.
In 1985, a certain Charles D. B. King filed a lawsuit against the Gbagbahs, my future landlords, concerning a piece of land in the Matida and Lakpasee vicinity. The Supreme Court of Liberia ruled that the land belonged to the Gbagbas. The Kings re-filed the case on the same merit in 1997 and the court once more ruled in favor of the Gbagbas. Based on these rulings, I bought the land from the Gbagbas, the legitimate owners, and built a house on it. Later, Madam Sheriff filed a lawsuit against me in Civil Court claiming ownership of the land on which my house was built. Madame Sheriff bought her land from the Kings who did not have title to the land. Despite this, she bribed the jury which ruled in her favor. In light of two prior Supreme Court rulings in favor of my landlords, the judge set aside the jury verdict and ruled in my favor. Unsatisfied, the Plaintiff appealed the case to the Supreme Court which remanded the case to the Civil Law Court. Knowing the Civil Law Court had ruled against her, the Plaintiff waited until I left the country in 2006 before she filed the case with the Supreme Court on the same merit. Surprisingly, the court ruled in her favor, ignoring the rulings in 1985 and 1997 regarding the same piece of land.
Indeed, the Supreme Court’s retrying a case it had remanded and ignoring its prior rulings were huge shockers to legal scholars. To add insult to injury, when the Plaintiff re-filed the case with the Supreme Court on the same merit, her lawyer was from a law firm owned and operated by an associate justice on the present Supreme Court. Yet, the Associate Justice did not recuse himself from the case nor did he disclose his affiliation with the lawyer representing the Plaintiff. Naturally, his presence on the bench in trying my case had an adverse and undue influence on the court’s ruling.
I am not a lawyer but one does not need to be an attorney to know that an associate justice on the Supreme Court bench must act on the basis of legal ethics (if there is such a thing) and principles of conflict to recuse himself if lawyers from his firm are arguing before the court on which he sits. At the very least, he must disclose his affiliation with the lawyers before him to opposing counsel and the rest of the bench. In my case, and under the watchful eyes of Hon. Lewis, who knew or should have known the associate justice’s connection to the lawyers, this did not happen.
I also understand the court does not adjudicate a case twice on the same merits. Again, under the watchful eyes of Chief Justice Lewis, this was done in my case. As a consequence, I am about to lose a home in which my family and I resided for nearly fifteen years.
If I should lose my home due to judicial ineptitude, farce, bribery, extortion, and callousness within the judicial system, it will be the second time I would have been victimized. In 2009, a certain Martha Massaud sued me in Civil Law Court claiming ownership of a property I had owned for years. Although the Plaintiff had been out of Liberia for more than twenty years, the lower court inexplicably ruled in her favor. I appealed the case to the Supreme Court but lost because it was called to trial when my landlord who had vital evidence was out of town; pleas to postpone or continue the case were not heeded.
Again, I am not an attorney but, in both of my cases, the Supreme Court did not consider the issue of unjust enrichment. This is a situation in which one party is unjustly enriched at the expense of the other. Repossessing my land and the house on which I spent thousands of dollars rises to this level thereby placing the burden of restitution on the Plaintiff. Unfortunately, the court turned a blind eye to this conspicuous truth, another shocker to legal scholars.
The above cases and the unwarranted reversal of the Supreme Court’s rulings in 1985 and 1997 undoubtedly demonstrate a defenseless miscarriage of justice, a sad and regrettable reversal to the dark days of injustice in Liberia. However, the Hon. Johnny Lewis and the judicial system have a chance to reverse this horrible situation and thereby demonstrate openly that the putrescence that permeates and pollutes the judicial system is correctable. Similarly, it behooves the public to take every necessary measure to ensure that the bribing of judges and jurors, the conniving, double-dealings, and other putrid practices that poison our judicial system are exposed and eliminated. This is not the time to argue that one is not affected for today, I am victimized but tomorrow, who is next? Hence, we must heed the advice of Dr. Martin Luther King; that is, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This is incredibly crucial for the survival of our communities and the nation as a whole because, for sure, we do not want to return to chaotic days owing to incessant miscarriage of justice within our judicial system. However, this is no threat but a reality that, as this horrible practice continues unhindered; the possibility of returning to chaos is high. Thus, I hope Hon. Johnny Lewis, Her Excellency the president, and the entire UP government are listening.
I must not, and should not, lose my home on account of farce, ineptitude, and blatant violation of law.
Jesse K. Mulbah