The Role of Judges in the Sustenance of Peace in Liberia

A Speech Delivered by Tiawan Gongloe at the 7th National Trial Judges Conference
February 2, 2018
Temple of Justice

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 4, 2018


Mr. Chief Justice and Members of the Supreme Court Bench
Representatives of the Executive and Legislative Branches of Government
Members of the Diplomatic Corp
The President and Members of the Bar
Members of the Clergy
Members of the Press
Mr. President of the Trial Judges Association and members of the Association
Judicial employees
Other Distinguished ladies and gentlemen

Let me first express my gratitude to His Honor Roosevelt Z. Willie, President of the National Association of the Trial Judges of Liberia and officers of this association of great men and women for doing me such a great honor by selecting me, amongst my learned colleagues to be the Guest Speaker at the 7th National Trial Judges Conference. However, my appreciation of this great honor is challenged by the fact that you have restricted me to speak on the theme: THE ROLE OF JUDGES IN THE SUSTENANCE OF PEACE. I consider this topic to be a very difficult one at this time in the history of our country and the level of conflicts in many parts of the world today.

Permit me, Your Honors, lest I be held in contempt, to modify the topic given me by confining my speech to Liberia, in order to avoid being broad. Therefore, by your permission, I will speak to you on the modified topic: THE ROLE OF JUDGES IN THE SUSTENANCE OF PEACE IN LIBERIA.  The role of judges is to interpret the laws of Liberia, as directed by article 20(b) of the Constitution of Liberia, “without sale, denial or delay”. In the performance of this role by judges and magistrates, the right to life, liberty, property, security of the person and privileges are protected. Also, in the performance of their role as interpreters of the law, a person or group of persons may be sentenced to life or lose their properties.

The decisions that magistrates and judges make, therefore, have life-changing effects on the parties that appear before them. The duty that magistrates and judges perform in society is the most sacred, of all the duties performed by the functionaries of government in our system of government. How can the performance of such a role sustain peace in Liberia? In order to answer this question, it is important too, first deal with some of the challenges that judges and magistrates face in the performance of their function.

The first challenge is that judges and magistrates work in a branch of government that does not control the national budget of the country. So, what can judges and magistrates do to keep the peace? In order for judges and magistrates to have the logistics to function, the Legislature and the Executive must agree in the budget preparation and approval processes to look with favor on the request of the judiciary for budgetary support. This is often difficult because the Legislature and Executive Branches of Government are controlled by politicians and for politicians to keep their job, unlike judges, they must rely on the approval of the citizens of Liberia on each Election Day. These politicians in the Legislature and Executive branches, therefore, often allocate more money for the building of roads, clinics, schools and other development initiatives that the people can see. The interpretation of the law, as very important as it is to sustaining peace and harmony, is not a concrete thing that anyone can see. It is not quantifiable or easily measurable. No presidential or legislative candidate can easily win election on a platform that emphasizes what he or she will do for judges upon taking office. This is one challenge for judges.

The second challenge that judges face is their dependence on the Executive Branch of Government for their security and the execution of their judgments and orders.  As provided by the Constitution of Liberia, the execution of a court’s order and judgments are done by a Sheriff, an officer of the Executive Branch. Also, the prison where judges commit accused persons and convicts are controlled by the Executive Branch of Government. Therefore, when the executive decides not to admit anyone who has been committed to jail by a judge or to execute orders and judgments of the courts, there is nothing that judges can do.

  The President of Liberia can direct a sheriff not to execute an order or judgment of a court and there is nothing that the court can do about it. Such action by the President is an obstruction of justice and undermines the rule of law. Yet, there is nothing that a judge can do about it. Such arbitrary action was, once, taken by President William V. S. Tubman in 1971, who in fact was an associate justice of the Supreme Court before becoming the President of Liberia. In the case: Ghoussalny v Nelson et al reported in 20 LLR 591, decided in 1972, President William V. S. Tubman, not wanting the judgment of the Civil Law Court to be enforced by the Sheriff of Montserrado County, who at the time was Sheriff P. Edward Nelson, wrote him the following letter instructing him not execute the court’s judgment:

"The Executive Mansion "Monrovia" Sir:
"You are hereby commanded not to serve any Writ of Execution or other relevant document emanating from the Civil Law Court in an Action between the L. M. Ericsson Telephone Company and Mr. Arif Ghoussanly until otherwise ordered by the Chief Executive. Fair not at your peril.

Given under my hand this 22nd Day of April 1971
WILLIAM V. S. TUBMAN, President of Liberia.”

This letter of the President clearly obstructed justice, undermined the authority of the judge and made him meaningless to the party in whose favor the judgment was being enforced. This action of the President was contrary to the doctrine of separation powers. Although the President was not alive when this matter was decided by the Supreme Court, there was nothing that the Court could have done to him, even if had been alive. Under Liberian Law, the President is immune from judicial proceedings.

Interestingly, such misconduct of a president is not unique to Liberia. A similar action was once taken by a president of the United States of America, President Andrew Jackson. The Supreme Court of the United States in the case: Worcester v. Georgia,decided in 1832, overturned the conviction of Samuel Worcester for being on Native American Land without a license. But President Andrew Jackson was not happy with the Supreme Court’s decision. Therefore, he was reluctant to enforce the decision of the Court. Here is what he is quoted to have said, in reaction to the court’s decision, “ Chief Justice John Marshall has made his decision. Let him enforce it”.

Both Presidents Andrew Jackson of the United States and William V. S. Tubman of Liberia were wrong. Under the doctrine of separation of powers, each branch of government is compelled to respect the functions of the other two branches of government. Without that there would be total chaos in government. In order for judges to be effective in the performance of their function, and to play a meaningful role in the sustenance of peace in Liberia, the Executive Branch must cooperate with judges.

The third challenge that judges face is that, unlike members of the Executive and the Legislature, judges cannot go to the press to explain their actions. Most often the press does not report on what happens in the courts. Therefore, the ordinary people tend not to be informed about decisions made by judges. In Liberia, that situation is improving, at least with the deployment of judicial reporters at the Temple of Justice and many parts of the country by the Liberia Broadcasting System and other news organs. The people of Liberia can only be persuaded by what happens in the court if they are informed. Good judgments rendered by judges regarding the right to life, liberty, property, and security of the person have the potential of sustaining the peace. However, if people are not informed about such good judgments they cannot appreciate the work of the court and be guided by it.

In a situation of such challenges, what can judges do to sustain the peace? To answer this question, I asked ordinary people in the streets of Monrovia about the role they think judges can play in Liberia to sustain the peace that we have had for 15 years. I got the following responses: “Judges must be honest in deciding cases that come before them”; “Judges must be neutral and impartial, that is, they must treat all parties before them equally”; “Judges should avoid being in fraternal organizations like UBF, Masonic Craft, etc, because they could be influenced by the rules and sanctions of such fraternities”; “ Judges should avoid being chairman or members of boards of any organization because they could make decisions favorable to those organizations”; “Judges should not be pastors or Imams, because they could favor members of their congregations”; “judges should not be members of civil society organizations”;  “Judges should refrain from taking  bribes no matter how great the temptation”; “As much as practicable judges should have limited interactions with members of the public”; “Judges must always be careful about what they say in private conversations with people”; Judges must always uphold the dignity of the high office they occupy by the way the conduct themselves in and out of court.” When I asked at the Carey Street Atayee Shop known as CENPID on how all of what they were saying about the dos and don’ts of being a judge could sustain peace, their answer was that if judges conduct themselves in the way they were thinking, then judges will have integrity and with integrity their decisions will be respected by party-litigants and the entire Liberian people. Then they went further, “the more party-litigants develop respect for judges, the more they will rely on the courts to resolve all disputes, rather than taking the law into their hands”. When most of the Liberian people develop the belief that judges only rely on the law and evidence to decide who is right or wrong in cases that come before them, they will develop more respect for judges and the courts will become trusted tribunals for the peaceful resolution of disputes. I agree with them. It is important to note that the views expressed by the ordinary people that I randomly interviewed are somehow reflected in the Judicial Cannons that control the conduct of judges in Liberia.

It is not every dispute in Liberia that is taken to court. Some are taken to community leaders, chiefs, religious leaders and civil society leaders. But when disputes are taken to the courts of our country the parties who appear in court expect to get nothing less than transparent justice, based on evidence and the law.

Of the many suggestions made by the ordinary people that I interviewed, the one advice that I must join them in giving the judges is the one that has to do with the avoidance of accepting bribe. None of the persons that I spoke with presented me evidence against any judge. In fact throughout our judicial history the only case of bribery that was ever brought against a member of the judiciary branch was the one brought against Magistrate Stralatum E. F. Cadogan, of the City of Monrovia in 1890, Cadogan v RL, 1 LLR 523 (1890) . The magistrate was found guilty but the conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court because the evidence showed that a return was not made to the writ of arrest served on the magistrate. Since then, there has been no case of bribery brought against a magistrate or a judge. Most of the reported cases on bribery have been against members of the trial jury. But members of the public continue to hold the view that judges are bribed. This view of the public is, sometimes strengthened by press statements by public figures. For example, the late former Minister of Justice, Jenkins K. Z. B. Scott was held in contempt of Court by the Supreme Court for accusing the judiciary of bribery in the following words,
“Public confidence in the Liberian Judicial System is at its lowest ebb ever due to the unprofessional tendency of most judges in the handling of cases; that recent daily reports reaching me from clients of several lawyers speak of lawyers and judges soliciting payments from clients but failing to deliver services. It is easier today in Liberia to prosecute a poor man successfully against government and win the case as a result of the unprofessional practice of most judges, than to convict a rich man in the court of law. Never in recent times has a so-called rich man lost a case before our courts, due to the high rate of monetary and individual interest among lawyers. If funds were available to keep surveillance on jury tampering, bribery, among others, a lot would be discovered involving some well known judges. Judges have a tendency to individualize things; and there are very few professionals in the country today."
Although, there has been no case brought before any of our courts or the Judiciary Inquiry Commission over a period of more than hundred years against any judge or magistrate for bribery, it is important to discuss the issue of bribery in order to advise judges and magistrates  to resist all temptations to engage in bribery because bribery undermines the trust and confidence of the public in the integrity of judges and magistrates and thereby make it difficult for judges to play any meaningful role in sustaining the peace.

Bribery is the most deadly and effective means by which public confidence in the integrity of any public servant is eroded. Bribery reduces a public servant such as a judge or magistrate to a mere commodity that can be purchased by the highest bidder. When a judge takes a bribe, whatever little respect the bribe-giver has for him or her immediately vanishes.  There is no small bribe. A bribe of one million dollars and a bribe of one dollar have the same grade under our penal law. Bribery is a second-degree felony, irrespective of the amount received or the value of the thing received. It should also be noted that the one who bribes a judge will never keep it secret. When a Liberian man or woman says, “Don’t worry about that judge; I will take care of him.” The notion that is immediately carried is that he or she knows how to influence the judge, most often with money or valuable.” If for example, a client tells a lawyer, I met the judge and he said you should go for the assignment,” the question that will come to mind is why a client should find it easier to get a judge to agree to issue an assignment in a case than a lawyer. This kind of conduct of a judge erodes public confidence in the justice system. The way to avoid that is to improve on calendaring so that on the basis of first come first serve, without the request of a lawyer or a client, cases can be automatically assigned by clerks of courts, in order to reduce the frequency of ex-party contact with a judge. 

Therefore, I recommend that this conference come up with a resolution on how to deal with the suspicion of bribery that hangs over judges and magistrates. I strongly believe that judges and magistrates are properly situated to deal with the menace of bribery. The first step that I suggest for judges and magistrates to take in this direction is to immediately hold in criminal contempt any lawyer or party-litigant who bribes or attempts to bribe a judge or a magistrate, for example, to approve a bond or release a prisoner from jail or perform any other judicial function. Bribery is contemptuous because it tends to undermine the integrity of a judge or a magistrate.  A judge or magistrate who is considered to by lawyers and party-litigants to be without integrity cannot sustain the peace. 

Not too long ago many judges and magistrates in Ghana were disgraced for accepting bribes and dismissed based on a recording done by a journalist who had a spy video recorder. If it happened in Ghana, it can happen here, too. Judges and magistrates should be careful because times are changing and the world is getting more and more sophisticated. Some judges tend to tell lawyers and party-litigants to leave their phones outside when entering their chambers. What such judges probably do not know is that there are over 12 types of spy video and audio recorders, including, pens, wristwatches, glasses, bracelets, buttons, just to name a few and they are cheap. Also, some are so small that they can hardly be noticed. Therefore, phones are not really the instruments of choice for a person who may want to spy on a judge or a magistrate. THE BEST THING TO DO IS NOT TO ACCEPT A BRIBE. Even, if a judge tells a bribe-giver to deposit his or her bribe money in his or her account, that deposit can be traced by the financial intelligence Unit (FIU). Consequently, the only role that judges and magistrates can play in sustaining the peace is to perform their roles as the priests and priestesses of justice with the highest degree of integrity.
I thank you.



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