Interpreting The Liberian Constituion: City
-What Does Article 40 Really Mean?
By Alphonso W. Nyenuh
Many, including constitutional scholars and social
commentators have variously interpreted Chapter 5, Article
40 of the Liberian Constitution. The debate over the
interpretation of this provision was prompted by
the decision of a majority membership of the House of Representatives to meet in Virginia, outside Monrovia and a subsequent resolution by the Virginia Representatives to remove then Speaker Edwin Snowe as Speaker for unrelated actions. In response Snowe charged that the Virginia meeting was unconstitutional and took his case to the Supreme Court of Liberia.
Lawyers representing Snowe filed a Petition for Prohibition before the Supreme Court contending the decision of majority members of the House of Representatives to meet in Virginia was unconstitutional because Virginia is not a “city” but a township. They relied on Chapter V, Article 40 of the Liberian Constitution which reads “Neither House shall adjourn for more than five days without the consent of the other and both Houses shall always sit in the same city”.
The Supreme Court of Liberia, charged with resolving constitutional questions, failed, either by design or default, to provide an
interpretation of the provision and simply referred the parties to the very provision the parties had asked it to interpret; noting in its ruling "We wish to draw attention of the parties to Article 40 of the Liberian Constitution which provides: “neither House shall adjourn for more than five days without the consent of the other and both Houses shall sit in the same city.” This ruling by the Supreme Court further deepened the debate over the actual interpretation of the provision, and left an erroneous interpretation to take hold, thus prompting this writing.
This writing will rely on four cardinal principles to provide the true interpretation of Chapter V Article 40 of the Constitution of Liberia.
A. THE PRINCIPLE OF THE SPIRIT AND INTENT OF THE LAW
This principle argues that every piece of law has a spirit and intent - either to remedy a situation that has existed before or to prevent an undesirable situation from obtaining that has the potential of obtaining, and that this should direct the interpretation/definition of
every law. This principle demands that whenever we seek to interpret a law we must do so asking ourselves what the intent is or could be; what the law might be seeking to remedy or to prevent.
So what might have been the intent of the framers of this provision? What might be the situation that this provision is designed to prevent or remedy? Might it be to restrict meetings of the Legislature to cities, as the Snowe lawyers contend?
Judging by the Principle of Spirit and Intent we can determine, rather quickly that the purpose of this provision is not to restrict
legislative meetings to cities; for what would be the rationale and what would it be seeking to prevent or remedy? In stead the intent of this provision is to ensure the smooth and effective functioning of the Legislature which is based upon collaboration between the two houses, by requiring that they meet in the same locality- be it a city, town, village, hamlet- etc., and within the same time period. This provision is seeking to prevent any one House of the Legislature from ‘thwarting’ legislative business by relocating to a place that will make collaboration with the other House difficult or from adjourning simply to obstruct debate or the passage of a law. Remember the main function of the Legislature is to make laws and the Constitution provides that both houses of the Legislature must concur in the passage of any law. This clause was thus inserted in the Constitution to prevent one house which may not be interested in the passage of a particular law or in the continuation of a particular legislative business from abruptly relocating
or adjourning to prevent that business from proceeding.
B. PARALLEL CITATION- What does the US Constitution say?
This concept permits us to cite or rely on international law such as treaties and conventions as well as laws and precedents from other countries (especially where local laws or precedents are not clear, are unavailable or need to be buttressed) to determine the interpretation of a law or to re-enforce a point.
Chapter 5, Article 40 of the Constitution of Liberia bears very strong similarities to a provision in the United States Constitution. Article 1, Sec. 5, paragraph 4, of the Constitution of the United States of America reads: "Neither house… shall, without the consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other place than that in which the two houses shall be sitting.
“The Spirit and Intent of this clause in the
US Constitution is described below as contained in the
Thomas Jefferson papers published by the University
of Chicago Press.
"Each house exercising separately its natural right to meet when and where it should think best, it might happen that the two houses would separate either in time or place, which would be inconvenient. It was necessary therefore to keep them together by restraining their natural right of deciding on separate times and places, and by requiring a concurrence of will."
Since we derive our jurisprudence from that of the US (including this constitutional provision) and, given the similarities in the two clauses it can be concluded that the purpose of the two clauses is one and the same.
C) THE PRINCIPLE OF CONTEXT
This principle dictates that as we seek to determine the meaning or purpose of a writing, be it a legal provision or otherwise, we must look at the totality of the circumstances because each word or phrase in a writing works to enforce and give meaning to the other(s) and it is only in their totality that their true, accurate and complete meaning can be attained.
Chapter 5, Article 40 of the Constitution of Liberia contains two clauses: the first clause states “Neither House shall adjourn for more than five days without the consent of the other…” What this clause is saying is that the House of Representatives cannot simply decide to stop meeting (adjourn) without the agreement of the Senate, and vice versa; meaning that the two houses must meet at the same time and to ensure that, the Constitution is saying that one house can not stop meeting without the other House agreeing to it.
The second clause reads “both Houses shall always sit in the same city”, meaning that the two houses (the House of Representatives and the Senate) must have their meetings in the same general location, the same place; one House should not be meeting in Fissebu while the other is meeting in River Gbeh. Using the principle of context, we can see how the thought expressed in the first clause agrees with and supports that expressed in the second clause. We can also easily deduce that the purpose of Article 40 is to ensure that both houses work together- meet in the same locality and within the same timeframe- to enhance their constitutional obligation of working together in the passage of legislation which is their prime duty.
To select a single non-determining word such as “city” in this provision and use it to ascribe meaning to an entire constitutional provision not only violates the principles of context and the Spirit of the law, it is also dangerous and misleading. This danger was powerfully illustrated in a letter carried on Frontpageafrica.com where the writer noted that such practice could lead others to interpret the Constitution’s use of the word “he” in reference to the President of Liberia to mean that only a man can be president.
D) LITERAL/GOOD ENGLISH MEANING: Good English demands that in seeking the meaning of any writing we must look for the determining words or phrases- the subject, the verb, the adjectives and other modifiers; these give meaning to every piece of writing; they determine where the emphasis is or should be placed and consequently what the meaning of a writing is. In the phrase “…both Houses shall always sit in the same city” (Chapter V, Article 40 of the Liberian Constitution) the defining/determining word is the adjective “same” used to modify the object “city”. The word “city” is used herein simply to reference a place, a locale, a
town, a village, and is not the determining word. If the phrase had included the indefinite article “a” to read in “a” city, meaning any city (as long as it is a city) then it could be interpreted as the Snowe lawyers contend.
Yes the framers could have given more clarity to this phrase had they written ‘in the same place’ in stead of “in the same city’; but no
constitution is perfect, as such there will always be such ambiguities. If constitutions were perfect documents the world would not need constitutional scholars and we would not even need a Supreme Court, which is established solely to interpret Constitutions and other laws. In situations where we are confronted with questions of interpreting the law we are best served by looking at the Spirit and Intent of the law, not exploit little ambiguities to advance a narrow agenda.
The intent of the framers was never to restrict meetings of the National Legislature to such ‘high’ profile places as cities, nor to
discriminate against municipalities such as townships, villages, etc., for what would be the logical or rational basis for the constitution of a country to include a provision whose sole purpose would be to restrict the legislature, a body comprised of people who represent and come mostly from towns, townships, and villages, from holding meetings in the areas that they represent.
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