Liberia: Chief Justice Post Soon to be Vacant as Justice Korkpor Reaches Retirement Age in September


Monrovia – When Chief Justice Francis Korkpor, Sr. delivers the opening address of the March Term of the Supreme Court of Liberia today, it will almost certainly mark the last time Liberians will be seeing him perform the task.

Article 72(b) of the Constitution of Liberia provides that “the Chief Justice and  the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of subordinate courts of records shall be retired at the age of seventy…”

Chief Justice Korkpor turns 70 on September 5, this year.

In the event of his departure from the bench in September, at the next opening ceremony of this Court on the second Monday in October this year, a new Chief Justice or the Senior Associate Justice will perform the duties, in keeping with the practice and procedure, shall be conducting the affairs of the Supreme Court and the Judiciary pending the appointment of a Chief Justice by the President of Liberia.

The climax of Chief Justice Korkpor’s presence on the High Court will also mark the end of many years of private law practice, beginning with his time as lawyer for the Catholic Church and its affiliate institutions, and human rights advocacy with the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, all the way to the Supreme Court Bench in 2004.

Korkpor arrived on the bench at a crucial time when the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) headed by the late Charles Gyude Bryant was at the help of power following more than a decade of civil war.

Recommended by the Liberian National Bar Association. The members of the Supreme Court at the time were Chief Justice Henry Reed Cooper, and Associate Justices Francis S. Korkpor,Sr., John L. Greaves, Ishmael P. Campbell and Felicia V. Colemen. Two members of that Bench, Mr. Justice Campbell and Mr. Justice Greaves,  have since departed this world to the great beyond.

After two years of service, all five Justices of the Court resigned to give way to the new democratically elected government headed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to appoint Justices of the Court under a constitutional government.

When Sirleaf finally made her appointment, Korkpor was the only Justice retained and reappointed to the Supreme Court by President Sirleaf.

Sirleaf’s decision was simple, giving Korkpor the chance at continuity of the programs and activities of the Court. Sirleaf’s decision was also based in no small part on key criteria she considered essential of a Justice, key amongst which are knowledge of the law, integrity and human rights records amongst others.

Korkpor was appointed along with Chief Justice Johnnie N. Lewis and Associate Justices J. Emmanuel Wureh, Francis S. Korkpor, Sr., Gladys K. Johnson and Kabineh M. Ja’neh.

Wureh passed after a brief but distinguished service on the Lewis’ Bench.

When the late Chief Justice Lewis resigned in September 2012 due to illness, President Sirleaf again appointed Korkpor to serve as Chief Justice, a decision that was overwhelmingly endorsed by many who recalled Korkpor’s time seeking justice for the poor and destitute as a member of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission.

For Korkpor, the appointment was a validation of his life’s work. “I cannot recall that there was a single person or institution in this country that raised issue with my nominations, twice as an Associate Justice  and then as Chief Justice. I should say that I have no connection that influenced my appointments to this Court; my preferments were purely based on whatever good those who appointed me saw in me. Having been blessed with national leadership, I promised that I would not betray the confidence of the Liberian people who bestowed the honor on me. I believe I have kept that promise. I have honestly endeavored to live the life of a high court judge.”

Over the past years, the high court has been swirling in controversy over the impeachment of former Associate Justice Kabineh J’aneh and the disputed 2017 presidential elections.

In November 2017, the court put the presidential run-off on hold until the electoral commission could investigate claims of irregularities and alleged fraud in last month’s first round of voting.

Cllr. Charles Walker Brumskine, the late leader of the opposition Liberty Party, had cited “gross irregularities” in the first round and accused NEC officials of fraud.

The NEC denied wrongdoing and said the election was largely fair. International observers say they saw no major problems with the vote. However, several parties had their doubts about the vote, including former Vice President Joesph Boakai’s Unity Party, which had accused former President Johnson Sirleaf, one of its own members, of trying to influence the vote, an allegation Sirleaf rejected.

In December 2017, the high court ruled that evidence of fraud during the first round of presidential elections was insufficient to merit a re-run, giving the greenlight for a second round showdown between George Weah and Joseph Boakai which was eventually won by Weah.

In February 2019, Chief Justice Korkpor denied a petition from lawyers representing Associate Justice J’aneh, requesting him to recuse himself from the impeachment trial of Associate Justice J’aneh citing conflict of interest issues.

Justice J’aneh reference the Supreme Court in case Republic of Liberia versus H. Lafafette Harmon which was decided on December 22,1936 and opined as follows: “The Principles of impartiality and disinterestedness and fairness on the part of the judge are as old as the history of courts of justice and it those three cardinal principles supposed to exists which give credit and tolerance to the decrees of judicial tribunal.”

In his ruling, the Chief Justice opined that he saw no reason for him to recuse himself, stating: “A conflict of interest arises when the considerations of a party is to the detriment of another party. Certainly I see no issue of private pecuniary interest involved here.”

The Chief Justice further asked: “Is it a conflict of interest for the Supreme Court to meticulously apply the law passed by the Legislature? Can one be adjudged liable or guilty for applying the law? The answer is no. Therefore, I committed no conflict of interest when I, along with three other Justices signed the Judgment Without Opinion in favor of the Movant for the failure of Madam Constance to have perfected her appeal.”

More importantly, the Chief Justice asked: “How am I “conflicted” from the standpoint of the Movant because of the Judgment I signed in the Constance Case? After all the Judgment in question, though not on the merits of the case, inure to the benefit of the Movant. So, for all intents and purposes, the Movant should not be the one raising the issue of conflict, even if any.”

As he prepares to take his bow, Chief Justice Korkpor is confident in his handling of the court. “I am the same person yesterday who was favored by the people. I have not allowed the title or nomenclature “Chief Justice” to becloud my head or for any outside influence to direct my course of action as a justice of this Court, I have remained calm and quiet but resolute in doing my job.”

Having served at various times on the high court, Korkpor says he has worked assiduously to improve conditions in the Judiciary.

The Henry Reed Cooper Bench was ushered in after the devastating civil war that ravaged this nation and its institutions, including the Judiciary. The core concern of that Bench was rehabilitating and repairing court structures. In this regards, the Supreme Court worked closely with the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). In addition to support received from the Liberian Government, the Quick Impact Program of UNMIL was instrumental in repairing and/or constructing court facilities throughout the country, with emphasis on magistrate courts. The Cooper Bench is also credited with laying the basis for realistic salary structure for judicial workers, especially Circuit and Specialized Court Judges.

Under the Johnnie Lewis Bench more reform programs were envisioned and some were   implemented. Two Judicial Complexes were built in Sinoe and Gbapolu Counties. On the grounds of the Temple of Justice, four new court houses were constructed which now house Criminal Court “C”, Criminal Court “D” and the Civil Law Court and the proposed Second Division of the Civil Law Court. The James A.A. Pierre Judicial Institute was established to train support staff and give refresher courses to judges and magistrates; the Institute also took on the task of recruiting and training “professional magistrates.” The Public Defense Program was also established.

Korkpor was part of the achievements made on both the Cooper and the Lewis bench.  Despite his accomplishments, the Chief Justice has never been without his critics.

Senator Prince Y. Johnson, expressing his disagreement over the J’aneh impeachment, argued that the impeachment proceeding, according to the constitution should have started from the lower house. “The lower house has the responsibility to prepare the bill of impeachment. The bill of impeachment will carry the charges. When you have done that, the second step is for the legislature, that means the Senate and the lower house to come out with the rules of proceeding.”

Critics also contended at the time that the process had been entangled in constitutional violations which could pose serious repercussions for the future dispensation of justice in Liberia. But Korkpor has repeatedly defended his time on the bench.

Amid the criticisms of his reign as Chief Justice, Korkpor has embraced the critics, declaring during the October Term of Court last year that the Judiciary is open to accept frank and candid criticisms of judicial opinions and decisions, stressing that frank criticisms do not harm or pose any threat to the independence of the Judiciary. “In fact, it may sound paradoxical,” the Chief Justice asserted, “but it is true that such criticism have to insulate the independence of the Judiciary.”