Liberia: How Supreme Court Associate Justice Ja’neh Lost the ‘Political’ Impeachment Battle
Monrovia- In the moments leading to the reading of Chief Justice Francis Korkpor’s final verdict in the impeachment proceeding against Associate Justice Kabineh Ja’neh, murmurs and speculations heightened that members of the upper house in the national legislature received hefty payments to influence the outcome of the political impeachment of the embattled Associate Justice.
Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
Chief Justice Korkpor also faced criticisms of his own, bordering allegations that he had been compromised.
Accusations Dog Chief Justice
In fact, the accused, Justice Ja’neh prior to the start of the trial, demanded that the Chief Justice recuse himself from the proceedings. Although Article 43 of the Liberian Constitution gives the Chief Justice the power to preside whenever the President, Vice President or an Associate Justice is to be tried, Justice Ja’neh argued that Chief Justice and three other justices had signed the ruling which gave the green light for his (Ja’neh’s) impeachment.
Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe, head of the Liberia Bar Association also took the Chief Justice to task, accusing the head of the judiciary of condoning disrespect meted on the Court by the Legislature, going as far as emphasizing that the Chief Justice’s role in the proceeding was not constitutionally backed.
At the start of the March term of court, the Chief Justice Korkpor acknowledged the murmurs in the air: “I have heard and read, and continue to hear and read many accusations, innuendoes and speculative views about my role in the process. And some of these views are coming from people who ought to know better. As the matter is being tried, I will for now, refrain from making any substantive comments regarding my own role. But I assure that in the end the truth will emerge.”
The truth did emerge last Friday but not the one many including the accused Associate Justice Ja’neh was anticipating.
The Chief Justice, after days of overseeing the controversial trial concluded: “Counsels, there must be a real issue in order to set aside and order a revote. There has been no sustentative complaint have been brought me rule out the verdict from the jurors. On the one relating the road fund case, 22 Senators found him guilty and four not guilty while three abstained, therefore and in keeping with Article 43 of the Liberian Constitution the accused has been found guilty, under the vine I will now discharge the Liberian Senate with thanks and hereby, order that this proceeding is hereby adjourned”.
The impeachment is only the second to hit the high court in the history of Liberia, since independence in 1847.
In 1987, Chief Justice Chea Cheapo was impeached by the Senate for the jailing of Judge Harper Bailey. All but one Senator, David Menyongai of Margibi County, voted for Cheapoo’s impeachment. The Chief Justice Cheapo tendered in his resignation which was rejected by President Samuel Kanyon Doe at the time.
In Ja’neh’s saga, two prominent Senators, Oscar Cooper (Independent, Margibi) and Sando Johnson (NPP, Bomi), took issue with the Chief Justice’s handling of the case and accused him of changing the rules of the proceedings at the end of play.
11th Hour Rules Change
Senator Cooper accused Pro Temp Albert Chie of changing the rules of the voting at the eleventh hour and failing to allow Senators to adequately review minutes from the recent proceedings. “It’s in the middle of the game, in the closing arguments yesterday, they said that all the minutes, all the proceedings, the secretary of the senate supposed to give it to the Senators to read through, all the so-called evidence, then your go and read it two, three days then your come deliberate among yourself to come and convince your colleagues to vote. No minutes given, your run in your room. Then you change in the middle of the ninth hour – the impeachment argument that Varney Sherman wrote which was wrong with the voting process.
The Senator said Section Three of the Senate rules on voting requires Senators to put their names on the ballot and sign but the Pro Temp had changed the rules to favor those pushing for Justice J’aneh’s impeachment. “They tell you how to vote – your name would be put on the ballot, you vote guilty or not guilty and your signature and your county name. At the end of the day they changed it and said no, some Senators don’t want to be identified because their constituents will know how they voted, so the names should be removed. This is a crucial impeachment proceeding, you change it at the end of the game,” the Senator asked.
Senator Johnson agreed, telling legislative reporters last Friday at the end of the reading of the verdict, that the Chief Justice acted “irresponsibly” by not reading his complaints.
Senator Johnson walked out of the Senate’s Chamber, screaming: “How can I write such a letter to you and you as a Chief Justice and you refuse to read it? That’s an irresponsible act on the part of the Chief Justice! He should have read my complain, read my complain. He can’t deny me.”
The Bomi Senator said he and two other Senators wrote the Chief Justice to file their complaint. “Our complaint was one: Rule 63 was tampered with, we adopted Rule 63 and Rule 63 says, ‘For every Senator going to vote, there will be a form to be filled out with their name and must sign it.’”
The Cash Violence Chatters
In addition to cries of foul play and allegations of tampering with the rules, speculations floated in the air that thousands of dollars were being paid to Senators through Representative J. Fonati Koffa (Grand Kru), formerly of the Liberty Party who recently crossed carpet to the ruling party.
Cllr. Koffa emphatically denied dispensing money on behalf of the Executive branch toward the impeachment of Associate Justice Kabineh J’aneh, when FPA contacted him last week. “I must take this time and occasion to categorically deny that I have met any senator or distributed any money to anyone in an attempt to influence the results of the ongoing impeachment process. This is an unfortunate rumor disseminated by truth FM for its own purpose. I would normally refrain from commenting on rumors but feel the need to set the record straight in this one,” the lawmaker said.
As chatters continued in the aftermath of last Friday’s decision, Senator Prince Y. Johnson (NUDP, Nimba County) said at the weekend that he could not rule out the fact that some Senators looking to win re-election next year, may have been engaged in a barter exchange for a vote to impeach Ja’neh in exchange for cash.
Said Senator Johnson: “Don’t forget that we got fifteen Senators going for elections, and they need other incentives and they need vehicles and other thing so we do not know what went wrong.”
Speaking with a local radio station in Ganta at the weekend, Senator Johnson, a former warlord and leader of the erstwhile Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, laid the blame squarely on Justice Ja’neh for his own impeachment because he (Ja’neh) ignored warnings some sixteen weeks ago to step down from the bench and take a five-year incentive package offer from the “government of the day”.
Senator Johnson himself insinuated that it is nearly impossible for any kind of lobbying to go on in the legislature without money changing hands. “Don’t forget, I want all Nimbaians to know, political case, political impeachment process, if you are lobbying with your empty mouth, they assume that you are getting so much money from the other side and you keep it in your damn pocket and you bringing your empty mouth to them – they don’t listen you. You know politics is interest. This is a Liberianization issue – they think that you are getting so much money from the nominee and bringing you empty mouth to them.”
The Senator however went on to rule out speculations that each Senator received some US$35,000 for their vote to impeach the Associate Justice. “I do not like fiction. Liberian people are used to too much fiction. I like to deal with facts, we are dealing with facts, I don’t deal with speculations. Did they give it to me – for even my bodyguard to see it? No! That Nicodemus way, that midnight thing. If they got money to give me, what I will do, I will put all of my bodyguards outside, I have a house in the fence, I have a house that got strong gate, I got dogs, nobody can enter and come harm me. So, I will put them outside and say your go home, your go rest and by the time they go I can signal them and say your go, nobody here. So, if you give me any money that secret. So, don’t mind what people are saying.”
The Senator added: “They may not have received money, they may have, I don’t know – and I say politics thing that secret thing, nobody knows what happened but it is a political trial and the way the evidence went and he was acquitted of three counts but the fourth count regarding the road fund, that’s how he was convicted. But these people are going for elections and they got many fears but some of them may have dropped those fears – come whatever may, let’s vote this way but look at the evidence.”
Betrayal Within Ranks – How Ja’neh Lost
Cash or no cash, it turns out – as Senator Johnson asserted at the weekend, Justice Ja’neh simply could not rely on a lot those he was counting on.
Simply put, the embattled Associate Justice needed just 10 votes locked to save his seat on the bench.
Those numbers could have been secured from the two leading opposition parties – the former ruling Unity Party and the Liberty Party who have in total, eleven Senators representing their respective parties.
But nearly all, including the party’s former chairman Senator Varney Sherman broke ranks prompting some of his peers to call for his resignation as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
For UP, Sen. Edward. B. Dagoseh (Cape Mount); Sen. Varney
Sherman (Cape Mount); Sen. Morris Saytumah (Bomi); Sen. George Tengbeh (Lofa);
Sen. Thomas Grupee (Nimba); Sen. Alphonso Gaye (Grand Gedeh); Sen. Matthew Jaye
(Rivergee) and Sen. Milton Teahjay (Sinoe)
For LP, Jonathan Kaipay, Sen. Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence (Bassa) and Sen. Steve Zargo (Lofa)
Only seven senators stood their ground by either voting against the impeachment or abstaining: (Steve Zargo (Lofa), Conmany Wesseh (Rivergee), Daniel Nathan (Gbarpolu), Sando Johnson (Bomi), Henrique Tokpah (Bong), Nyonblee Karnga (Bassa) and Oscar Cooper (Margibi). The three abstentions were: Henrique Tokpah (Bong), Nyonblee Karnga Lawrence and Oscar Cooper.
Senator Henry Yallah (NPP, Bong), who read the summary of the Senate decision, indicated that on the count of the road fund, Justice Ja’neh was guilty of impeachable offenses of official misconduct and gross breach of duty and the punishment is as indicated in Article 43 of the 1986 Constitution of Liberia.
The Supreme Court Associate Justice was found guilty for granting a Writ of Prohibition petitioned by petroleum dealers in the country to stop the collection of levy/taxes of US$0.30(Road Fund) imposed on the pump of petroleum products.
The Associate Justice was however acquitted of charges of official misconduct and gross breach of duty in the theft of records of the House of Representatives, impeachment prohibition and the Constance Land Cases respectively.
In the case on theft of records of the House of records of the House of Representatives, 14 Senators voted guilty, 12 voted not guilty, while three abstained from the process.
Regarding the impeachment prohibition case, 14 Senators voted guilty, 12 voted not guilty and three abstained from the process. In respect to the Constance Land Case, 18 Senators voted guilty, eight voted not guilty, while three abstained from the process.
Twenty-two Senators voted to remove Justice Ja’neh, while four voted against his removal. Three abstained from the process amounting to a total of 28 Senators, leading to two-thirds of the total current membership of the Senate who voted to convict Justice Ja’neh on the charge of official misconduct.
The Senate recently lost Geraldine Doe-Sheriff (UP, Montserrado County) creating a vacuum in the upper house and Senator Karnga-Lawrence who recently lost her husband, Rep. Adolph Lawrence, did not cast a vote last Friday, bringing the total to 28 Senators who participated in the process.
Crying Foul – Before & After Verdict
Minutes to the announcement of the final verdict, Justice Ja’neh’s legal team filed before the Presiding Officer, Chief Justice His Honor Francis S. Korkpor to dismiss from the records the results of the verdict, on grounds that the President Pro-tempore of the Senate Albert Chie failed to follow the amendment Senate rule 63, with regards to the procedurals of voting.
With respect to such petition, the Presiding Officer, ascertained from the Pro-Temp the accusations as made.
In response, Pro-Tempore Chie dismissed the arguments from the Associate Justice’s Lawyer and noted that what was used was a mere procedural for voting and not a new rule as claimed.
In presenting the Verdict, Chief Justice Korkpor stated…. “Counsels, there must be a real issue in order to set aside and order a revote. There has been no sustentative complaint have been brought me rule out the verdict from the jurors. On the one relating the road fund case, 22 Senators found him guilty and four not guilty while three abstained, therefore and in keeping with Article 43 of the Liberian Constitution the accused has been found guilty, under the vine I will now discharge the Liberian Senate with thanks and hereby, order that this proceeding is hereby adjourned”.
Justice Ja’neh was impeached last August by the House of Representatives over four counts ranging from abuse of judicial power, theft of property, among others.
The matter was then forwarded to the Upper House of the Liberian Legislature for trial, and subsequently removed or acquitted based on process guarded by due process of law.
The entire proceedings at the Senate was entertained by testimonies from witnesses and evidence from both parties, with the defendant (Kabineh M. Ja’neh) taken the stand, hereby pleading not guilty to the charges against him.
Political Fallout – Expulsion Chatters in the Air
For Senators representing the opposition, particularly the Liberty Party and the former ruling party, explanations may be in the cards. At least five legislators in the UP – Senator Edward Dagoseh (Grand Cape Mount), Thomas Grupee (Nimba), Senator George Tengbeh (Lofa), Matthew Jaye (Rivergee) and Alphonso Gaye (Grand Gedeh)- are up for re-election next year. While LP’s Jonathan Kaipay, Sen. Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence (Bassa) and Sen. Steve Zargo (Lofa).
Executives of both LP and UP have hinted that those Senators could booted out.
Abraham Darius Dillon, the chair of political affairs in the opposition Liberty has threatened to leave his party if authorities in the hierarchy fail to expel Senator Jonathan Kaipay (Liberty Party, Bassa); one of several senators who voted in favor of the impeachment of Supreme Court Associate Justice Kabineh Ja’neh.
Speaking on his Facebook Live segment hours after the court came down with a ruling to impeach Justice Ja’neh, Mr. Dillon said Senator Kaipay brought shame and disgrace to the party by going against its position in the saga which prompted him to throw out a challenge to his party.
“I am challenging my Party, Liberty Party to expel Sen.
Jonathan Kaipay for voting in favor of the politically-driven impeachment
against Associate Justice Kabineh M. Ja’neh. Kaipay is a deviant from
institutional decision. The Party must act or I will suspend my membership with
the Party. We cannot institutionally condemn a process as being wrong and
unconstitutional, but then have a Senator of our Party vote otherwise,
especially after he was cited along with other Senators of the Party during
which the Party’s position was clearly expressed and made known. Worse off is
that Kaipay promised on record during said meeting he would respect the Party’s
decision and act accordingly.”
Unity Party executives have also hinted that some of their executives could face the boot. A high-ranking UP official confirmed that the former ruling party has threatened to take action against all of its Senators who voted for impeachment. “Those going for re-election will not contest on the party’s ticket.”
For the foreseeable future, threats of resignation and expulsions could be put to test as many political observers gauge the fallout in the aftermath of the political impeachment of Justice Ja’neh.
The immediate political future for now appears to be compounded by issues of credibility and confidence in the country’s judicial system. As Senator Cooper said prior to last Friday’s verdict. “When you do these kinds of things, the public loses confidence in the voting process.”
The ramifications he says of what the Senate has done could have far-reaching ramifications on the credibility of future elections.