By: Julius R. Addy Jr.
Allow me to comment on the legislature’s contempt power, which has been a source of much discontentment amongst a certain group of citizens with regards to its application.
Firstly, I am of the view that this dissatisfaction in some segments of our society originates from the fact that some people either do not understand the meaning of legislative contempt or that they understand what it means but do not agree with the manner in which this power is exercised. In either case, it is important that we prioritize creating the awareness of how the legislature ought to coordinate with other branches of government, promoting understanding of the scope and limitations of its functions in light of constitutional checks and balances. The legal affairs office and the office of press and public affairs of the legislature can work closely together to ensure that the public is sufficiently informed as to the transparent, professional, credible and lawful nature and procedures of plenary investigations even before actual contempt proceedings are initiated.
Legislative contempt power is not one which is exercised with haste, anger, personal indifference, hate or with disregard for due process of law. The legislature is a body created by constitutional law, not by political or personal indifferences. Its contempt power is that power which is applied when its work is being obstructed, or when the work of its committees or members is being undermined or disrespected. For example, bribing a representative or physically obstructing a senator from attending session is considered contempt of legislature. Law writers have maintained that if a legislative committee or plenary issues a valid invitation or subpoena to an official or citizen to appear before it to give testimony or produce documents pertinent to an ongoing investigation in pursuance of its oversight responsibility or in fulfillment of matters within the legislative sphere, a refusal or unexplained delay may be considered disrespectful, obstructive, and therefore contemptuous.
The contempt power of the legislature is not used to raise or issue indictments or to prosecute officials of the executive branch of government for violating the penal code, budget law or other laws of Liberia. Doing so would mean performing the work of the executive branch of government whose function is to raise indictments or prosecute officials accused of violating the law. The Attorney-General’s office is responsible for raising indictments and prosecutions. When in the exercise of its oversight responsibility the legislature discovers that there has been a breach of public trust, its findings may be forwarded to the Ministry of Justice and/or LACC for prosecution. The difficulty, however, is that both institutions cannot operate without the aid of the presidency in one way or the other because the presidency is a very powerful office under our law. Under the current constitution of 1986, the justice minister serves at the will and pleasure of the president who has constitutional power to appoint or remove an official of the executive. Although the minister may differ with the president on issues of law, he/she may not necessarily do so out of fear of reprimand. So the argument that the legislature is the first or most powerful branch of government is really not practically potent, is it? For example, if the legislature decided to impeach an elected official for constantly violating the law, they will have to raise a bill of impeachment in the House of Representatives. This process is political. Therefore, this means it is a financially costly affair in Liberia, but a powerful elected or appointed official will know his/her way around members of the legislature who are not so powerful on their own or individually. So then everything comes down to integrity and respect for the rule of law. Until we see white and call it white or black and call it black, integrity will always be a major issue for us here. The rule of law will never, ever be properly interpreted and enforced or respected in a country where integrity is being isolated or made to run away.
Having said this, I am particularly concerned with the procedures that apply to contempt proceedings in the legislature, which has quasi-judicial powers in this respect. Generally, the committee conducting the hearing or plenary ought to take diligent cognizance of one the most fundamental tenets of constitutional law, which is due process; meaning, the opportunity to be provided with notice of the charges or accusations against an official or citizen (where it applies), the opportunity to have a lawyer present during investigation and contempt proceedings, the opportunity to be impartially investigated initially by a statutory or standing committee given the subject matter or legislative purpose of the investigation, so that when a resolution of contempt is made by such a committee, a citizen or official can have his case further submitted, heard and decided by plenary. This view proposes the idea that plenary will just not convene to simply enforce mandates that may not have derived from the ‘legislative sphere’ of the subject matter of the investigation. Because plenary is such a powerful assembly, its decisions or mandates are no less the same. As the Supreme Court is to the judiciary, so is Plenary to the national legislature – the ultimate decision-making body; Therefore, I believe due process must be accorded a person at every stage of investigations and contempt proceedings.
Our statutes and laws, which are really not uniquely different from United States law, have been enacted and interpreted with deference to US made law where appropriate and necessary. I say this to mean that when we apply our law, we have to consider how the United States would apply its own law given the unique facts and circumstances of a case which may never before have been a subject for our consideration and determination. There is sufficient evidence that the courts have affirmed applications of the receptive statute of Liberia, which empowers our government to apply American law or common law where Liberian law is inadequate or in-exhaustive of a particular legal contention.
The purpose of this commentary is to encourage state actors to promote public education of the legislative contempt process, to meditate on the law and relentlessly pursue the sacred interests of our nation. These interests are embedded in the words, spirit and intent of the very laws we make, interpret and enforce, not in our wishes and feelings. It is high time we stop bickering and undermining one another and play our part before our time is over. There is no better time than this when we must say what the law really is, do what it says and promote justice, equality and national unity amongst our people. We cannot apply the law differently to our friends and families and refuse to do the same for other citizens. State actors should desist from misapplying or abusing the laws of the country by taking advantage of their direct access to national resources and power. This will breed conflict. We have to stop settling old scores or repaying evil for evil. This is especially for those of us who are in power today.
Once again, let us uphold the laws of our nation against one and all. Build institutions that will work to preserve and protect the constitution and laws of Liberia, not simply individuals who will pursue personal or political objectives for today. Because politics is a game, power changes hands. Every game is controlled by rules, not violence.
But if prejudice, bias, favoritism, partiality and abuse of power were allowed to become rampant, the game would soon be over before the final whistle is blown because violence becomes imminent when power is made volatile by these vices. Our current leaders should understand this better than those before them who have lived and died grappling with the discontentment of a divided people.
We all have different backgrounds, different tribes, different social groupings, different norms and traditions, as well as different beliefs and interests. We can only be united by and through the just implementation of law and order or divided by injustice and conflict. Let the law take its course when we carry out our duties as leaders simply because we have a history of injustice and war, which must be our guide.
Finally, Liberia is for one and all Liberians with or without power or access to it. All citizens must feel some connection to it one way or the other. Although this is something that some leaders may think is difficult to achieve, but it is possible for us to be just, genuinely compassionate and trustworthy in our dealings with our people.
May God bless Liberia and keep us from seeking vengeance against our compatriots. May God help us to believe in our own laws and apply them to every citizen properly and wisely.