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Justices divided over pension debate

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Some Justices on the Supreme Court bench appear to see as unfair, a 2003 Pension Act limiting honorably retired justices’ pension payment to 50 percent of their Liberian Dollars salary, while lawmakers and officials from the executive get pensions in United States Dollars.

The debate arose among the justices Monday, 22 October during hearing of a petition for a writ of mandamus filed against the Government of Liberia by former Associate Justice Gladys K. Johnson on grounds that she has never received pension and benefits since her retirement [in 2013].

Her lawyers Cllr. G. Moses Paegar and Cllr. Golda Elliot are not just seeking payment of her pension, but they want payment of 50 percent of the combination of her salary, allowances and benefits because they fear that her Liberian Dollars salary will diminish her standard of living.

The Supreme Court has reserved ruling in the case, but Justices’ expressions and the line of questioning directed at Solicitor General Cllr. Darku Mulbah could tell that majority of the justices did not see it fair to pay retired justices 50 percent of the salary.Section 3 of the Pension Act of 2003 specifies that a retired Chief Justice shall receive a pension equal to 50 percent of the salary of the Chief Justice, beside entitlement to personal staff and facilities for which an allowance of not less than US$15,000 per annum is exclusively allotted.

For retired Associate Justice, the Act also specifies a pension equal to 50 percent of the salary of incumbent Associate Justice, excluding allowance of not less than US$6,000 allotted for personal staff and facilities provided.But what appears to be the under lying factor comes from justices’ different views of Article 72 (A) of the Liberian Constitution which says the Chief Justice and all other judges shall receive such salaries, allowances and benefits as shall be established by law.

This provision says such salaries shall be subject to taxes as defined by law, provided that they shall not otherwise be diminished.It continues that allowances and benefits paid to Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of subordinate courts may by law be increased but may not diminished except under a national program enacted by the Legislature.

It concludes that such allowances and benefits shall not be subject to taxation.
As per the way things are specified in the statute where US$6,000 is allotted for staff, for instance, Chief Justice Korkpor observes that “My staff [is] coming to make more money than me” in pension payment.

But he thinks that there is room because “this court can determine legislative intent,” suggesting that the lawmakers may have intended that the pension is the combination of 50 percent of the salary, allowance and benefits.According to him, laws are made to be equitable, just and applied across, questioning Cllr. Mulbah as to what currency are being paid in the social security for retired agents of the executive like for National Port Authority (NPA) officials?

The Chief Justice says he knows that Social Security pays in US dollars for government officials who have been retired, that is to say if you worked for NPA and other government agencies.He says he thinks what comes to you from government is your income, and 50 percent of that should be your pension, which combines salary, benefits and allowance.

But newly seated Associate Justice Joseph Nagbe who comes from the Senate has different view, saying that the Legislature is clear that the 50 percent should be paid out of the salary.Justice Nagbe believes that the law can only be revisited to make it workable. He says the lawmakers thought that if 50 percent [salary, allowance and benefits combined] is put there for lawmakers, for instance, one must imagine how many lawmakers will be retired.“So the decision is clear, it doesn’t include all the other benefits. It’s the salaries. That’s why some of us proposed that we revisit the law,” he notes.

He wonders what impact this will have on the economy if you take 50 percent of all, concluding that if the Legislature meant 50 percent of the US allowances and benefits, it would have been stated in the statute.He warns that if the Supreme Court will say 50 percent the salary should be calculated in USD, then it will be injecting something into the statute which is not there.

“So to avoid ourselves from being seen as making a law, we should revisit the statute, because we do not have the authority to make law,” ends Justice Nagbe.Earlier, Associate Justice Kabineh Ja’neh said if you read Article 72 (a) of the Constitution, it seemed that the framers considered all of these: salaries, benefits and allowances.Associate Justice Jamesetta Howard – Wolokolie asked whether when it comes to the judiciary, and then government pays Liberian Dollars in pension while it pays others’ pension in US.

And Associate Justice Sie – A – Nyeneh G. Yuoh pondered if the Legislature intended that justice’s staff earn more pension than the justice.Retired Associate Justice Gladys Johnson’s lawyer Cllr. Paegar suggests that at the time of the passage of the law, justices were being paid in US dollars, so the lawmakers could not say 50 percent of the salary should be paid in Liberian Dollars.

But Solicitor General Darku Mulbah says he thinks it is in the interest of all that a political solution be found other than legal solution because “there is a maxim that not all that is legal is expedient.”He says the political solution that is being sought is meant to address the current plight of the petitioner because if the current law is applied, it will not serve her best interest.

He says the Act is not in violation of the constitution because the law says the Legislature shall decide what should be paid as salaries and benefits.But he insists that the law is cleared that 50 percent of the salary should be paid, and not in combination of benefits and allowances.

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