Consider that there is a rat in your house chewing and destroying some very important papers. The act of this rat is causing you serious discomfort. Every time an attempt is made to kill or get rid of this rat, it jumps in a nearby hole or runs to some place unreachable to you. What will you do? Set traps to catch and/or kill this rat so as to protect your important papers and keep your house intact, or will you rashly demolish the entire house only to get rid of the rat? I should know your obvious answer. You would set traps at strategic locations in your house to grab or kill the rat. Right! I first heard this story from the venerable Cllr. H. Varney G. Sherman of the Sherman and Sherman Law Firm and I think it suits the narration I am about to make.
This story brings me to the issue I wish to discuss in the current hullaballoo between the Liberian Senate and Acting Monrovia City Mayor Madam Mary T. Broh.
Brief history of the issue
Madam Nancy Gaye, a staff in the office of Sen. John Ballout of Maryland County complained before the Liberian Senate (through Sen. Ballout) essentially to the effect that she was assaulted (slapped) allegedly by Madam Mary Broh. Madam Gaye further claimed that she was denied access to justice by the Police “because of Madam Broh’s proximity power”. Under such circumstance, she sought refuge with the Senate through her boss. After hearing her complaint, the Liberian Senate (IN SESSION) summoned Madam Broh to appear before that august body to answer to a complaint of “ASSAULT” as alleged by Madam Gaye. On the day of the “hearing”, Madam Broh wrote a communication to the Senate informing that body of her ill-health for which reason she could not appear in person. This infuriated the Senators and they ordered (through a second letter sent to Madam Broh) that she appeared at 2pm that same day or risked been “held in legislative contempt”.
The Sergeant-At-Arms of the Senate who took the letter to Madam Broh reported back to the Senators that he did not see or meet Madam Broh at her office to deliver the letter. Immediately thereupon, they went ahead to effectuate their earlier threat to “hold her in contempt”. They further declared a “VOTE OF NO CONFIDENCE” in her. The Senators took this action reliant upon Article 44 of the Constitution of Liberia which states “Contempt of the Legislature shall consist of actions which obstruct the legislative functions or which obstruct or impede members or officers of the Legislature in the discharge of their legislative duties and may be punished by the House concerned by reasonable sanctions after a hearing consistent with due process of law. No sanctions shall extend beyond the session of the Legislature wherein it is imposed, and any sanction imposed shall conform to the provisions on Fundamental Rights laid down in the Constitution. Disputes between legislators and non-members which are properly cognizable in the courts shall not be entertained or heard in the Legislature”.
1. Whether or not our Legislature has competent and legal jurisdiction over matters that border on criminality regardless of who is/are involved.
2. Whether or not our Legislature has any legal rights or authority to declare a “Vote of no Confidence” in a Public Official.
“Vote of no Confidence”
I hold the view that under our form of government, the Legislature has no legal basis and therefore lacks the authority to legally declare a “Vote of no Confidence” in a Public Official because this runs contrary to the plain letter, spirit and intent of Article 56 (a) of the Constitution of Liberia which states: “All cabinet ministers, deputy and assistant cabinet ministers, ambassadors, ministers and consuls, superintendents of counties and other government officials, both military and civilian, appointed by the President pursuant to this Constitution shall hold their offices at the pleasure of the President”. It is unequivocally clear that after a person so nominated by the President shall have successfully passed Senate confirmation, that person gets appointed and commissioned. At this point, said appointee serves solely “at the pleasure of the President”; not at the pleasure, discretion, sentiments, unhappiness or emotional outburst of the Senate in particular or the Legislature in general. The Senators exercised blanket and naked powers. Moreover, they lack any legal means of enforceability thereof.
My question then is…why exercise blanket, unassigned authority and control over something you have no means (legally) of enforcing? On this count, I can safely conclude that the “Vote of no Confidence” decision is purely political than legal. I believe in the leadership wisdom of the President of Liberia and the Liberian Senate to handle and derive a resolution.
Now, let’s dig into the contention as to the authority of the Senate to handle and settle matters of criminality.
Liberia is a “republican” form of government with three separate coordinate branches consistent with Chapter 1 Article 3 of our Constitution which states: “Liberia is a unitary sovereign state divided into counties for administrative purposes. The form of government is Republican with three separate coordinate branches: the Legislative, the Executive and Judiciary. Consistent with the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances, no person holding office in one of these branches shall hold office in or exercise any of the powers assigned to either of the other two branches except as otherwise provided in this Constitution; and no person holding office in one of the said branches shall serve on any autonomous public agency”. From this Article, and in keeping with the spirit, letter and/or intent, it is unambiguous that the supreme law of our land seeks to prohibit, restrain, bar, prevent as well as discourage one branch against exercising or usurping the authority, functions and duties legally assigned unto either of the other two branches. Again, I wish to draw your particular attention to the portion that says: “…….no person holding office in one of these branches shall hold office in or exercise any of the powers assigned to either of the other two branches…….”.
To attempt or to actually do so is not only a violation, but also an unacceptable disrespect and inexcusable transgression against the Constitution of Liberia.
Under our jurisprudence, it is well established that “Assault” is a criminal offence in keeping with our Penal Law. Depending upon the degree of injuries or wounds inflicted or sustained, it may be simple or aggravated assault which is a matter that is “properly cognizable in the courts”.
The Senators contend that the complaint of “Assault” is cognizable before them because Madam Broh is a “public official” and they exercise supervision and control over “public officials” because of their legislative oversight responsibility and authority; and that also, Madam Gaye is a “Senate Staff” covered under their rules.
They argue further that the act allegedly committed against Madam Gaye constitutes “contempt of the Senate” in keeping with Article 44 of the Constitution. The Senators have however failed to say or prove how any of their functions was “obstructed or impeded” by the alleged act of Madam Broh.
Madam Nancy Gaye is NOT an “Officer” of the Senate because the Standing Rules of the Liberian Senate has defined and identified “Officers” of that body.
Chapter 5 (Rule 14….Section 3) of the Senate Standing Rules states:
The Officers of the Liberian Senate shall be:
1. President Pro-Tempore
2. Secretary of the Senate
3. Assistant Secretary of the Senate
4. Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate
5. Chairpersons of the leadership committees as defined in
Rule 43 (a)
Madam Gaye is not a Senator. Therefore, she cannot be a Chairperson of any of the Leadership Committees because ONLY duly elected Senators can be elected to these Committees (in keeping with Rule 43 (a). Further, she is not the Secretary of the Senate, Assistant Secretary of the Senate or Sergeant-At-Arms. She is admittedly and indeed a Senior Staff to Sen. Ballout and Sen. Ballout alone. Unlike “Officers” of the Senate who are duly elected in keep with the Senate Standing Rules, Madam Gaye was appointed by Senator Ballout at his solely discretion and authority and serves at his “will and pleasure”.
Now, the matter as complained by Madam Gaye savors criminality; hence, it is cognizable ONLY in a Court of competent jurisdiction which falls under the Judicial Branch of Government, and NOT before the Senate or the Legislature in general. The closing sentence of Article 44 of the Constitution of Liberia succinctly puts it and settles my view when it says: “Disputes between legislators and non-members which are properly cognizable in the courts shall not be entertained or heard in the Legislature”. This provision hammers a very clear message that whenever a dispute arises between a person who is NOT a Legislator and a person who is a duly elected Legislator, and that matter (be it civil or criminal) is “properly cognizable in the courts”, it should NOT be “entertained or heard in the legislature”. If the Framers of the Constitution could frown against Legislators complaining Non-Legislators and causing their appearance before that body for matters that are “properly cognizable in the courts”, what would you think about matters arising between two or more Non-Legislators? Neither Madam Broh nor Madam Gaye is a Legislator. So, what are they doing before the Senate in a criminal matter that is “properly cognizable in the courts”? You will note that not only does this constitutional provision prohibit, restrain, bar or discourages said matters from being “entertained ” in the Legislature, it also frowns on that body for even attempting to “hear” it.
I recognize the authority of the Legislature to invite, summons and/or cite public officials or any other person…..whether or not that person is a private/ordinary citizen or a legal resident… before that august body. For instance, if a matter is properly before either of the Houses of the Legislature, they are authorized to invite, summons and/or cite any public official, private/ordinary citizen or legal resident to appear before that august body. I, however, hold the view that such invitation, summons and/or citation should be confined to matters related to legislative functions or to enhance or compliment the business of the Legislature in particular and the government in general consistent with the spirit and intent of coordination. I also recognize and concede that the deportment, action or inaction of the public official, private/ordinary citizen or legal resident appearing or failing to appear before that body may lead to contempt as the Legislators may deem.
This authority, however, should not and cannot be misconstrued or misused to invite, summons and/or cite public officials, private/ordinary citizens and/or legal residents for matters that are “properly cognizable in the courts” as in the matter under discussion. For instance, if a male Cabinet Minister who is a public official assaults his wife or any other person (even if the victim is a Legislator or staff of the Legislature), that august body cannot, and should not “entertain” or “hear” said matter because it is “properly cognizable in the courts” and not in the Legislature.
Also, I seriously frown against and once more condemn the act of “Assault” allegedly committed by Madam Mary Broh against Madam Nancy Gaye. No one has any color of rights or special privilege to violate the rights of another; and no person, irrespective of status in Government or society is above the laws of our land. I hereby advise that if Madam Gaye desires proper justice in this matter, she should seek redress of her complaint before the courts because that is the appropriate and prudent thing to do. I urge the Senate to advise Madam Gaye similarly.
I keep wondering! What would have happened had the Senators not “entertained or heard” this matter with emotional outbursts and some degree of prejudice? I believe that they would have thoughtfully issued a condemnation of the alleged excesses of Madam Broh and also called for, or demanded speedy trial of Madam Gaye’s complaint before the courts since the Legislature lacks competent and legal jurisdiction over matters that border on criminality. Had they taken that position, it would have been commendable and welcomed and would have truly distinguished them as statesmen. It is therefore my considered opinion that the bold attempt by the Senators to have “entertained or heard” a matter of such nature makes them “plain wrong” in total violation of our Constitution. It is also a flagrant usurpation of the functions and authority of the Judicial Branch. As we seek to build a democratic State where respect for the rule of law is the bedrock, I can only hope and advice that we do not thread down this path again.
About the Author: He worked as Special Assistant to the Solicitor General of Liberia from 1995 to 2006. He also worked as Chief of Staff to the Speaker of the House of Representatives from 2006 to 2007; and subsequently as Chief of Staff to the Senator of Bong County from 2007 to 2011. He is a former Montserrado County Senatorial Candidate, a Political Activist and a Young Opinion Leader in Liberia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 231886510588.