Print options

September 07, 2012

Citing Poor Health, Liberia’s Chief Justice Steps Down

by James Butty

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has accepted a request from Chief Justice Johnnie Lewis for an early retirement. Sirleaf said the chief justice, who has been in failing health, asked for early retirement to seek medical attention.  

Counselor Jerome Verdier is former chairman of Liberia’s disbanded Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a law student of Lewis. 

He said that, although Lewis was a good classroom lawyer, the opinions he expressed while on the bench did not reflect that because Liberia’s current political climate undermines the independence of the judiciary.

“The best that I know of the former chief justice, he’s a very, very good lawyer by any fair measure or standard.  But, that didn’t measure out well with his responsibility as the administrator of the Supreme Court bench. Over the years, I didn’t think he managed the bench well.  His ailing health, I think, contributed to that situation, as well as the political environment which, I think, undermined the Liberian judiciary,” he said.

Verdier said Lewis’ “old order mentality” also influenced the prism with which he saw and administered justice.

“It’s true. He has overstepped his powers.  He exercised extra-judiciary powers.  There were two petitions before the House to impeach him for doing that.  He intimidated journalists; he intimidated lawyers, business people and all of that.  That’s a clear abuse of office and abuse of power. But, with all of that, the political environment accepts that,” Verdier said.

Sirleaf said Lewis’ early retirement would take effect Monday (September 10).

Butty interview with Verdier

There is already speculation about who might succeed Lewis.  One of the names for possible succession include current justices Francis Korkpor, Kabineh Janeh, Justice Minister Christiana Tah, among others.

Verdier said such speculation is useless because Sirleaf, with control of the senate and with no check and balances, will appoint whomever she wants, whether that person is qualified or not.

But he said the safest thing Sirleaf can do is to nominate one of the most senior sitting justices, so that what he called her biases or preferences do not cloud the selection process.

“Justice Kabineh Janeh and Justice [Francis] Korkpor are by far the most progressive justices on the bench and I can tell you, from practicing in Liberia, that they are the two who have been holding up the bench, notwithstanding all other things,” Verdier said.