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Former Liberian Chief Justice Calls for Tougher Measures Against Corrupt Judicial Officials

Frances Johnson-Morris says corrupt judicial officials should be punished harshly and impeached

A former Liberian Supreme Court Chief Justice who is now chair of the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission is proposing that cases of corruption in Liberia be fast tracked and a special court established for the adjudication of such cases.

Frances Johnson-Morris said the Liberian judicial system needs to be more robust in the way it punishes judicial officials and officers guilty of corruption.

Frances Johnson-Morris as Liberia's Elections Commission Chair in 2005
Frances Johnson-Morris as Liberia's Elections Commission Chair in 2005

A U.S. State Department human rights report released last week criticized the Liberian judicial system as corrupt.

Johnson-Morris agreed the issue of corruption in the Liberian judicial system is not a new phenomenon. But she said the judiciary is trying to take corrective measures.

“The issue of corruption in the judiciary is not a new phenomenon. The judiciary, I have to say now, is trying to take corrective measures about these issues. For instance, the judiciary has made some remarkable improvements in the condition of service judicial personnel. Judges’ salaries today are attractive than years back,” she said.

According to this year’s U.S. State Department Human Rights Report on Liberia, “The judicial system was largely nonfunctional and plagued by corruption. Judges regularly received bribes or other illegal gifts from damages that they awarded in civil cases…defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes suggested that defendants pay a gratuity to appease or secure favorable rulings from judges, prosecutors, jurors, and police officers.”

Johnson-Morris said as part of the reform process, the judiciary sponsored a national judicial conference which concluded Friday, March 12.

She said she presented a paper at the conference on the issue of judicial corruption and the jury system which Johnson-Morris described as a necessary evil.

“At the judicial conference that just ended the topic of the role of the jurors was also raised, it was discussed. But we concluded even though as corrupt as they are, we need them. I considered as a necessary evil. But we need to work with the system and improve it because the jury system is a requirement of the constitution of Liberia that anyone who is accused or charged with an indictable offense has a right to trial by jury,” she said.

Johnson-Morris said while the issue of judicial corruption was not unique to Liberia, the country’s response to corruption in the judiciary has been undesirable.

She proposed some tougher measures to deal with judicial corruption in Liberia.

“During my presentation, I recommended that cases of corruption be fast-tracked. I also proposed a special court for the adjudication of corruption matters. In that paper I also said that the judiciary needs to be more robust in the way it punishes judicial officials and officers involved in corruption. They need to punish more harshly. We need to be able to be strong to recommend people who have undermined justice. We need to recommend such people for impeachment,” she said.

But Johnson-Morris said there doesn’t seem to be the political and individual courage to punish corrupt judicial officials.

“We live in a society where everyone knows everybody else; we are closely connected and so even in the face of grossly abuse of ethics we are not strong enough, we are not brave to say we’re taking this case up, this person has to go; this person has to be impeached. So our system continues to remain in that way,” Johnson-Morris said.

She said her Anti-Corruption Commission was playing its role by investigating corruption cases and recommending to the justice ministry for prosecution.

Johnson-Morris said the judiciary in the past several years has heard some very high profile political cases during which it tried to exert its independence from political influence.