Fish Town, River Gee County – The resident Judge of the 15th Judicial Circuit Court in River Gee County, George W. Smith said in order to uphold the judicial independence of judges, the government should ensure they are financially independent.
According to Judge Smith, when judges are financially independent, they are most likely to exercise their judicial duties with impartiality and integrity.
Owing to this, Judge Smith said, Judges, are the average highest-paid public officials of the democratic world.
His statements were contained in his Charge delivered at the formal opening of the November Term of Court in Fish Town, River Gee County.
Judge Smith’s comments further fueled the debate on the salary harmonization scheme launched by the Weah’s administration.
The Government, acting on the advice of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) introduced its harmonization program in a bid to reduce the high wage bill.
The measure has led to the reduction in salary of senior government officials including lawmakers, cabinet ministers and judges.
To get legal backing for the program, the 54th Legislature in September passed into law the National Remuneration Standardization Act of 2019.
According to the Legislature, the law was passed in consonance with the Judiciary and the Executive branches.
However, contrary to the Legislature’s claim, the Judiciary has not been shy of speaking against the decision to slash judges’ salaries.
During a ceremony marking the opening of the October 2019 Term of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor insinuated that the law contradicts Article 72 of the Constitution of Liberia which calls for salaries, benefits and allowances of justices of the Supreme Court and judges of subordinate courts to be increased, not diminished.
Speaking at that event attended by President George Weah, House Speaker Bhofal Chambers and Senate Pro Tempore Albert Chie, the Chief Justice advised that “any process of harmonizing or standardizing salaries of Government Officials and senior civil servants take into consideration requisite provisions of the law especially when applying to the Judiciary in order to ensure justice and equity.”
Judge Smith, joining his boss, contended that Inflation and economic difficulties are not grounds to cut judges’ salaries, allowances and benefits, but it might be grounds to cut those of all other government employees.
The reason, among others, he said is that judges are different from all other government employees in that the law prohibits judges, unlike other government employees, from engaging in the practice of law, their profession, and other business pursuits.
“Even when there is inflation and economic difficulties in the country, yet, judges cannot engage in the practice of law and any business pursuit, while other government employees may engage in the practice of their professions and other business pursuits,” he said.
The 15th Judicial Circuit Court Judge also based his argument on Article 72 of the Constitution and Section 13.4(2) of the Judiciary Law which protect the salaries, allowances and benefits of judges from being cut in order to compensate them for foregoing those additional sources of income.
He said although the Constitution provides an exception where judges’ salaries, allowances and benefit can be cut under a national program, “the Legislature and the Executive must be mindful that Judges’ employment contract with the Government is governed by the principles of contract law and the Constitution.
Under the principle of contract law or the common law, he clarified that judges’ salaries, allowances and benefits may be cut due to impossibility, not difficulty, of performance on the part of Government.
Impossibility of performance, he said “arises from such occurrences like “act of God” (e.g. earthquakes) and war, rendering it impossible, not difficult, to perform one’s part of the contract.”
“Difficulties to perform because of inflation or ‘teetering economic fiscal cliff’ on the part of the Government do not excuse it from performance,” he said.
Referencing Beer v. United States of America, No. 10-5012 (Fed. Cir. 2012); Judge Smith said five US federal judges sued the US Government for pay increases because the purchasing power of their salaries decreased due to inflation and “teetering economic cliff” in the US.
The judges, he added, won the case and the US Government appealed to the US Supreme Court. However, the US Attorney General conceded that the Constitution was on the side of the judges and therefore decided to abandon the appeal.
“The obligation of the contract between Government and judges must be guaranteed and that no law can be passed that will impair this obligation prohibiting judges from engaging in the practice of law and any business pursuit in consideration for protection of their salaries, allowances and benefits from being cut pursuance to Article 72(a) of the Constitution and Section 13.4(2),” he averred.
Judge Smith, who currently serves as a Chairman of the Education & Awareness Committee of the National Association of Trial Judges of Liberia (NATJL) in his charged, called on Legislature to follow the laws an international best practices to promote the independence of Judges.
“I therefore charge all government officials of government, particularly the lawmakers and policy-makers to support, uphold, protect and defend our Constitution, particularly Article 72(a) thereof, and laws, particularly Section 13.4(2) of the Judiciary Law, as they relate to judicial independence – financial independence of judges.”
“I finally charge that our Legislature and policy-makers follow the example of the world – the US and UK where judges are the highest paid government officials – by making Liberian judges the highest paid officials amongst officials of the legislature, executive and judiciary in order to safeguard judicial independence and the rule of law, a key to opening the gates to good business climate in Liberia for business investments, economic development and prosperity.”
More Backings for Judges’ Pay Rise
Judge Smith, citing the United Nations Basic Principles on Judicial Independence, noted that the statue provides that member states of the UN must pay their judges adequately and that judge’s remuneration must be adequately protected by law.
In order to safeguard judicial independence and adherence to the rule of law, Judge Smith added that judges in the United States, from whence Liberia owes its legal and common law tradition, and the United Kingdom are the highest government paid officials amongst officials of the legislature, “and so must Liberian judges be.”
Giving further detail, he said In the UK, besides the Queen and her royal family, judges are the highest government paid officials; while in the USA, both federal and state governments, besides the President of the US, federal and states judges are the highest government paid officials amongst officials of the legislature, executive and judiciary.
The annual income of Federal and State judges, he said include:
Chief Justice – US$267,000.00, Associate Justices – US$255,300.00; Circuit Judges US$223,700.00; District Judges – US $210,900.00 and Magistrate Judges – US$161,822.00 to $184,623.00 (depending on qualifications & places of assignments).
As compared to the Executive, he said Vice President earns an annual income of US$235,100, while Cabinet Secretaries get US$210,700.
For the United States Legislative branch, he continues, the Speaker of the House’s annual is US$223,500; President Pro Tempore of the Senate earns US$193,400; while Senators and Representatives’ annual income is around US$174, 000.
In addition, he said Educational and professional qualifications for the judgeship, Judges’ longest numbers of days and hours work than legislators and ministers, judges’ limited ability to earn incomes outside their employment and the administration of impartial justice and the rule of law are all cardinal reasons justice should be financially independent.