Remembering “My Man” Johnnie N. Lewis

By Atty Philip N. Wesseh(PNW)

Whenever the phrase, “my man” is used in the Liberian context, it shows some level of intimacy, acquaintance or some kinds of relationship. It is not in this context I am referring to as I ruminate and recount some of my interactions with the fallen former Chief Justice, the venerable and astute legal legendary Johnnie Naustedlau Lewis, who is expected to be buried in his hometown, Greenville, Sinoe County this Saturday following funeral rites in Monrovia.

Besides, I am not using this phrase in a derogatory sense because, sociologically, it is forbidden by our norms and value system, to refer to such person in such manner. Howbeit, I am using this phrase which is normally used by people of the same peer to show how considerate he was in matters in which my institution could had been held in contempt of the Supreme Court. It is for this, I refer to him as “my man.”

Although the name Johnnie Lewis was not strange to me, I never met him until he became Chief Justice of the Republic of Liberia. Moreover, little did I know that my New Kru Town brother, Cllr. Oswald NatuTweh and the fallen Chief Justice were relatives. Indeed, Liberia is a small country. But one thing I know is that during one of my institution’s problems with the Chief Justice, my New Kru Town brother intervened. Let me admit that my New Kru Town brother’s intervention exculpated me from any punishment for contempt.

Before delving into the essence of this piece, let me say that all of my interactions with the former Chief Justice was based on the legal doctrine of RESPONDEAT SUPERIOR,   a Latin phrase in law which means, “let the superior make answer;” it is a doctrine in law, especially Torts, holding an employer or principal (like me) liable for the employee or agent’s wrongful acts within the scope of the employment or agency. In simple words, it means that the head of an institution would be held liable for the wrongful act of their employees or subjects within the scope of their duties. This doctrine does not apply to the employee engaged in acts not part of his or her official duties or responsibilities.

I cite this legal doctrine to say that my interactions with the former Chief Justice was not because any wrongful acts personally done by me, but because of stories written by some of our reporters, for which as, the employer , head or superior, I was cited to ”answer” on behalf of the institution. The INQUIRER Newspaper, as an “artificial person,” as it is said in law, cannot represent the institution.

Of the more than three times I met the Chief Justice, it was all centered on the ethics of the journalism profession, especially so as it related to stories on the Judiciary.

In one of the reasons why I was cited related to some issues raised by some magistrates, which the reporter failed “to balance” by getting the side of the heads of the Judiciary, or even a comment or reactions from the judiciary. For that, I, conceded, for which I was asked to write a letter of apology in two other newspapers, which I respectfully did. I conceded because it was wrong to print such a story without getting the side of the judiciary, since reference was made to that body. Again, for that, I had no defense, but to “hold the old man feet.”

Seriously, of all of these interactions, what really irritated or infuriated the former Chief Justice one time, was one story that we carried on our front page in which we made a mistake. Noting that, the then Chief Justice summoned me and made the necessary correction. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the fault of our computer people or technology, the same story with the same mistake was reported, the next day.

Sensing that as disrespect, the then Chief Justice summoned me the next morning. By the time I was called to meet him that morning, I was on my way to the now Senator-elect for Bomi County, Cllr. Morris Saytumah’s Contract Class at the law school and pleaded with the lady, as to whether he could extend the time to the afternoon hours. But the lady courteously pleaded with me and advised that for my own good, it would be prudent that I meet the late Chief Justice, as requested.

As I was moving to the Temple of Justice to meet the former Chief Justice, little did I know that it was in relation to the same story for which he had invited me and corrected it. And so when I was ushered into his office, he furiously said, “you playing with me en?” When I humbly inquired why he said that. It was then in an angry mood, with his fingers pointed at me as he expressed concern that I was not respecting him because after making the correction, my newspaper repeated the same mistake. He saw that as complete disrespect.

In all fairness, I stood dumbfounded and nonplused, while the Chief Justice “raged hell with me.” Again, there was nothing I could say but to apologize for repeating the story. That, he could not accept, as he became outraged, believing that that was deliberate on my part and not a mistake for the second time. As I remained reticent, the Chief Justice after expressing himself like, those of us from Sinoe do, I again showed penitence, as there was nothing to defend.

At one point, I was told that the Chief Justice wanted to meet media people, as he was not happy how people were spelling his name. For that, I did not attend because I felt it was not necessary. But he reportedly warned that there would be action taken for anyone misspelling his name.

Additionally, during one other occasion, when I accompanied Mr. Kenneth Y. Best of the Daily Observer and others, asked me to accompany them to the home of the former Chief Justice in Sinkor to seek the release of photojournalist Sando Moore’s camera which was ordered seized by the then Chief Justice for taking his photo without his consent.

As we entered his vicinity, he protested the presence of some of us. However, after few minutes, his temper or anger dissipated and we were ushered into his home. There, after discussion, he released the camera to Mr. Moore. Because that was a “Zoe Bush,” I am not prepared to delve into all what transpired, but can only say that we were able to secure the camera of Mr. Moore, who now runs his own magazine.

Interestingly, at one other occasion, I met a different Johnnie Lewis, beaming with smile. It was when , I, along with others, including Cllr. Pearl Brown-Bull and Melvin Page met him in his office after we were selected from the civil society to vet individuals for the independent human rights commission of Liberia. Indeed, that was a different Johnnie Lewis, not in an angry mood as was for some of the times I met him.

All in all, my interaction with the fallen Chief Justice was to draw my institution’s attention to some unethical issues. Because I had nothing to defend, the best was to concede and avoid unnecessary confrontation, which some people would want to do for public sentiments. Even with all of what transpired, for which I did not hold anything against him, I still held him in high esteem, during his tenure and after his tenure.

Besides my interaction with him, one of the reasons why I admired him was the growth and development he brought to the Judiciary. More importantly, he brought respect to that body. Today, that branch of government can boast of more structures, many of which are visible on the grounds of the Temple of Justice and also better incentives that have attracted many lawyers to that branch.

Yes, indeed, it is time to rest. He worked while it was day, since night has come and he has finished his work, and has left his footprints on the sand of time, all I can say is, “JOHNNIE,” REST IN PERFECT PEACE!