By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)
One story that made headlines in the media in the last two days was the decision of the House of Representatives to cite President Sirleaf to appear before it in relation to a letter she wrote them about her advice to Education Minister George Werner not to honor an instruction from that body to withdraw a letter he wrote to the West African Examinations Council WAEC), cancelling the exams for 12th graders in Liberia.
Some of the headlines in the newspapers read:;”House Of Representatives Summons President Sirleaf; Summon For Disrespect; Lower House Flexes Muscle; Ellen Falls In Trouble With Of Representatives and “Ellen, Lawmakers Clash.” As for this paper, its headline on the matter was, “Ellen Risks Contempt…for telling Werner to ignore House’s Instruction.“
Yesterday, it was reported that the Plenary of the House of Representatives has invited President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to show reasons why she should not be held in contempt. The President has been invited due to a communication sent to the House instructing the Minister of Education to ignore what appears to be an instruction conveyed to him under cover of letter dated June 23, 2015 by the Clerk of the House of Representatives.
The decision of the House to invite President Sirleaf to appear tomorrow was taken based on unanimous votes by members of that august body. During the voting process there were 45 lawmakers in favor and one against.
Recently the House summoned the Minister of Education, George Werner on the situation that was widely rumored that the Minister proposed the closing of schools on June 30, 2015 and also opted for the cancellation of WAEC. When the communication was sent by the Clerk of the House of Representatives informing the Minister about the House’s decision to withdraw communication sent to WAEC headquarters, the President sent a communication to the House instructing the Education Minister to ignore the House’s decision or directive.
It is based on her letter that she has been cited to show cause why she should not be held in contempt. Already, there are arguments as to whether or not the House of Representatives or Senate has the power, in keeping with the Doctrine of the Separation of power to summon the President.
The provision on the separation of powers as contained in Article 3 states “Liberia is a unilateral sovereign state divided into counties for administrative purposes. The form of government is Republican with three separate coordinate branches: the Legislative, the Executive and the 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.
For me, this is not my concern today. My concern relates to the issue of contempt of the legislature. Article 44 of the Liberian Constitution on contempt of the Legislature states, “Contempt of the Legislature shall consist of actions which obstruct the legislative functions or which obstructs or impedes 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 sanction shall extend beyond the session of the Legislature wherein it is imposed, and any sanction imposed shall conform to the provisions on the Fundamental Rights laid down in this Constitution. Disputes between Legislators and non-members which are properly cognizable in the courts shall not be entertained or heard in the Legislature.”
This provision of the Liberian Constitution is very clear and unambiguous in terms of its interpretation. As the provision states, contempts always come into place where certain actions affect the normal operations of that body or where there are showing of disrespect to that body.
Additionally, it can also be invoked when there are acts that bring that body to public ridicule and disrepute. Conversely, this is not the case in this matter because the President respectfully informed that body of instruction given one of her subjects, or vicegerents and also authority given her in the constitution.
With this, she cited Article 56 (a), 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 offices at the pleasure of the President.”
The issue now is whether or not the communication to the House of Representatives informing that body that she had instructed her Minister of Education ‘to ignore what appears to be instructions conveyed to him” in a letter to the House of Representatives be considered contemptuous or a disrespect? To this, I say a BIG NO.
In fact, this is a sign of good communication, where the House wrote a subject of the President, and the President replied. This shows respect for that body and therefore cannot be considered as “actions which obstruct the legislative functions or which obstruct or impede members or officers of the Legislature in the discharge of their legislative duties…’ as contained on the issue of contempt in the Constitution.
Once more, I do not see anything contemptuous about the President’s letter to the House. As such, Article 44 of the Liberian Constitution cannot prevail in this matter. I Rest My Case.