Looking From a Distance
- Published on Tuesday, 26 February 2013 07:20
- Written by With Jesse Z.G. Fahngon, MPA & MA
The current unnecessary (emphasis) political stalemates between the House of Representatives on one hand and Superintendent Grace Kpaan and Mayor Mary Broh have sparked controversies in recent times. The debates are ongoing – both inland and the internet are engulfed with tremendous reactions.
Almost all of the contacts on the ground have confirmed that the public outcries against the House's decision are overwhelming; nevertheless, there are supporters of the decision to incarcerate and or suspend the contemnors (one charged with contempt) – indeed there are mixed reactions on this issue.
My take before analyzing the subject is that the prevailing circumstance does not merit for Supt. Kpaan imprisonment or suspension, rather it should be an imposition of monetary fines if necessary. The issue here, in mine view, is not of ineptness on both sides, but personal resentment that exists between some members of the Montserrado County's Legislative Caucus and Supt. Kpaan. But this is not the aim of this column.
This column “Looking from a Distance” once again, will attempt to specifically answer or at least try to explicate (putting sentiments aside) the key question: In legislative contempt charges, do they (lawmakers) have the power to punish or imprison?
And the answer is a sounding yes; the legislature has the authority to do so once individual rights are not being infringed upon as protected under the Constitution and not for personal gratification – the controversy continues.
Historically, like the other two branches of government (Executive and Judiciary), the trend is that in modern democracies, the legislature has always tried to exhibit its might and power when it comes to dealing with the other branches of government and or the public.
The reason is simple; they represent or supposed to represent the people and have the right to prevent acts which obstruct or prevent (emphasis) the members from discharging their constitution mandates. And one of the tools it has, apart from the power to subpoena in demonstrating its authority is the use of contempt charges (not unnecessarily or for self aggrandizement) against anyone they perceived to be interfering with its mandates.
The legislative goal has been to compel cooperation with its precedents and punish anyone for interference with its legal actions. This power is similar to the judiciary's power to hold individuals in contempt of court in that it empowers legislature to react to certain acts that obstruct the legislative process.
Expressly, some legal scholars have argued that nowhere in the Constitution that gives the legislature power to punish non-members for contempt. For instance, many of the legislative powers are clearly described in the Constitution: the powers to create new counties, levy taxes and duties and the power to regulate trade/commence between Liberia and other nations (Liberia Constitution, 1986).
Contrarily, many supreme courts (the highest courts), including the United States Supreme Court have concurred that the legislature has the inherent “common-law” (law based upon societal customs, unwritten in statute) right and privilege to investigate and the power to punish for contempt; once it is pursuit of a valid (emphasis) legislative purpose (matters of national concern) and not on trivial matters. In essence, since the legislature is neither a trial court nor a law enforcement agency, no inquiry is an end in itself. This means that any legislative action in terms of holding individual(s) for contempt must be related to and in furtherance of a legitimate legislative task.
In so doing, the legislature in exhibiting its contempt power may either directly (by self-action) take the contemnor(s) into custody for trial and punishment or “certify” the contempt to the court for prosecution. In other words, although it retains this common law direct right to summarily arrest and punish, but many legislatures in the freed world have opted not to use direct contempt proceedings; instead they referred cases of contempt to the courts for adjudication.
Evidently, legislative contempt occurs in extreme cases where a committee and or the entire body action are impeded due to outside influence. For example: an attack or assault upon the legislature or its members or preventing a member from getting to session; it also include bribing member(s). Note: Bribery might not be contemptuous in Liberia (you know), but in general terms. Interestingly, in most of these cases, contemnors are reprimanded through direct fines or by statutory certification (court prosecutes).
Understandably, the public rarely (emphasis) witness or hear that the legislature is exercising this authority. So it is no surprise that the public is alarmed. In other words, the legislature does not frequent on this common law authority, but it still has power. Similarly, the president for instance has a veto power, but it is infrequently used. Does that take away the president's veto power? No!
For example, according to the Journal of Law and Politics, the United States Congress has not exercised its direct contempt powers in any significant (emphasis) way since 1935 (The Journal of Law & politics, 2009). This in no way means that it has no power to punish for contempt. What it means is that Congress has more pressing and the viable issues of national concern to confront; rather than maneuvering unnecessarily to bring outsiders to book for contempt especially when it involves some “money eating scam” just to deprive the citizens of their benefits.
So putting all together minus sentiments and regardless of which political spectrum you belong to, this column concurs with the courts that the legislature under common-law, has the power to arrest and punish for contempt; once the act obstructs constitutional legislative mandate and prevent members from doing the “people business.”
On the other hand, if our lawmakers were free from constant corruption allegations and the misuse of power in our society, this column would argue that the legislature should look to its direct power to punish for contempt in an effort to reclaim its political role in the governance system of our country in order to restore the effectiveness of the legislature, which is lacking. Henceforth, as the debates continue, the million dollars question remains: Are they trustworthy to use legislative contempt properly without infringing on individual rights my friends?
Can I get a witness?