Court Finally Clears Karnwea and Sulunteh to Contest October Elections

MONROVIA, Montserrado – The Supreme Court has finally cleared the vice standard bearers of Liberty Party and the Alternative National Congress, Harrison Karnwea and Jeremiah Sulunteh, respectively.

The decision allows the men to contest the October 10 elections alongside their respective standard bearers. Both nominations were rejected by the National Elections Commission because the commission said they violated the Code of Conduct.

The law provides that “any minister, deputy minister, director-general, managing director and superintendent appointed by the president pursuant to article 56 (a) of the constitution and a managing director appointed by a board of directors, who desires to contest for public elective office shall resign said post at least two (2) years prior to the date of such public elections.” The requirement is three years for tenured positions.

Karnwea and Sulunteh filed separate petitions to the court against the commission to reverse its decision against them.

In its rulings on Thursday, the court questioned NEC’S decisions to reject the two individuals’ nominations, noting that they were in substantial compliance with the law, contrary to the commission’s argument. Justices Phillip Banks and Jamesetta Wolokolie read the rulings on behalf of the court.

In the court’s opinion read by Banks, Liberty Party vice standard bearer’s violation of the law was not egregious in nature “as the term was determined, interpreted and applied by the Supreme Court in the case Serena Mappy Polson versus the Republic of Liberia, which held the [Code of Conduct] to be constitutional.”

Polson, who is the current superintendent of Bong, had challenged the constitutionality of the code, but the Supreme Court ruled otherwise.

The court also ruled that the case of Abu Kamara v. the National Elections Commission, which elaborated upon the application of the term and the penalty of disbarment, is not applicable to Karnwea. Kamara, whose nomination was rejected, currently serves as assistant minister for administration at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. He was aspiring to contest for Montserrado’s 15th district representative seat.

NEC was ordered to “expeditiously conduct a due process of law by hearing [Karnwea’s] application and to make a determination, within 48 hours of receipt of the mandate of the Supreme Court of the level of penalty that will be commensurate with the magnitude of the violation – to be imposed on Karnwea from the ranges of penalties outlined in the code that fall below the penalty of disqualification, which is applicable to only egregious violation of the code.”

However, the law does not explicitly state any penalties for violation of this clause, other than the implied disqualification from the race, leading to criticisms that the court was legislating by its liberal interpretation of the law.

In an interview with FrontPage Africa, veteran lawyer Tiawon Gongloe expressed such sentiments.

“If you resign even one day before your application to the National Elections Commission, according to this opinion of the Supreme Court you are in compliance with the law,” he said.

“The Supreme Court itself said that desire and intent are not valid arguments when it comes to compliance. So, I was surprised in the end when the court said once you resign you are in suspended compliance. So, with that opinion, I don’t see anyone, except for those who are still in position and are still employed and all those who the public were speculating that the code of conduct will hold, will be eligible to run.”

The court also said NEC had failed to properly conduct a hearing and thus affording Karnwea’s guaranteed due process. Additionally, the court said the decision appeared to be made solely by the NEC chairman, Jerome Korkoya, as evidenced by his “lone and sole signature.”

“Henceforth all violations of the [Code of Conduct] must be investigated by the NEC, consistent with the due process of law and that any decision emanating there from must be signed by the majority of the Board of Commissioners in accordance with the applicable laws,” the opinion read.

The Supreme Court’s decision came just a day to the close of the extended period for candidate nomination. The process was extended by additional ten days to conclude on July 21.

A member of Liberty Party’s legal team, Cllr. Powo Hilton told reporters that before the ruling, they were confident that their client was not violating the code in a way that could prevent him from contesting as vice standard bearer because he had resigned before submitting his nomination papers to NEC.

For his part, Karnwea said he was happy that his confidence in the justice system was never betrayed.

“I told you all journalists the other day that I have confidence in [the Supreme Court] and their wisdom, and they have demonstrated nothing less,” he said.

He said he’s happy that he would be granted due process, and whatever fine that would be imposed on him would be taken care of.

Both Karnwea and Sulunteh had resigned this year before their respective selections as running mates. Karnwea resigned as managing director of the Forestry Development Agency while Sulunteh last served as ambassador to the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

The Alternative National Congress has also thanked the Supreme Court for what it termed as a speedy and fair process, and well as NEC for the peaceful conduct of the electoral processes so far.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr’s mjmkeating

Gbatemah Senah

Gbatemah is a graduate of the University of Liberia and a recipient of the Jonathan P. Hicks Scholarship for Mass Communications. In 2017, Senah won three Press Union of Liberia awards: Women's Rights Reporter of the Year, Legislative Reporter of the Year, and Land Rights Reporter of the Year. In 2018, he was also recognized as the Land Rights Reporter of the Year.

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