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Will Fmr. Associate Justice Nagbe Get Full Retirement Benefit?

A week ago, Liberia woke up to the news of the passing offormer Associate Justice, Joseph Nagbe, who had been battling with poor health for a period of time.

He died in Accra, Ghana, where he was receiving medical attention.

Before his death, the statesman served as Senator for Sinoe County for about 13 years before assuming his post as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

He was admitted into the Supreme Court Bar as Counselor-At-Law in 1998, after practicing as a lawyer for over 23 years.

A result-driven professional, he gave 39 years of his life to effective professional services in teaching, lawyering, and law-making in Liberia.

Cllr. Nagbe was a United Methodist, a member of the Trinity United Methodist Church where he served as Lay Leader for 15 years and served the Church as an usher and Chairperson of the Advanced Committee.

From 2001-2006, he served as Legal Counsel for the Liberia Annual Conference (LAC), the United Methodist Church, and as Chairperson on the Committee of State and Church Relation

Prior to his death, there were lots of controversies surrounding his ability to continue his service as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia, his ascendency to the post and purported resignation.

While serving as Senator for Sinoe County, and as a lawmaker of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), the late Cllr. Nagbe played a pivotal role in the trial and removal of former Associate Justice, Kabineh Ja’neh, on allegation of fraud and corruption; something the latter vehemently rejected.

In less than a month to his handing over of power to a new administration, former President George Weah announced that he had received and accepted the resignation of Nagbe as Associate Justice, requesting for early retirement due to his health, which could not permit him to adequately function in his capacity as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Nagbe did not reach the required age for resignation, though he was struggling with poor health and could not attend most sittings of the Full Bench of the Supreme Court, made the world to understand that he was requested by the then President to resign so as to give him his full retirement benefit.

So, many persons, including local and foreign partners and lawyers, were baffled to have heard that Nagbe had resigned his post due to poor health when he had practically not been active for over six months.

What was much more amazingly, was that his letter of resignation was never directed to his immediate boss, the Chief Justice, but rather to the President who acted without judicial advice.

The now ruling Unity Party government, then opposition, had then began a debate that there was no vacancy on the Supreme Court Bench because former Associate Justice Nagbe had not served the Supreme Court for ten or fifteen years, an argument that lasted until the CDC government expired.

Nagbe’s communication that sparked the debate read, “I present my compliments and by this communication request for early retirement from the Supreme Court Bench of the Republic of Liberia.

“If you can recall, your Honor, I have been out of the bailiwick of Liberia for a period of eight months to seek medical attention for ill-health; but it has now become evident that the healing process to my recovery will take a longer period than expected, and therefore, cannot allow my physical presence in the Chambers of the Honorable Supreme Court of Liberia in the soonest; hence, my request for an early retirement.

My regard to the rest of our colleagues and wish you all well as you provide access to justice and strengthen the rule of law in our Republic.”

Without hesitation, Weah accepted the letter and expressed his unfeigned thanks and appreciation for the services of Associate Nagbe, and said it was his fervent prayer that the Almighty God would grant the ailing justice his healing powers.

Subsequently, the former President, on December 26, 2023, nominated Cllr. Frank Musa Dean to replace Associate Justice Nagbe, pending confirmation by the Liberian Senate, with an expression of harboring no doubt in the ability of the Attorney General to perform as expected of a high court.

However, what seems inconceivable now is whether the early retirement would grant Cllr. Nagbe his just benefits, since he had not reached the constitutionally required age of 70 to retire, coupled with his time spent serving the Supreme Court.

The debate of whether or not there is vacancy at the Supreme Court Bench is over, as the holder of the vacancy, former Associate Justice Nagbe, is no more; therefore, President Boakai can now make a pick of who serves in Nagbe’s stead.

One person who spoke to the issue was Senator Augustine S. Chea and his perspective at the time centered on the controversy of the legality of the ‘retirement’, as well as the timing of the nomination.

Chea, then serving as Vice Chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the arguments are that Justice Nagbe is not qualified for retirement because he does not satisfy the requirements for retirement as provided for under the New Judiciary Law, and that a lame duck President cannot nominate or appoint his successor.

He went on, “I will construct my argument on three issues which are germane to providing an understanding of the controversy: Does Justice Nagbe’s request for retirement meet the legal requirements for the retirement of Justices of the Supreme Court? If not, can the President exercise his executive authority to grant him a special dispensation for retirement? And whether or not the President’s powers to nominate and appoint officials of government are limited at any time during his tenure?”

“Issue #1 presents a question of Justice Nagbe’s eligibility for retirement. But here are the facts upon which a determination can be made as to his qualification for retirement, or upon which the retirement law can be applied. Justice Nagbe was appointed to the Supreme Court in June 2018, about five and half years ago. He did not serve in any other judicial capacity. He was a legal practitioner and later a Representative for two years and a Senator for twelve and half years,” Senator Chea dissected.

Section 13.4 of the Judiciary Law – Title 17 – the Liberian Code of Laws Revised, provides in Subsection 3 (sic) that “Any Justice, judge or stipendiary magistrate … who has served continuously for 10 years or more in any such capacity and has been certified, after appropriate physical or mental examination by competent medical authorities that he has become permanently disabled from performing his duties, or who has completed at least 25 years of continuous judicial service or at least 30 years of cumulative judicial service, may retire from regular active service with the right to receive a retirement pension,” he quoted.

Chea’s interpretation of the law is that even though Justice Nagbe had 20 years of cumulative public or government service, both in the Legislature and the Judiciary, he served only five and half of those years in the Judiciary; that’s four and half years short of the tenure requirement for retirement, adding, “This is the only eligibility requirement for retirement, and he falls short of that.”

“And the reasoning for unremunerated powers is that if the President is the head of state and head of government, and has inherent or enumerated powers (i.e. constitutionally) to do certain things, then it follows that the President can do other lawful things arising from or consequential to those enumerated powers. So, if the President, for example, can “grant reprieves and pardons, and restore civil rights after conviction for all public offenses,” in exercise of his enumerated powers, then it follows that the President can also grant certain unremunerated rights or benefits to public officials and ordinary Liberians. Therefore, the President can grant Justice Nagbe retirement, which is lawful,” he expressed.

He then thanked the former President for granting Nagbe’s request for retirement, noting, “I believe, in making this decision, the President gave due consideration to Justice Nagbe’s cumulative 20 years of public service, and the untold hardship that he would suffer – even to the detriment of his life – if he had no income to take care of himself and pay his medical bills. Remember, Justice Nagbe got sick while serving his country.”

According to a source close to the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice should have received his resignation and notified the President, who would have taken a decision within 90 days.

“An Expert Committee comprising of the Liberia Bar Association, Civil Society Organizations, and other partners, would have been set up to vet possible candidates. The names of the top three would be forwarded to the President for nomination before going for conformation at the senate,” our source said.

But in the case of Cllr. Dean, none of the above were adhered to before sending Dean for conformation at the 54th National Legislature, which brings us to the question as to whether Justice Nagbe died in office or not, alluding to the fact that he was never removed from office, despite his resignation. 

Joseph Nyenetue Nagbe was appointed as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia in 2018, having served in the Legislature for nearly 14 years, but sought early retirement due to ill-health on December 21, 2023.

Cllr. Nagbe had battled his prolonged illness while seeking reelection in 2017 to the Senate, up to his nomination and subsequent confirmation as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 2018.

Former Associate Justice Nagbe, an astute lawyer and politician, was nominated by then former President George Weah and confirmed by the Liberia Senate in August 2018, replacing retired Associate Justice, Philip A Z Banks, who had reached the age of retirement.

The fate of Nagbe was a serious issue of contention in the last few weeks of former President Weah’s turnover, because despite his early retirement, though accepted by the presidency, his successor, Cllr. Dean, did not get the Liberia Senate’s endorsement and the Unity Party raised some concerns about his early retirement scheme.

Meanwhile, the Judicial Canon two states, ‘Any seat of honor which is made vacant by reason of death, resignation, or impeachment from office of a Justice of the Supreme Court, shall remain vacant until the vacancy is filled by appointment, and such appointee is commissioned and ceremoniously seated.”

According to the Judicial Law Title 17 of the Liberian Code of Law Revised, “Substitution of a judge shall take place in the event of illness or any other temporary disability of a judge.”

The native of Sinoe County; born in King Williams Town (WeahKloh), Dugbe River Statutory District, Sinoe County, Nagbe obtained his Primary education from his home town and secondary education from the Sinoe High School. Associate Justice Nagbe then obtained a “B” Certificate in education from the Zorzor Rural Teacher Training Institute (ZRTTI).

In furtherance of his education, former Justice Nagbe held a Bachelor of Arts (BA) Degree in History and Political Science from the William V. S. Tubman Teacher’s College, University of Liberia, and a Bachelor of Law (LLB) Degree from the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law.

He also acquired other professional certificates in Legislative Committee Work organized by the relevant Committee of the United States Congress held in Washington D.C., USA; he was a middle-career diplomat of the Foreign Service Academy, Islamabad, Federal Republic of Pakistan, and a trained parliamentary practices and procedures fellow.

He was also a Social Studies Instructor, Sass Town Junior High School, Sass Town Territory, now Grand Kru County; Instructor and Vice Principal, Boatswain High School; Instructor (World History and African Studies), Monrovia College and Industrial Training Institute, Monrovia, Liberia, and taught History at the College of West Africa.

He represented the people of Sinoe County in the National Transitional Legislative Assembly (NTLA) of the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL).

As brilliant as he was, at the Supreme Court, Nagbe’s oversight was on Sinoe County, the 3rd Judicial Circuit, which sits on criminal, civil, and probate matters, and oversees functions of two Debt, one Traffic, Probate, and 3 Revenue Courts, as well as a total of 31 magisterial courts located across that county.

He also had oversight on Grand Cape Mount County, the 5th Judicial Circuit, which comprises of 3 Specialized Courts and oversees the functions of a total of 5 Magisterial Courts located across the county and sits on criminal, civil, and probate matters, as well as Bomi County, the 11th Judicial Circuit which oversees the functions of 2 Magisterial Courts across the county, and deals with criminal, civil, and probate matters, and has three Specialized Courts.

As Justice, Nagbe offered several opinions; noticeable among them were the Sophronia Richard-Townsend V. Estate of Momo Mbolo on January 26, 2023; the Intestate Estate of Musa Kamara V. Eva Mappy Morgan on January 25, 2023, as well as the Mutual Benefit V. Bea Mountain case on January 25, 2023.

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