Monrovia - The Late Chief Justice Johnnie N. Lewis would have thought differently about how Liberia would honor him when he was finally gone. He probably might have thought not in the nicest of words. But the final home going of the late Chief Justice was full of life and the nicest of words, any Liberian may have offered to a fallen statesman.
Several dignitaries including judicial stakeholders and prominent citizens turned out on Thursday at the Centennial Memorial Pavilion on Broad and Ashmun streets to pay tributes to the fallen legal stalwart describing him as a great patriot. Even lawyers who had not worn a robe in years turned out in the black garment to pay their last respect to the man who many hate yet much more love and respect.
Dressed in a beautifully designed black and white nicely designed African costume, with a matching scarf flung about her neck, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf led an array of government officials in a eulogy worth for a king.
“We assemble here today with a heavy heart and mournful spirit to mourn His Honor Johnnie N. Lewis, He was a patriot, committed to high principles of justice. He wholeheartedly accepted my appointment and nomination as 18th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,” she said. In an almost tearful tone that sent many in the hall in a state of melancholy, President Sirleaf said that the late former chief justice served with distinction and the works of his hands are visible.
“He served ably as the Chief Justice and partial results of his outstanding job are visible, he worked collaboratively with the two branches of Government ensuring that the laws are respected,” She said. Naming the visible contribution made by the late Lewis to the Liberian judiciary the President named the renovation of the Temple of justice, the construction of lower courts in over three counties in the country, as just a few of the many.
“He will not be remembered just for the renovation of the Temple of justice or the courts' construction; but will be remembered for decisive thinking, he was learned in the law,” she said. “The late chief justice was wise in judging cases, he was respected for his stand on the law. His opinions were judicially independent, his farsightedness will continue in the history of the judiciary.” She said the late Cllr. Lewis was inspired to delegate a great portion of his life to public service through examples set by his forebears.
“He was a patriot, loyal to the country, he constituted authority to his fellow citizens, the public, devoted his life to the country,” she said. “Now at the end of the Chief Justice’s earthly sojourn, I submit that we can fairly say yes, his honor Johnnie N Lewis was a patriot, loyal to his country, devoted to his duties, and who love his fellow citizens, indeed those words will be truth for a well deserved citizen.”
Delivering the funeral discourse for a man who many Liberians saw as controversial for his straightforward and outright frankness with his fellow men, Episcopal Bishop Jonathan B. B. Hart said the former Chief justice brought pride and dignity to the judiciary. He urged Liberians and those who hold public office to emulate the good example of the late Cllr. Lewis.
“Time is everything and essential in dealing with people, and finance, be careful not to be out of Gods will,” he said. “We are tied of corruption, if the LACC and the court cannot get you corrupt officials, the church is ready and will use their wooden crosses to pierce your heart and get you out, so that the sun and fire can shine in God’s light,” he said.
Continued Bishop Hart: “How many Johnnies do we have in Liberia, he stood tall and firm on the welfare and concern of the state. When God puts you in the position, he trust and expects you to do the best for his people.” At the funeral ceremony of the fallen astute lawyer, the current Chief Justice Francis Korkpor felt a tribute from him (Korkpor) as is customary for the judiciary bidding farewell to a former Chief Justice, he rather turned the mantle to Associate Justice Philip A.Z Banks, a man who knew the fallen statesman well.
A Yale University trained lawyer like the late Lewis, Cllr Banks said he owes most of what he has become in the legal arena to the late Lewis. He said as the only Justice on the Supreme Court bench who worked with the late Chief Justice for a long period of time, he knows the kind of person he was, someone that many misunderstood because of his desire for excellence in the things of the law.
Associate Justice Banks the late Lewis was a man who cared for the welfare of his people and worked diligently to improve the judiciary in Liberia. “We the supreme court, will like to focus on the man and the law, the law for excellence, his knowledge and commitment of the law, the achievement of justice, the care for people around him, the core of his virtues; he showed kindness,” he said.
He said for people like him who knew the former Chief Justice, they began to grieve for him several years ago when illness struck because it was then that the wisdom, knowledge, the intellect and the love for the law was withering away. “Today, we’re here only in confirmation of the reality that confronted us several years ago. Today we’re here only to say that we remember those early years and the legacies ‘Johnnie-Never-Loses’ left behind,” said Justice Banks.
“He told us that the prime goal of a lawyer must be love of the law, but not worth of the law, in much respect he was not just a lawyer, but a symbolism of the law. His approach and interpretation of the law plays a key role, we remember his work at the Temple of justice, the new courts in Sinoe, Gbarpolu and other lower courts, the training of judicial personnel and the establishment of the James A. A. Pierre Judicial Institute.”
In his Eulogy House Speaker Alex Tyler praised the former Chief Justice for the level of reform he brought to the judiciary. “We are wondering who will take his place, he was a lawyer beyond control, and he was independent lawyer who reads the law,” he said. Speaker Tyler highlighted the increase in the wages of judicial employees and respect for the rule of law as something that should not be forgotten by Liberians.
Cllr. Pearl Bull an astute female lawyer who admired the late Chief Justice and his love for the law said: “He was one of the youngest circuit court judges. Thank you Johnnie, when he was chief Justice, he put me on the grievance and ethics committee to deal with the misconduct of lawyers.” Deputy Information Minister, Isaac Jackson said recounting the contribution of the fallen statesman said the former Chief Justice was instrumental in helping him acquire a law degree.
“I remember with pleasing satisfaction as a young lawyer…We had benefitted from the Judicial scholarship and it would take us long time to get our stipends. The stipend was US$25 and the semester would take long, but when he took over he brought about a big change in the judicial scholarship stipend,” said Minister Jackson.
“With his coming we were able to receive our stipend, though US$25 but it if you multiplied the US$25 by four months, then it was a bit better. I remember at one point in time he had to literally shout at the comptroller in making sure that our stipends were paid and on time.”
Police Director, Chris Massaquoi paid tribute to the late Cllr. Lewis thanking him for the knowledge he imparted to him during his years in law school and also the years they both worked within the UN system. “Cllr. Lewis was a very decent person. At times he was to the point in telling people how he felt but not withstanding he was an intellectual and he was an educator,” said Director Massauoi.
I learned a lot for Cllr. Lewis and he helped me to have gone through my career, not only when I graduated from law school, we also worked together in Bosnia and Croatia with the United Nations. I always looked at him like a father and a big brother.” Former Press Secretary Cyrus Badio, a family friend of the late former Chief justice called described him as a man of integrity.
“He showed us true love, he showed us friendship and he was someone that we could count on,” he said. There was an elaborate march through the principal streets of Monrovia with members of the Freemasons of which the late Lewis was a member paying full respect. The body of the late former Chief Justice under whose mantle President Sirleaf took the oath of office for her second term, would be laid to rest in his home county of Sinoe on Saturday.