BARELY has one controversy between the presidency and the superior judiciary been put to rest with the dispatch of the letter to Switzerland that another crisis is brewing: this time over the appointment and seniority of judges in the Islamabad High Court. The plot is complicated and involves multiple judges and their futures but in essence it started with the decision to elevate the chief justice of the IHC, Justice Iqbal Hameedur Rehman, to the Supreme Court. The controversy started when the Judicial Commission nominated, and the parliamentary committee endorsed, Justice Mohammad Anwar Kasi to the chief justice’s post as the senior-most judge of the IHC. When the summary appeared before President Zardari for routine signing, an anomaly was cited: another judge of the IHC, Justice Riaz Ahmed Khan, had been considered senior to Justice Kasi and therefore in line to succeed Justice Rehman as the IHC chief justice. In the midst of this tussle, two other judges of the IHC have become collateral damage because their continuation as judges beyond Nov 20 was contingent on approval by the Judicial Commission — which did assent but whose composition was taken as incomplete by the presidency owing to the dispute over who was the IHC’s senior-most judge.
If that sounds complicated, it is. On the face of it, the presidency appears to be inserting itself into a decision-making process that is two-tiered — judicial and parliamentary — and in which the role of the president was not really envisaged to include questioning the decisions taken by the judicial commission and endorsed by the parliamentary committee. But scratch the surface and the matter becomes more complicated because it appears the presidency may have a genuine case that Justice Riaz Ahmed Khan and not Justice Mohammad Anwar Kasi is technically the senior-most judge of the IHC behind the chief justice who has been elevated to the SC. The bigger mystery here is why the Parliamentary Committee, which is meant to debate and scrutinise the Judicial Commission’s recommendations, appears to have simply rubber-stamped a change at the top of the IHC that may be out of line with accepted convention. Considering the speculation that has been generated, it is important to know the reasons behind the out-of-step nomination of the next IHC chief justice.
Meanwhile, legal experts are hoping these developments have nothing to do with a petition challenging Gen Kayani’s extension as army chief that was to be taken up by the two judges whose tenure expired on Nov 20. The presidential reference to the SC should be moved quickly to end this unnecessary impasse.