US judiciary

Published December 22, 2016

THE chief justice of any Supreme Court is required to devote his energy to the substance of its decisions along with the mechanics of the court and the supervision of the subordinate judiciary.

US Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was obsessed with getting through the court’s business. One of the obsessions was to start the business of the court on time, no matter what.

On one Sunday in the winter of 1998, Washington D.C. was hit by a huge snowstorm which deposited some 21 inches of snow. The city historically dealt pretty badly with even small amounts of snow, so the federal government was shut down the following day.

But the chief justice ordered Monday arguments to proceed as planned and that jeeps be sent to the homes of justices to bring them to work.

The roads were impassable. However, justices conceded to this and one of them Antonin Scalia had to walk almost a half mile in waist deep snow to get to the jeep which already had another justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Worried that they might be late, Justice Scalia said to the driver of the jeep: “by the powers invested in me, I authorise you to run these lights!” However, Justice Kennedy cautioned “Nino, we do not have the power to run a red light.” They were still able to reach the court at 9.30am with a half hour to spare.

Another court car went to fetch Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg had decided to wear a long skirt and high heels and found it difficult to walk in snow to get to the car. The driver of the car had to lift the tiny justice in his arms and brought her to the car.

Except for David H. Souter all other justices were on time and the business of the court commenced as scheduled at 10.00am. Chief Justice Rehnquist made no mention of the weather and proceeded with the case of an injured railroad employee with the judgement written by Justice Clarence Thomas.

We can take the following lessons from this short story:

The first responsibility of a judge and the court is towards dispensation of justice, without delay, fear or favour. Come hail and thunder, the courts must function. The first duty of the lawyers is similar to that of the judge — assistance to the court for dispensation of justice. In a civilised society, even a sitting judge of the Supreme Court is not empowered to break the stop light.

Salman Munir

Karachi

Published in Dawn December 22nd, 2016

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